The last day of the year. Well, the Gregorian calendar year, because the Tzolkin is halfway and that’s only two ways to measure a year. Still. Widely spread, today is the last day of the year. And traditionally, when we’re at the end of things, we reflect. It’s a fun tradition. I started my own tradition on this blog, years ago, to reflect on the year, trying many different things. I broke up the year in months, added photos, made lists, mostly wrote short snippets about highlights. Then, I started to reflect more in writing.
I picked December 31st as my day for writing, not just because it’s the last day of the year, but because it’s a different marker for my personal life as well. December 31st was (and always will be) the day my mother died. December 31st is a day I purposefully do not go to work and try to avoid people when I can. (And then when I try to be alone, my friends force me to come out and celebrate New Year’s Eve with them… Friends are generally the only people I support during this day.)
Sometimes I tell people why, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes they remember, sometimes they don’t.
What to make of this day?
What does one generally do on such a day? Some people visit a grave. A specific place. Do a specific thing. Get together with loved ones to celebrate the person we lost. I don’t know. I think grieving is so tucked into the corners of our life in ‘modern society’ that we have to speculate what people do on such a day. In fact, this makes me think of the episode in Gilmore Girls where nobody knows what Luke does on this one day a year, he just disappears.
Even his most close friends (although who Luke considers close friends is up to speculation) don’t know what is going on. As it turns out, it’s the day his father died, they call it his ‘dark day’, and it’s just accepted that it’s a day he disappears. I suspect many of us have ‘dark days’, but, like with Luke, it’s not something we really talk about.
It’s such a personal thing.
And because December 31st is also a day of public celebration, it is impossible for us as a family to take time together and reflect, so we have a different day for that. Generally speaking, we do our specific family thing together earlier in December. That leaves the 31st to fill with my own plans. I think for me, the specific thing I do is write.
Last year, I wanted to write more, but I settled on my list of things I learned. It was nice to write. I did learn a lot of things, and I was proud of my growth in 2017. I like reflecting and keeping this blog alive with at least one post a year, even if it’s short. But that was only part of the plan. The plan was also to write a longer piece. I wanted to write about death.
[[note: in the mean time I found and posted my longer piece that I never posted before. I dated it December 31st 2017 and you can read it here.]]
It’s hard to write about death when everybody is in a state of celebration. I myself, as well, was too focused on trying to stay positive and look forward.
But it has to happen, sometime, doesn’t it? This talk about death. We don’t talk about death enough. And while I now have learned that I don’t like looking backwards for too long, too much, sometimes it has to happen. I am someone who wants to stay positive, even in all the hardships. My life motto is to turn the hardships into lessons so we can look forward and use the lessons to be even better in the future. I pick words to guide my self-improvement, which for the last years have been change and growth. I pride myself on being goal-oriented, and I always move. Literally.
I have moved house ten times in ten years. I moved twice in 2017. 2018 is the one year I didn’t physically move my home address… but I still found other homes to sleep in, other ways to move. My biggest change was definitely when I moved work address. There’s a reason I compare myself to a shark: I have this restlessness in me. So, on the last day of the year, I like taking a moment to stand still. Look back. Reflect.
Therapy is a gift.
I have never really talked about therapy. I have been pretty open about my mental health on the internet, another taboo we really need to break. Yet therapy is so personal and so tied to the circumstance, it’s not easy to talk about. Without going into details, I just want to share that therapy is important.
I got diagnosed with dysthymic disorder in 2016, at which point I had probably been walking around with it for almost ten years. It was such a relief to finally put a name to something I thought was a personality trait. It was incredibly helpful to be able to work on things and have relief in sight, when all this time I thought it was just who I was. That I was impossible to change. But, life lesson learned, change is inevitable.
I went to therapy throughout 2016 and 2017, and one of my therapists (for I had quite a few therapies for different things, but that’s a longer story) told me this absolute truth: “therapy is a gift”. People are ashamed to go to therapy, they are scared to go, and they hardly talk about it. But there is no shame in taking active steps to improve your mental health with the help of a professional! Like there is no shame in going to the doctor when you have a headache. The trouble might not be visible from the outside, but we need help nonetheless. Getting that help is a gift to make yourself better.
