When my first son was stillborn, I had no idea how to live with grief while balancing my mental illness and my family (Complicated Grief and Bipolar After the Loss of a Loved One). But after having two more amazing children with a husband who continues to stand by my side, we’ve learned how to live with grief and my mental illness. Nine years after we said goodbye to our first son, I have learned how to grieve while continuing to care for my mental illness and enjoy my family.
Mental illness complicates everything in a family, and grief is no exception (Grief and Mental Illness: A Complicated Connection). Every member of my family has had to come to terms with the death of my son, especially my husband and I. As we have learned to give each other space to grieve differently, we have adopted some guidelines that help us do so.
Guidelines for When You Live with Grief and Mental Illness
- There is no wrong way to grieve the death of a loved one. The day we found out our son had died, our therapist told me, “There is no wrong way to do this.” People want to tell you there is a right way to grieve, and they will certainly let you know when you are grieving the wrong way. But only you can figure out the right way to grieve your loved one.
- Grief with mental illness may take longer to heal, and that’s okay. Long after everyone, including my husband, has healed from the loss of our sweet son, I still mourn. For years, I compared myself to my loved ones and tried to suppress my feelings. This only made my feelings stronger and my grief even more difficult to bear. Maybe this is because I am the mother, or maybe it’s because I just feel everything so deeply. Maybe this grief is tied into my bipolar disorder. Whatever the case, I am learning that it’s okay that I still mourn my son. The more I allow myself to just grieve as I need to, the better I am able to heal.
- Giving yourself permission to grieve will help you get through it. Now, my family and I have learned to anticipate my grief. We put a hedge around March, the month of our son’s birthday, and everyone knows to not expect much from me. I communicate with family, friends, and even my employers about how difficult this time is for me. I give myself the space I need to deal with this pain (Coping with Loss: Bereavement and Grief).
- Taking especially good care of yourself will help you cope during difficult grieving times. During my son’s birthday month, I take really good care of myself. I schedule massages, get a pedicure, get my hair cut, and sleep a lot. I carry chocolate with me everywhere and I eat it whenever I want. I book extra appointments with my therapist and cry or laugh or talk about whatever I want. I make sure to care for my body, mind, and heart (Tips for Handling Grief in a Healthy Way).
- Setting aside time to grieve will help you cope with your loss. Since the very first anniversary of our son’s birth, we set aside “Caleb days.” On “Caleb days,” we pull the kids out of school and spend the weekend at the beach. We go out to dinner and toast our son’s beautiful life. Somehow, after feeling the sand between our toes and holding each other near for a weekend, we come back feeling like we can manage this tidal wave of loss. We can pack our grief away and go on living as a family.
To Live with Grief, We Honor Our Feelings
Honoring these guidelines to live with grief helps me to keep moving forward. This grieving gives me the permission to feel my loss while holding fast to the joys of this life. Honoring my son’s life and the time I spent with him helps me balance my need to feel this pain with my need to not be toppled over by it.
So if you are grieving the loss of a loved one and you live with a mental illness, know that there is no wrong way to grieve. Give yourself permission to honor your pain in whatever way you see fit, for as long as it takes. Communicate with your family and work together so that everyone receives the time and space necessary to work through your loss.