I hate being given a label – put in a box. I guess I am replacing one label ‘depressed’ for another ‘grieving’ – but grieving for me, relates to something actual that happened that in turn has caused a whole range of devastating emotions and feelings. That doesn’t mean that things that happen don’t cause or lead to depression – they do – but for some reason it seems easier to label a parent who is dealing with the emotional turmoil of losing their child as ‘depressed’ rather than ‘grieving’. To some extent worse than that, you have ‘allowed yourself to become depressed’ was one comment a mum I know received. ‘If you don’t take anti depressants you are not helping yourself get better…..they won’t bring your son back but they will make everything else better’. Really!!
It’s just a word so might not sound a big issue. But the way people use it and the words that come with it has significant implications. ‘I know you are sad but don’t let yourself slide into depression, you can’t let that happen – that will impact your son’. This is what a friend said this week to the mum who lost her little daughter less than two months ago. ‘Come on you have to pull yourself together now, you have others to think of – letting yourself get depressed won’t help’. This is what my mother in law said to me three days after Elliot died.
You might think that these are one off, unhelpful or misguided attempts to help – pull us round etc – but they are a lot more common than that. A few weeks after returning to work after losing Elliot, my manager saw me and said ‘what’s wrong with you this morning’. ‘Hard day today I said’. Meaning I was finding it really hard to put one foot in front of the other and keep going – but I didn’t say that. ‘oh why is that then, you seemed ok yesterday’ she says ‘don’t let yourself go all moody, lift yourself out of it’.
The implication is that how we feel is ‘our fault’. I know talking about death is hard for people, especially the death of a child. People fear it. Someone said to me not long after Elliot died that they were nervous talking to me in the playground as they didn’t want it to happen to them. As though ‘losing a child’ might be catching. I can understand people’s fears and I even understand their need for you to be ok and to not struggle. But glossing over the enormous impact of what you have experienced, to try and package it up as low mood or depression and that in itself is wrong in their eyes – just means that you learn to hide away how you feel, you get scared to share it and just internalise everything. You feel guilty for not coping and just expect people to judge you.
For me grief isn’t about stages or processes – it is something you have to literally ‘go through’ and learn to cope with each day and each challenge. Talking about it as logically stages you go through or a specific process is easier for others to try and understand what is happening, but I don’t feel it reflects the reality but it does frame how others expect you to be.
The mum of the little girl says she feels guilty, that maybe she isn’t trying hard enough to cope or be there for her son. She just wants to talk about her little girl, share how she feels so that somehow she might be able to understand it herself. But the comments she has had just makes her want to withdraw because she feels she is failing.
She isn’t. She is coping as best she can, she gets up, gets her son to school, makes the meals and has gone back to work part time. All an incredible feat. She just needs someone to listen, be there by her said, acknowledge how she feels without judgement.
I have experienced both ends of the spectrum, pointed comments about how someone feels I should be coping better and that I shouldn’t let people see how I feel if it’s a bad day – ‘just deal with it yourself’ she said, ‘you should be able to do that now, its been long enough’. All I had said was that the build up to another Christmas was really hard that year. I have also had friends who have just listened, talked about Elliot and shared in the memories and the sadness. Their reaction and response brings me round and helps me take that deep breath, lift my head up and keep going with more hope.