On the eve of Goodwin’s birthday each year I feel compelled to reflect on how loss has affected my life. While I think it is cathartic to talk about loss and mental health, it is still difficult. I share my thoughts, though, in hopes that it can help others who similarly experience loss and other trauma.
This year has been difficult for so many people: Covid-19, racial injustice, economic uncertainty, illness, loss of loved ones, and managing children away from school. I have been reflecting a lot about suffering and how to face it. This year I wanted to share a few lessons I have learned as it relates to mental health.
Sadness is a key part of your growth and development
The first time I watched Inside Out, I was amused with the storyline. It stopped me in my tracks, however, when the characters discovered that Sadness wasn’t “ruining” memories; she was an integral part of them. Not only did validating the sadness bring the family closer together, it also facilitated the eventual feelings of joy. I love the part of the movie when Sadness sits down with Bing Bong and participates in the pain he’s feeling. Instead of discounting the gravity of the situation (like Joy), Sadness shows compassion which ultimately allows Bing Bong to grieve and find a sense of peace to move on.
I view sadness as an expression of love. If we didn’t love people so much, then we wouldn’t be so sad when they pass. To deny ourselves the honesty of feeling sad, is to discount our love. We likewise show each other love when we acknowledge someone else’s sadness rather than dismiss it.
The other day, there was an unfortunate situation where a bird died in our yard. Its wings and body had accidentally gotten stuck on an unrolled bug trap. After trying to help it, we determined that nothing could be done to save it, since its wings were damaged and removing it would injure it more. Our kids were hysterical, one child in particular. My first response to help her calm down was, “It’s okay. You’ll be okay.” But then I realized that wasn’t correct. Instead I said, “It is so sad what happened to that bird. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be sad because it is really sad. It makes me sad too.” We eventually buried the bird and the girls drew pictures and wrote messages to deal with their grief.
While honesty of one’s sadness is an important start, it is not always manageable without help. A few years ago, I opted to go to therapy. I felt like I was managing my grief, but it was triggered whenever something else was difficult. Getting professional help didn’t necessarily “solve” my problems, but it helped give me cognitive tools and a greater awareness of the interplay of my grief and other difficulties. I strongly recommend therapy as a way to help manage chronic sadness and depression after loss and other trauma.
Finding ways to talk can help you heal
While I am sure there was some level of variation, up through the mid-1970’s, stillbirths were regarded by medical professionals as a “non-event” and that it was better to take a stillborn baby away from its mother to minimize the psychological distress. There was a belief that if you talked about it too much, it was more traumatic to the mother; thus families, communities, and doctors would not openly discuss it.
In 1979, Emanuel Lewis of Charing Cross Hospital’s Department of Child and Family Psychiatry wrote on the “conspiracy of silence”:
“Stillbirth is a common tragedy occurring in about one in 100 deliveries. Yet after a stillbirth everyone tends to behave as if it had not happened. In hospital bereaved women are usually isolated and avoided and then discharged as soon as possible.
“Although this is meant kindly, to protect the mothers from the painful awareness of live babies, it also means that the hospital staff do not have to face their own anxiety about stillbirth.
“Back at home, the family, friends, and professionals continue to avoid talking to the bereaved mother, depriving her of the talk that would help her mourn. There is silence.”from “Mourning by the Family After a Stillbirth or Neonatal Death”
I bring this up because it makes sense why women were told to pretend there wasn’t a problem. On the surface it seems to be a much better way to manage grief. The professionals at the time viewed it as something merciful. If you read about the families who had stillbirths during that time, however, there was a lot of unresolved pain due to this approach.
Like the professionals in the past, sometimes I think we pretend that we are unaffected by trauma because facing it seems scarier than sweeping it under the rug. Silence seems easier than painful conversations. What to say to grieving individuals and how to respond when they share their story can be stressful and difficult.
While people cope with grief differently, my experience in being open about loss has lessened my emotional load. Not only did it allow me to work through denial, anger, etc., it also gave “permission” for other family members to be honest about their grief. Not hiding away sadness has been an important part of our family culture, and I hope it sets the precedent that my kids can be honest about their feelings.
Personal transformation is unfamiliar, and potentially difficult for others to understand
When I reflect on my own personal evolution since Goodwin’s death, the word that comes to mind is change. In the weeks that followed his death, I was numb and confused. I felt a great emptiness and just tried to function at a basic level. In the following months and years, I sensed something unknown and unfamiliar. I can remember exact moments when someone would be talking and I would think, “I don’t view things that way anymore.” It was quite distressing. It was isolating to feel like I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I wasn’t the same.
Experiencing a new version of yourself can be frightening, especially if life was relatively stable before. When I was younger, I was generally optimistic and took pride in my emotional health. To then experience cynicism, depression, sadness, and distress was very scary. While I feel like I matured and gained greater life perspective, it is difficult to go through a life-altering experience. I sometimes wish I had less complex emotional state (as before), but I do not reject the benefits of that kind of change.
A few weeks ago, Sophie shared an interesting video from school with me. Called the “Hero’s Journey,” it discusses the common cycle many literary heroes experience and how it relates to our human experience.
The part that struck me was how the hero comes back to his/her regular life as a changed person. There has been a transformation after the various trials and resolutions.
Returning to regular life after a life-altering experience can feel very uncomfortable and confusing. What worked before might not work now. Your views and beliefs might be different. Your sensitivity to triggers or the difficulties of others may trouble you. You may experience PTSD and depression. Others may expect you to be the same and have trouble understanding you.
I have learned that change is difficult, and it sometimes feels like it messes up your life. But like the lesson in the Hero’s Journey, the deconstruction and – hopefully – reconstruction of your life is part of the transformative process.
There might be a better focus than trying to “be happy”
After experiencing a loss, I was objectively less happy. It became much harder to have “good days.” For people dealing with grief and depression, the constant societal pressure to be optimistic is defeating and hurtful. While I believe one can be happy despite great loss, it is a long process and not just the result of positive thinking.
A few months ago, Eldon and I listened to a book off and on entitled, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. I have not read the book in its entirety, but the author suggests a sensible, counterintuitive way to approach the pursuit of happiness: by embracing the things we spend our lives trying to avoid, such as fear, failure, and grief.
The author explains that trying to eliminate negativity in the pursuit of happiness is the very thing that makes us feel anxious, insecure, and unhappy. Instead, if we can embrace and accept the realities of our troubles, we can attain greater happiness. He discusses various psychological and philosophical concepts to help rewire our response to life stress. It is an interesting read for those looking for different ways to cope.
I also think it is worthwhile to reframe what it means to be happy. Rather than “happiness” as a goal, perhaps peace, satisfaction, authenticity, purpose, creativity, relationships. To me, these words are less ambiguous than being happy and instead identify what really matters to you.
After experiencing a loss, I grew more aware of the fragility of life. I felt a need to simplify my focus and engage in what mattered most. For me, this meant spending more time in nature, making time for artistic pursuits, and separating myself from unhealthy mindsets. This will look different for different people, but I think it is a helpful way to reconstruct after a loss. Refocusing on what is “life-giving” to you as an individual can bring energy and satisfaction to help buoy you up during difficult times.
Ultimately, it is okay to admit that we are not okay and that we don’t have all the answers. There is not an easy solution to grief. I am grateful for the support and kindness of friends and family who have helped me on my journey, and I hope these thoughts can help too.
You can read more about Goodwin and my thoughts on loss here.