Mental Health & Wellbeing Matters: grief and distraction

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In our weekly spot where we talk about mental health and wellbeing, we’re talking about grief and how the power of distraction can help. 

Welcome to Mental Health & Wellbeing Matters, our little space on our site where we talk about things that may be affecting oyu, or people around you. . If you’ve not read one of these pieces before, it’s a place where we write about things that may be affecting you, us, or people around us. We know not every article we run is going to be of use to everyone, but hopefully across this series, there’s something that’s of use to you. Comments are very welcome, and appreciated. We want to keep trying to improve these features.

This week, we’ve got a post about grief. We know bereavement is a pain that never totally goes away, but we hope these words on the power of distraction provide some kind of help or comfort. 

My husband died alone in a hospice while I was sitting at home re-watching The Wire. This is my truth. My betrayal. An inescapable fact that sits nestled in my mind every day, lodged there like a sharp splinter for the rest of my life. Something to dwell on in the middle of the night, in my empty bed. And I do. Believe me. 

He’d done his best to outwit and outrun cancer for years. “All clear” sounds nice, but us at the sharp end of suffering know all you really need is to be one step ahead. But in those final months around Christmas 2020 we both knew his number was up. We didn’t talk about it much because, really, after nearly two decades together, what was there to say? We put the TV on instead.

Thanks to the loneliness, anxiety and exhaustion of national Covid lockdowns we better appreciate the power of distraction. When there’s nothing left to say or do, when everything is getting too much and we need to hide away, where do we go? We go to Tatooine. We go to Winterfell, to the Shire, to Pawnee and back to Monica Geller’s living room. Some of us go to West Baltimore to stand on a corner with Omar and Bubbles. 

TV and film transports us into other times, and other lives. It’s easy to understand the comfort blanket of warm comedies like Parks and Recreation or Ted Lasso, but the dark, hard, difficult topics are just as engaging and far more cathartic. For a moment you have permission to put aside your own sadness and guilt, and immerse yourself completely in a different world. These characters are old friends, with their own troubles, with stories you’ve never considered before that reward your curiosity and let you see the world with fresh eyes. The best stories make you feel like you and your pain are part of something greater, not something to be suffered alone. 

Let me introduce you to the global contest that is the Grief Olympics. Maybe you’ve played a version of this hellish game yourself? After something terrible happens in your life (family or friendship breakup, unemployment, bereavement, any change that is negative or beyond your control) your brain decides you are unique. You must be! There’s nothing in the history of the world that has ever been sadder or more difficult than what’s happening to you. How could there be? This is agony! 

Congratulations! You are winning the Grief Olympics. Get set for that podium moment, the flash bulbs and the glory. Except, of course, it’s a race to the bottom. Comparing your loss to someone else’s is a miserable, hollow, lonely sadness. No medals, no pride, no respect. No one ever wins. Grief, and the temptation to play the Grief Olympics, makes you very selfish. This may come as a shock because culturally grief is meant to miraculously make us wiser, braver and selfless.

Even as I’m writing this, part of my brain is still saying “You were widowed before you were 40. Of course you’re the real gold medal winner. You’re the grief GOAT baby!” Shut up selfish brain. Putting yourself above and beyond other people going through sadness and loss is damaging and isolating. The sort of toxic thinking that leads straight to anxiety and depression, and frankly I have enough to deal with already thank-you-very-much.

When my husband died I was lost for words. It’s a well understood trauma response. How can you explain the unexplainable? How can you give a name to the guilt, the shame, the wrenching void, the terrifying chorus in your head? But too long in silence means dwelling on your pain in the most self-destructive way. Please, don’t resort to “I’m fine” because your story is too difficult to tell, or you’re valiantly trying to spare my feelings. Sometimes people aren’t quite ready to talk and that’s fine, for a time. Let’s find something to take your mind off things. I’m not fine either, so let’s be not fine together.

While looking for a distraction you might stumble on a cathartic story, adjacent to your own that prods tentatively at your wound. Or something totally unlike what you’re going through that catches on your heart in a way you weren’t expecting. Don’t hide from it. Lean in, feel it, be sad. Purge that feeling. Don’t let that splinter become infected. See? It wasn’t so personal or so unspeakable after all, and the world didn’t end because you let your guard down. It’s ok to talk, to name the nameless dread and begin to have some mastery over it.

My husband would laugh at me now. Repressed, I never cried at anything. He cried at everything. His weepies numbered in the thousands: Beauty And The Beast, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Lion King, and 90% of The Repair Shop. He was a grouchy old bear; happiest when grumbling but that was just a front. His empathy, his curiosity and his love knew no limits. Now it’s me who cries at everything, happy or sad. Or those indefinable feelings that don’t have a name but still need a release.

Grief makes you more vulnerable and that’s frightening, but in that there’s a strength; something I couldn’t even begin to comprehend a decade ago. I can empathise with my favourite characters better now, and enjoy their stories with a whole new, sometimes painful, perspective. That means I can empathise with you better too. And hopefully treat you with the kindness you deserve. Let’s sit here together. We don’t have to talk. What do you want to watch?

A huge thanks to Sarah for her words. This column will return next week.

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