This week is ‘Mental Health Awareness’ week within the UK. This years overarching theme is kindness and, over on my instagram i’m sharing a little act of kindness i’ve done each day– i challenge you to do something kind for yourself or someone else today and for the rest of the week. Alongside this I wanted to engage in a very open conversation about my own experiences with mental health in order to encourage, educate and to hopefully make somebody reading feel a little less alone. Yesterday, I spoke about Imposter Syndrome over on my stories on instagram (you can find this under the ‘Mental Health’ story on my feed). Today I wanted to write this very intimate post about grief. Unfortunately grief is something that we all are likely to face during our lives and, I think it’s something not spoken about enough. Death still remains, to an extent, a bit of a taboo subject and I think it’s important to change that narrative through being much more open in our individual experiences. The following post is going to detail my own overwhelming experience with grief and the repercussions that it had on my own mental well-being. It’s a bit of a long one, I’m getting butterflies in my tummy just writing this introduction. A lot of elements of this post I’ve never voiced before, it feels strange to be putting them out for anyone to see. However, i’m going to share it. I’m going to get it all out and I hope that it maybe helps somebody who stumbles across this page.
I’d experienced what it was like to lose somebody prior to 2015. Both my dad’s parents had passed away before I reached the age of ten. I was really close to my nan but, I was shielded away from her death. I was kept away from the mass upset, the circumstances and her funeral. At six/seven I didn’t fully understand the reality of death. It went straight over my head. It’s weird, I actually get more upset about my nan and grandad’s passing now at twenty years old, 14 years later. I get upset that I didn’t get the chance to know them, that they didn’t get to see me grow into a woman, that they didn’t get to cheer me on through all my achievements. I get almost angry that I didn’t get to have that proper experience of grandparents. My memories are vague and a little bit fuzzy. I get scared that those fragmented memories are only going to fade further till I have no memory at all. It is odd isn’t it. It’s taken me fourteen years to fully begin grieving for both of them. That’s what shocks me about grief. It seems to have no limits. It does not matter the time, distance or space- it still manages to get a hold of you…and, once it succeeds in wrapping it’s icy fingers round you it never leaves. You can prise off it’s hold so it’s no longer leaving you gasping for air but, you never seem able to be fully rid of it.
It was December of 2015 where I was fully exposed to the overwhelming reality of grief. A beautiful friend of mine tragically died in a horrific accident within Sheffield City Centre. When I think back to that weekend it’s like watching scenes from a drama on the telly. We’d been to school that day. We’d spent our twenty minutes in form talking about my sixteenth birthday, about our plans for the summer after GCSE, about her boyfriend and a boy I had a little crush on. It was a normal day. We went to our drama lesson, shot eyes at each other across the room when our teacher shouted. We wished each other a good weekend and I watched her walk away down the corridor. It’s odd to me that I remember her walking away so vividly. I can’t imagine it being something i’d really focus on in the moment but I have this distinctive memory of her blonde hair turning round the corner. That evening I received a very odd phone call from another friend who was the daughter of a traffic police officer. It was explained to me that there had been an accident, I didn’t need to panic, her dad was there but I needed to tell him the address of the girl’s house. I was out for tea at the time and I remember my stomach instantly sinking. I gave the directions and spent the rest of the night with a persistent pain in my chest. That whole night was spent endlessly searching through social media and I found an article stating there had been an accident in the city centre with a fatality. I knew. I just knew. I remember my mum holding me and reassuring me it wouldn’t be that but, I could see in her and my stepdad’s eyes that they knew too. The following morning the news was confirmed. I mean. I just fell on my kitchen floor. I have never been so struck down by news before. I could not breathe.
How on earth could someone the same age as me, someone with the same dreams and plans for life just die? That was the worst thing. This was somebody I’d sat next to every morning for nearly 4 years. At fifteen I think there’s this perception that you are invincible. That there’s no doubt that you’ll go to university, meet the love of your life, see the world, makes lots of money and have babies. In that one moment where the news was confirmed, everything that I thought was solid just came crashing down. Suddenly nothing was certain. Nobody was certain. That’s a bloody scary concept to come bearing down on top of you at fifteen when only 24 hours before you’d been sat with that very person, joking and daydreaming about this future you believed was inevitable. This is where the first major repercussion on my mental well-being began. In an instant, nothing felt secure. I became very clingy to the safety net of my home and my mum. If we all stayed within the four walls of my house, if we never left- nothing bad would happen and we could stay together. At sixteen years old I suddenly became the toddler clinging to their mums legs at the entrance to nursery. I was so fearful of being alone. I also let myself fall into deep pit of feeling unsure, unconfident and fearful in my future. I didn’t really want to make plans or set myself goals anymore because, I was scared they’d never happen. For a time, it was almost like I became numb to living. I didn’t seem to enjoy anything anymore and I could no longer find hope in my own future. What seems so awful now when I look back is that I lost all hope that I wrote letters to people I loved most in the case I died. I mean, it seems so horrendous now looking back. However, I was just so unbelievably fearful that I too would just be taken away from everyone in an instant. I was so scared that i’d never be able to say the things i needed to say. My grief flooded me with intense fear. It seemed to give me a sense of clarity over how fragile and precious life was but, rather than that encouraging me to live to the fullest it forced me to hide in the shadows. I became timid, clingy, anxious, stressed, angry, scared. My confidence was drained out of me to the point where I ended up feeling numb to everything. It took a long while for that sensation to pass. I had to actively find things that would make me feel again. For me, I found it when I auditioned for Manor Operatic Society. My mum took me to the audition and I remember us both physically shaking in the car beforehand. It was a huge leap for me and, I think my mum was just anxious that taking such a big step would send me flying backwards if it was to go wrong. That same night I got the phone-call to say I was successful and I just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. It was a new opportunity, a fresh start to an extent that started me off on regaining that confidence, happiness and hope i’d been absent from for six months.
