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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Superficially well, but still grieving. . . part 3

November 2009 

Yesterday was a good day. I did not feel any surge of contentment or positivity, in fact my mood still felt low. But I did not begrude every passing moment either. Each day brings a renewed sense of an expanse of empty time in front of me. But 24 hours ago I noticed that time became easier to fill. I went to bed an hour later than usual when all other nights this week I retreated by 7 in the evening, feeling anxious to get the day over with even at the cost of starting the next day in the middle of the night. I stopped thinking for a day that everyone else’s lives were more fortunate than my own. I let go of a sense that I am the single person in the world most entitled to feel despair.

It is four and a half months since my dad died in a hospice. Perhaps yesterday represents some hope of relief from a time which has left me emotionally battered. As well as gratitude for yesterday I feel guilt. I worry I am giving up my connection with my dad too soon. I am not suffering with him as I feel I should do. I also worry my community psychiatric nurse will think I have moved on from being bereft despite the fact she is far more perceptive than this. But one day does not take away the sorrow. Today my sense of not knowing what to do with myself is alive again.

I continue to think about the effects of my dad’s illness on his whole person. Sometimes I need to remember and reflect. But at other times my mind takes me back to places by force and I feel upset about those circumstances again. I feel in one way that the trauma I experienced alongside my dad once his cancer was diagnosed has been harder to process than his death. I do still talk to my CPN about his deterioration as I feel there is still more to be said about its impact. I seek out associations with my dad’s illness.  I cut out one story from this week’s newspaper about a man who a few months before his death was diagnosed with the same type, stage and consequences of prostate cancer as my dad suffered from. I felt sad for a family I had never met. I even felt like writing to them to offer my condolences and say I understood what they were going through. But I also knew that they may not welcome correspondence from a stranger and there are other ways for me to channel my experiences. 

It has helped me to reflect on the fact that even though my dad’s cancer was diagnosed at an advanced stage his illness was not protracted. Although this made the awful events more condensed in time and shocking, it saved him from operations and hospital visits which his personality would not have been open to months or years beforehand.

In bereavement counselling I can reveal the extent of my grief without fear of upsetting any relative or driving away a friend – perhaps this is the main advantage of grief work with a professional. I can ask questions that I cannot put to anyone else. I can say things that I feel in all honesty without risking any outside judgement or fatigue. My CPN sometimes may challenge me, for example if I am being very tough on myself, she also notices if I seem more defensive due to my high sensitivity. She is clear that I have to work through grief and it is not possible for any other person to take away the pain or responsibility.  

During sessions with my CPN we also talk about my dad in a more full sense than my images of him when he was ill. He was a decent man as well as a one off character. He possessed great intelligence and had specialist interests, perhaps verging on eccentric. I now remember more about our shared past as well as the great closeness we found in his final weeks. Realising all the different aspects of who my dad was helps me not only understand him but to value myself a bit more. Half of my DNA is his and I carry him around with me throughout my life. I feel lucky to be his daughter and to have learned lessons from him. I would not want him to have been any different. 

Sometimes people I know do ask questions relating to my dad. But they usually will ask first ‘how is your mum?’ I feel like saying that ‘she is doing okay but I am not!’ They probably see me standing in front of them, looking well dressed and holding it together so may believe that I must have moved on by now. I cannot identify with repeated comments of ‘you’re doing really well’. I feel that this statement can be a way of avoiding listening to my own account. I want to communicate my distress through my body at times. I already know I have a propensity for eating disorders and self harming. But my CPN encourages me to write, talk and express all feelings rather than acting them out. It helps to hold onto the knowledge that the most difficult times will pass even if it is a trial to get through them.

One of the hardest aspects of bereavement is a great sense of loneliness. But it is also a time where going out and meeting people feels like an impossible goal. I also imagine that other people may keep a distance from someone who is bereaved since the conversation would be intense or downbeat. I have joined several internet forums where I can talk about my life without feeling threatened by fresh social contact, I can remain anonymous and am finding that shared experience is useful. I believe I may feel more able to look at different life options, including socialising, next year having left 2009 behind. Change can also be hard. Other people coping with bereavement may want to change everything even by moving to a different area to cast off painful associations, although this may not be advisable if done in haste. But I need my familiar surroundings and routines to prove that life has continuity and holds no more surprises.

I do feel more aware of physical illness now. Cancer is very common, a nightmare too many people go through. But I also accept that there can be far better outcomes and early treatments than were possible in my dad’s case. There is no point in trying to guess the future or spend my entire day worrying to try to make myself and others safe, although this is tempting.  I know I should feel more concern about making sure I take care of myself than prioritising the needs of other people.

In less than six weeks it will be Christmas and this event has stirred up feelings in me already. While shops, magazines, television adverts all herald this coming festival I wish there was a way to call it off. Christmas is portrayed as for families and friends who are living, not for those who are grieving or alone. I am now considering how to spend Christmas in a way that will help me feel secure and calm. I know that bank holidays will be a challenge during this first year since the death of my dad, but I also have a choice as to what to do with them. I plan to buy a small gift to myself that is in memory of my dad, perhaps a bracelet that is tangible and helps me think of him. I have been told by several people including my CPN that I should be proud of myself for surviving and growing through this year. For now I continue to look at each day and try not to think too far beyond that.

Alex

Alex is a service user. Her father died from prostate cancer four months ago

Nov 2009

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In this section of the website we publish personal contributions that focus on peoples' experience of being unwell or on their recovery. The views expressed in these articles are personal. They do not necessarily reflect the vews of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.