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

Superficially well, but still grieving. . . part 4

Part 4 - December 2009 

I am writing here instead of signing Christmas cards, putting them into envelopes and adding stamps which I have yet to buy.  This chain of small tasks is a project I cannot face today. I have looked for a card for my mum but found that most designs are worded ‘to mum and dad’ or ‘to both of you at Christmas.’ The fewer cards addressed solely ‘to my mother’ would not be my first choice. I am not buying many presents and those I do get may not have as much thought or careful wrapping as usual. I have thought about my life as having alternative endings as can happen in movies. Though the main film may have a Christmas finale, the dvd extra clips jump into January or reveal a Christmas which passes as if I am in a pleasant dream.  

My first Christmas without dad is likely to be difficult. But to look at this scenario in a different way; many communities and faiths do not celebrate Christmas, huge numbers of people spend it alone – feeling deprived of company or seeing it as a break from their working lives. The wider events of this year will have left significant numbers struggling with changed circumstances. Christmas is two days in one year, its true values at odds with the hype. My dad died in July and I know that he was not a Christmas person. Once he became ill with prostate cancer he did not want to mark his birthday again and Christmas was out of his reach. But even before then he had not attached too much significance to the points in the year most people shout about with cards and family gatherings.  

In the past I have faced loneliness or crisis at Christmas. It is not a good time to be single with no children, from a small family or to experience mental health problems, including those with a seasonal pattern.  In the earlier years of my mental health treatment I would spend every Christmas in hospitals. Since then I have managed better at this time, doing my own thing rather than needing to be sociable. This precedent means I can draw on memories showing that I can get through it. Though I am now bereaved my dad would want me to thrive and not feel distressing grief. A candle has been lit in my dad’s memory on a tree outside the hospice where he died, with his name entered into a book of remembrance - all hospices take part in this fundraising initiative each year which is called ‘Light up a Life.’ 

It would be too simplistic to pin all my negative feelings onto Christmas. Several more events have made me feel sad. Two weeks ago my father’s car was taken away by a local garage. He had been the driver and there is no one else within my family who can use it. He bought the car 15 years ago. The car’s ongoing presence after his death almost beckoned for him to return to it. Ever since the car arrived I always had to squeeze past it when visiting the house. The car still felt like a symbol of my dad and it now feels as though he has been taken from life for a second time. I wonder about where the car will go and whether I would ever see it on the roads, though it may well be past salvage.  

I am more sensitive to losses of any type. This week I lost my mobile phone charger and cannot find a replacement. But I feel attached to this mobile, it was the one I sent texts on throughout dad’s illness, though usually bad news when it came to his health developments. The mobile was a way of keeping in touch with several friends who texted me encouragement to keep going during times when I felt I could give no more. The ward sister at the hospice had called me on the mobile when my dad was deteriorating and I rushed to be there, staying with him until his breaths ceased without struggle. How can I let go of that phone when it has served us both well? I have bought a new mobile phone but do not feel as though I have the space in my mind to adapt to using it. Maybe I am making excuses or perhaps it is an effort when I am feeling tired. I cannot let go of the ‘old’ mobile even if there is no way of it ever working again.  

Last week I did feel as though I must have ‘seen’ my dad. I was at a place near to where he attended many concerts. I cried because it hit me again how much I missed him, he had not been in the city this time nor could ever visit again. When my feelings were intense I did feel like a lost child. This passed for me when I was with someone again and I could talk about feeling close to him.  

One lesson I have picked up is to not idealise my father and talk as though every part of his character was faultless. I do love him but know that none of us is perfect, as we each have personal flaws. His mental health problems also were unexplored though I can understand compulsive hoarding in the context of family traits and as a means of creating a sense of safety. He had a brilliant mind and I hope I have even a small degree of his potential when alive.  

While I cannot yet say I feel better as time goes on, I do realise that I need to look after myself. I have fallen into disturbed patterns of eating, though have not relapsed into anorexia. Today I am going to try to buy more nutritious foods so I am less dependent on snacks that give me a high but are short lasting. It is still hard for me to sit down to eat a meal but proteins and fat within food would do my body a service. I have felt as though stiffness in my back and neck must be similar to my father’s bone cancer. My community psychiatric nurse explained this was a common ‘somatized’ response in bereavement where we can identify with the deceased’s illness though do not have any underlying disease. I also need to stop feeling inadequate, especially when I know that my dad believed in me.  

My grief counselling continues with my CPN guiding me through the process. Sessions are focused on taking action so I do move forward, as well as talking about the episodes of this year. It would not serve any purpose if I was to only speak repeatedly of how terrible things feel when in sessions – however much I want to do this at times - so it is important to draw positives. I do have homework to think about before the next session and prepare well so no time is wasted.  

It feels like ‘only yesterday’ since the day my father died. This will always be a key event in my life. But I also have a duty to myself to try to create good memories that come afterwards. I feel I am still getting to know my dad. I talk to one family member about his ancestors and understand what created him. There is an ongoing relationship even though he is not physically with me. I am now waiting for a headstone to be made and placed on his grave. It will help to have that marker there and lay flowers. The meaning of his life flows right through my own and I can think about him at any time.  

Alex

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

Dec 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.

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