It wasn’t a normal experience of death. It wasn’t a private experience. Switching on the radio and hearing it. Going to the local shops and seeing someone you loved so much on the front page of newspapers. Every social media outlet flooded with either news reports or posts of mourning. School having a large memorial sign, flowers, a book of grievance at the door. It was everywhere. There was no escaping it, even for a moment. School was the worst. There was this heavy atmosphere that bore down on all of the students and teachers. It was only one week till the Christmas holidays. Usually a week filled with films, laughs, presents and that buzz for a break. It felt ridiculous to carry on as normal so, we didn’t. You could see it in everyone’s eyes. Nobody knew what to say or how to act. That was the other difficult prospect to grasp. Suddenly an entire year group and, well really an entire school was grieving. All those kids at the most confusing age of their lives having to face grief. Grief of the highest proportion. For the majority of us it was the first experience of death and to have it be someone who had been a vibrant source of life and confidence in our year group…it was just impossible to deal with. All of us grieved in different ways. Some, took to cutting themselves off from everyone. Others lent themselves as a shoulder to cry on. Lot’s took to voicing their feelings on social media platforms. A few acted entirely normal, joking and trying to push on the best they could. We were all trying to get our head round the same loss therefore, the variety in how people coped led to intense fractions. I suppose at fifteen it was hard to understand that grief is a unique experience, that no two people will handle it in the same way.
I found that to be a big struggle. Personally, all I wanted to do was be on my own and try latch on to any memories possible. I remember one night becoming rather frantic because I remembered that Summer had once given me a handwritten birthday note one year I was poorly. I was pulling out drawers, upturning the entire house and I remember my mum eventually intervening and just taking me to bed. I never found that note. I remember it so clearly now in my head and I long to find it and keep it close. However, the reality is it likely got binned long ago. I struggled so much with the fact I was left with no pictures, no note, no physical evidence that we even knew each other. Eventually I found an old birthday card from my entire form, in the corner is just her name. I sobbed and sobbed for hours the moment I found that. That is all that’s left, that and a blurry couple of photos taken in drama class. Prior to 2015 I just never took pictures. I didn’t keep anything. I became so angry at myself for taking for granted all those moments. I hated the fact I had no physical memories because I was so scared all the ones in my head would fade away. Nearly five years on, I am a certified hoarder. My boyfriend is constantly astounded by the amount of stuff I have stored under my bed. I keep everything. Every tag, every card, every gift, every photo. To an extent, that’s amazing. I love that now I have a huge collection of precious memories of precious people however, there’s a line. It’s almost become an obsessive compulsive habit. Sometimes I can become so absorbed in capturing memories in the moment that I forget to fully live them. Physical memories are important however, they mean little if you cannot re-live them in your own head. I’m learning now to strike a balance between both.
As well as keeping things for myself I found that something which really helped me was to give more. I began investing a lot more effort into my friends and family. At birthdays and Christmas I took the time to find the perfect gifts, gifts that showed I knew them, showed I appreciated them and showed I loved them. I got into the habit of writing notes and cards. My poor boyfriend has a literal box full of notes, postcards and cards for literally any occasion possible. Poor seems a bad choice of word there because, we laugh about how many he’s acquired and how many he’s likely to acquire in the future but, I know he appreciates every single one. As do my friends and as do my family. I think they understand how important it is for me to show them how much I love them. It sounds morbid but if I died tomorrow I know that those close to me would have no doubts about how much I cared for them and, that’s how it should be. That fear I spoke about earlier, did destroy me to an extent. It sounds really dramatic to say but I cannot describe fully in words how overwhelming that terror was. It was a brutal, raw, tragic experience of death. It’s the type of event you pray nobody else will have to go through and that your parents try so hard to shield you from, as mine did with my grandparents. Nobody, obviously, could have ever foreseen it and I think that’s what was so hard. There was nowhere to hide. It was everywhere, it affected literally every single part of our lives for such a long time.
The funny thing about grief is that you can never rid yourself of it. You try so hard to push it down but, it stays. I like to imagine it like a tree. Over time, it’s leaves fall one by one. It get’s easier for you to push it back till eventually you gain the courage to just chop it down and rid yourself of it. But, the roots still remain. For as long as I live I don’t think that experience will ever diminish in its intensity. It will forever remain a memory that makes my tummy drop to the floor and makes my heart twinge. I’m always going to remember, it’s always going to hurt but now I know that I can live with it. It’s likely that in my life there’s going to be another loss that hits just as hard, if not harder, than that loss in 2015. It will be painful. It’ll make me feel lost, scared, hopeless but, i’ll know that I can survive it. I know now that life carries on. We learn to keep moving, we learn to hold a little tighter to those still around us, we learn to look back and smile. We learn how to free ourselves from it’s claustrophobic grip. Despite how bleak, fragile and comfortless it makes our world seem- we learn how to live again.
If you are currently struggling to cope with a bereavement and want to seek help, advice, guidance i’ve included some links below.
If you are currently struggling to cope with your mental health, please reach out to somebody. Know that you are not alone.