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Let’s Stop Ignoring Grieving People

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It’s February – we are in the middle of winter. The winter I’m having is not as cold as many but it has been fairly sun-less and snow-less. Last month I read an article that debated a day known as “Blue Monday.”  Some say it’s the most depressing day of the year.  It’s a combination of winter weather (for those of us in certain areas of the world), the realization we have already failed at our New Years Resolutions (what? I haven’t lost the 20lbs yet? It’s been 19 days!), post Christmas blues (I haven’t got the outdoor lights down yet and I’ve already lost a new earring).  Sounds pretty horrible doesn’t it? As my husband would say in a moment of deep sarcasm, “No one is suffering more than me right now!”

Although I can see how someone might feel particularly down mid-winter, declaring one day to be the most depressing feels like a tidy way to put everyone’s grief in a neat little box. We declare the day here and now it’s over.  Should our sadness be over now because “Blue Monday” was a few weeks ago? Should we be yelling,  “Cheer up folks, Spring is around the corner!”?

Considering how I’m feeling right now, with the weather varying between “dark grey vs light grey” and “mist vs rain” I’d be up for renaming the dreaded holiday “Blue Winter” but for most people grief is not that simple.

Ironically, mid January is my least favorite time of year. I’m sure the fact I’m a California kid living in a rainforest doesn’t help but it’s the anniversary of all sort of sad events in my life.  This is why every January, I’m more aware of my own grief and that of others.

One of the hardest things about grief is that we tend to avoid grieving people.

Why do we avoid grieving people? You know how it goes.  We avoid because we think we can’t do anything and, at some level, we don’t want to even think about their situation because we know, in many cases, “it” could happen to us. We don’t want to think about children being hit by cars or dads getting serious cancer because there are children we love or a dad that we miss. We avoid people who are grieving instead of acknowledging them because it is easier on us.

What if, instead of avoiding, we acknowledged the grieving person with an appropriate level of contact or connection.

I’m an introvert. Trust me, I don’t want perfect strangers harping on my grief but I also know, it’s easier to avoid grieving people in your life because you don’t have the right thing to say or you know you can’t even begin to fix them!  Guess what, no one does.  Often times the person grieving doesn’t even know what they need.  How about you try this: “I don’t really know what to say but I heard about ____ and I’m so sorry.”

People who have gone through loss will attest to the stress of wondering if other people know about their situation. Do them a favor and simply acknowledge that you know.  This will help the people who worry about this kind of thing.

I made a friend while in seminary whose dad was dying. A bunch of us were ironically taking the course “Pastoral Care” with him while he was grieving.  At one raw moment he expressed anger about the lack of care he was receiving from his friends.  When I asked him what he would want from us he said, “I want you to just acknowledge what is going on. No one wants to even do that.”  Step one: acknowledge the person and what they are going through.

Another reason we avoid grieving people is because we don’t think we can do anything for them. And you know what? You’re right, there may not be much you can do. You can’t bring people back from dead or heal people of cancer. But no one is expecting you to do these things.

You may not be able to do anything at all, but isn’t it better to ask?

I would also encourage you to ask realistically and consistently if you can help. “I’m making a big pot of soup today, can I drop some off for your family?” is easier for a grieving person to answer than “Let me know if I can help.”  Or ask them, “Is there something specific I could help with? Kids? Food?”

Lastly, remember to listen well. If someone says, “No, I don’t want to talk about it right now,” then please respect that. But leave space for them to speak.

Listen to hear what is being said, not simply to reply. Listen to learn about them, not to fix their situation. Often times a listening ear is exactly what someone needs. And you will never get to that point unless you acknowledge them first.

Whether it’s Blue Monday, the winter blues or the daily trials we encounter, acknowledging grieving people is an important first step.

 

 

Living with Someone Else’s Mental Illness – My Own Story

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This is the first instalment of the series. You can read the introductory post here.

I struggle writing about someone else’s mental illness because it’s just that, someone else’s.

Mental illness, unlike the more visible ailments (for good or bad) feels more personal and private. After all, it’s his life, not mine. But that’s just the thing. It isn’t just his life, it’s our life.

But I’m still not interested in sharing his experience (even though when we have a good story to tell, he always lets me tell it).

My husband Dane doesn’t just “get all OCD” about this or that, he actually has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  He doesn’t just “worry a lot and get sad sometimes,” he battles with anxiety and depression every single day. Yet, most people would never guess it because in some ways he’s got this mental illness thing figured out. Dane’s medicated, supported, loved, fairly open about it. Not to mention he has an excellent sense of humor.

But in other ways, it’s not that easy for him, or me. I worry about his depression getting worse (as we know it can do) and how hard that would be for him (and our family). I worry about the inevitable day he will have to change his medication. I worry about whether or not our boys will inherit Dane’s mental health like they inherited our fair skin and love of macaroni and cheese. But most days I try to focus on who is right in front of me.

