Grief and mental health have an important and interlinked relationship. As I write this, I’m watching Holly and Phil. They’re lovely, aren’t they, Holly and Phil? They glow with health and giggles; if I was crying on my own in Costa, I think Holly would come over and give me a nice big hug, and the sensation of being nuzzled in her bosom would probably fix my anxiety forever. But I don’t usually get to enjoy their mid-morning hilarity, working as I do in the sort of office job that precludes proper enjoyment of English daytime telly.
But at the time of writing, instead of enjoying an 11am banana at my desk (I’m a passionate believer in an 11am pick me up), my scratchy chest, blocked nose and aching muscles have rendered me bedbound. So I’m watching morning TV and I’m shocked by the level of quiet understanding and brave expression I’m witnessing on that most awkward of subjects: grief and mental health.
It’s a ‘life after loss’ segment. A woman is on the line to Holly, Phil and the nice TV Doctor, voice cracking even as she murmurs hello. It’s her story to tell, not mine, but suffice to say she has been shattered by grief, anxiety and depression. Death has left her utterly alone. It’s hard to watch, the very antithesis of that great viral clip of Holly pissing herself with laughter during a feature on tantric orgasms.
This caller is hurting down to the sinews of her being. My bones tingle at the raw loss in her voice. Holly and Paul scarcely know how to arrange their faces, such is the agony in her words. I’m simultaneously awed by her bravery and saddened by the fact there’s nobody in her life for her the share this with.
Sadly, I can also see why she would feel that way—because in Britain, in 2017, we don’t like to talk about grief. And this seems dangerous. Grief can (understandably) easily tip over into mental illness, and whilst I’m glad we’re making a place (on national television, no less) for people to find help, we need this across the board.
We’re an awkward bunch, us Brits; talking openly about death is not the done thing. My Dad died in 2014, and I have horrified many of my fellow countrymen with stark admissions of my loss. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it’s bloody awkward. It’s deeply uncomfortable to have frank conversations about death, and the raft of emotional issues that follow.
If you’ve never experienced grief, it can be almost impossible to know how to respond. But it can’t be healthy to live in a society where we feel like we can’t even say the word ‘dead’. No wonder grief and mental health have such alink.
Surely, surely, this inability to talk frankly must exacerbate the risk of grief turning into a mental health issue? Traditionally, grief was a shared activity. When families lived in close quarters and small-town life meant everyone knew everyone’s business, it must have been almost impossible to be left alone to grieve.
But in an increasingly insular society, it’s very possible for somebody to lose a close loved one and turn up at work three days later with nobody being any the wiser. Of course, you don’t have to go around shouting about it. Everybody has their own way of coping, and hopefully, most people do have a close support network to help them through. Likewise, although the former can and often does develop into the latter, grief should not be classified as a mental illness; it’s a natural and very important process.
But a society which doesn’t like to talk about death and grief is almost certainly a breeding ground for mental health issues. Grief is incredibly isolating, despite the fact we’ll all go through it at some point. Was it loneliness that catapulted my own grief into a mental health breakdown? I was living alone, away from family, studying in relative solitude and most of my friends had recently left the city I was living in after graduating.
I tried to carry on as if nothing had happened, and failed spectacularly. I was so embarrassed, feeling that I wanted to do my Dad proud by cracking on with life. But why, in hindsight, should anybody be embarrassed of their grief?
Sharing and supporting each other through grief is a way to catch people before they fall into the pit. If you’ve lost someone, know that you aren’t obliged to bury your feelings for the sake of other peoples’ embarrassment. Reach out: to family, to friends. Know that crying spontaneously and loudly on the bus doesn’t make you a pariah.
Don’t be ashamed of getting help. Seeing a counsellor earlier rather than later is a fantastic way to process grief, and stop lingering issues from developing into a mental health crisis; Cruse Bereavement care offer free advice and support. I found a fantastic counsellor through The Counselling Directory.
And if you know somebody who has lost a loved one, please: try your hardest to be compassionate. Try to listen without looking like you want to edge out the nearest window and sprint across the carpark. It might mean more to someone than you can begin to imagine.
Grief and mental health are topics I’ll be writing more on, including tips for how to deal with grief. But in the meantime, all I can do is send my thoughts of compassion to anybody struggling with the loss of a loved one. You aren’t alone. I’d also direct anybody looking for more information to the wonderful charity, Mind; this page discusses the range of mental health problems that can come about after a bereavement.