You see, unlike the title of this blog series, I don’t actually live with someone else’s mental illness, I live with someone who is mentally ill.

This diagnosis is intrinsically part of the man I married. In sickness and in health, for better or for worse — these marital quips never feel as real they do in the midst of a panic attack. I’m married all of him and he’s all I’ve got. And the fact that his mental illness is all of him is the trickiest part for me.

Where does the mental illness begin and end? How can I tell if his behaviour is ‘him’ or if it’s his mental illness. If Dane had a perfectly typical or “normal” chemical make up in his brain, would he still sleep way more than me and would he still have trouble getting up everyday? Perhaps. Would he still incessantly worry about the safety of our kids? Possibly. Would he have trouble trying new food or eating in dark spaces? Maybe.

So am I allowed to be stark raving mad after the fifth attempt to get him up? Should I resent the fact we can’t just eat at any restaurant? I don’t know.  I can’t tell where it begins and ends because it is completely enmeshed in who he is.

And this is bang-your-head against the wall frustrating some days. Am I justified in my frustration? Should I blame Dane or blame his mental illness?

I don’t know, but what I have to keep asking myself is does it really matter?

I didn’t marry the mental illness, I married Dane. I don’t love OCD or depression but I love Dane. I may get frustrated or discouraged by the way he acts, but it is all part of who he is. It doesn’t matter which part of his brain is causing this behavior because I love all of him. Yes, it can be maddening at times but I would rather have the mentally ill Dane than anyone else. Talk about perspective!

There is no one else I would rather be with and I will gladly take OCD alongside generosity, faithfulness and a rather prolonged obsession with all things Sylvester Stallone. 

There are even parts of his mental illness that make my life better.  Let’s be honest, sometimes I wish his OCD caused him to clean the house more. Why can’t he obsess over dust bunnies or soap scum? But one of the things Dane’s brain causes us (read: me) to do is slow down.  And by slow down I mean do about half of what I would normally try to cram into a weekend.

And for this, I’m (mostly) grateful. I watch families go from soccer practice to a birthday party to some festival downtown and back home to host friends for dinner on a single Saturday and it exhausts me to watch.

I know that will never be my life, yet it might have been if it weren’t for Dane.  This pace of life means we can’t be doing something every night of the week. We can’t go to every interesting lecture or every church event. It’s means sometimes our son skips soccer practice or we miss someone’s birthday.

It means we have to be home with each other, trying to eat dinner slowly, reading books, playing lego and cleaning up the dust bunnies.

But when we do have friends over, who makes them feel incredibly special and cared for? Who offers them a beer before they even get their coat off? Who has inside jokes with people that make them feel known and loved? Who dubbed 2012, “The year of Jane’s vocational wholeness” because he was on a mission to see me love my work? Who? The guy I love (with the mental illness).

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Living With Someone Else’s Mental Illness – GUEST BLOG SERIES

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A few months ago, just after the death of Robin Williams, I read this intriguing tweet by Luke Harms:

Hey friends. Let’s start a conversation about the intersection of faith and mental illness. It’s obviously needed. How about ?

I then read the hundreds of follow up here is one of my favourites) of people sharing their experiences of mental health and faith. Some people were incredibly hurt by the church and many felt silenced by the stigma of mental illness.  A few offered hope in the help and love they received. As I continued to read I did what I often do, I thought about my own story.

My story is that I live with someone else’s mental illness.

It’s mainly an untold story because it feels like it’s not mine to tell. But those of us who live with someone else’s mental illness have our own stories of the experience that need to be told.

It’s easy to minimize our experience  because, after all, we’re not the one with the diagnosis! We’re not the one on medication! We’re not the one who regularly battles getting out of bed etc.  And for these things we’re grateful.

However, without minimizing the others’ struggles, we still live with our own story of how the mental illness affects us.  We’ve been affected by it, we’ve struggled in our own way and we often keep it to ourselves. As hard as it is, I think it’s time we share some of our own stories.

By sharing our stories we offer support and hope for those who finds themselves in a similar way. We also help to de-stigmatize mental health by courageously sharing our experience of living with, loving and supporting those who are struggling.

After stewing over my own story and avoiding the deep down nudging to write about it,  I took a deep breath, asked my husband if it was ok with him for me to share my experience of his mental illness. Even though it’s my experience, I knew I needed to ask him. He agreed and I began to find other people who have journeyed down a similar road.

Thus this series was born: Living with Someone Else’s Mental Illness.

For the next several Mondays, my blog will be a place for people living with someone else’s mental illness to share their stories. Some posts will be anonymous, others will share current or past realities. We won’t be speaking for those with whom we live (or lived) but we will be sharing our own experiences.

I hope you will join us here each week and support the writers who are bravely telling this part of their life. Trust me, we need it.

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