What I didn’t know for so long, too long, is that I let the past interfere too much with the present.
Even when I was not consciously thinking about the past, it was not looking at the trouble, that caused even more trouble. My mother died when I was ten years old and I did not know things about the world. Life went on, and even when I thought I grieved, I experienced things that I never really processed. Maybe because I didn’t know how, maybe because I never learned, maybe because I didn’t have the words, partly because I didn’t want to. I am, for someone who talks about change and growth, also very stubborn. Being stuck in feeling sad about things that happened in the past felt useless. I felt like I was sad about things now.
But as I mentioned before, sometimes we need to look at the past in order to be able to move forward. I didn’t want to be identified as ‘that girl whose mother died’ for the rest of my life, so I ignored that it happened. Because I didn’t want it to identify me, I left it out whenever I needed to establish myself. I didn’t want it to become this big thing, so I wanted to do my own thing. But by burying it beneath other things, it became an even bigger thing.
Only when I was forced to stop, did it get a chance to heal.
I had a mental crisis and knew this had to be bigger than just who I am. So I asked for help. I didn’t really believe the professionals at first. I thought I had a serious executive dysfunction problem, something like ADD. The professionals said, “Ah, but yes, your mother died, that’s why you are sad”. And I wanted to say, “Ah, but that happened half a lifetime ago, I’ve learned to deal, that’s not it”.
However, they were right. At the root of all my problems was the fact that I had not processed the death of my mother. Growing up without a mother. (Insert other life events here.) I had just decided to skip over things, and figure things out by myself. I was brought up to be resourceful and figure things out without asking for help, so that’s what I did, and it bit me hard. Luckily for me, things started looking up after my breakdown. During therapy, I was forced to deal with things. By looking at the past, it solved problems I had in the present, and that in turn led to a much more successful future. I am very happy and very grateful that I went to therapy.
Two years later, I am therapy free. Of course life has not suddenly decided to be without hardships.
I have learned how to cope better, that doesn’t mean that I have perfect mental health all the time. Instead of resorting to dark days, I might get a gray day. A slightly cloudy day, instead of one that’s completely overcast.
Today feels like such a day. I am getting my time to myself and then I will be able to prepare to go outside and be social. I will celebrate the end of one year, and the start of the next. Surrounded by loved ones. Kissing my life partner because I mean it, feeling joy and love in the moment, and not being numb and doing things ‘because I have to’. I have had days like that, too, and that’s okay. It’s okay not to be okay. It is also okay to be halfway okay.
Before we get there, let’s talk about death.
The older I get, the more people I meet that are in my club. You know the club. The club nobody wants to be a member of, but yet here we are. When I was ten, I felt like a lonely member of the shittiest club on earth. The children of dead parents club. Then I was seventeen, and one of my friends joined the club. Seven years I had spent in this club, and I had nothing to tell my friend. Nothing of experience that would make things easier for them.
When I went on with life outside the high school bubble, I met more people in the club. I realised that we’re all pretty much equally clueless. We don’t know what to say. The only thing we can do is share this look, that says something along the lines of “I know. It sucks. It’s hard. I don’t know either. People who aren’t members of this club, don’t understand”. Yet at the same time, we don’t want other people to understand. Like I said, it’s the shittiest club. Usually you want people to join a club, now you don’t. You don’t want anyone to go through what you went through.
So we kind of keep things a secret.
We don’t talk about things. We don’t tell people that every year there is a day that is the shitty anniversary of becoming a member of the shitty club. Because we don’t want to talk about shitty things.
Luckily, there is therapy. So let’s talk about both those things. Let’s talk about death and let’s talk about therapy. My therapy forced me to face the past I tried to run away from, and in turn it taught me so much about myself. I finally grieved, because just going on with your life isn’t grieving. We never talk about grieving. I had no idea how to do it. I think I’m still a bit confused as to how it works. But I think the key thing is to talk about things. My mistake was to put it all away and never talk about things. And that is my biggest life lesson: communication is so important!
Yet, as beings who are so cool that we have devised so many different communication systems, we’re also pretty shit at it.
We have to take into account that whatever thought forms in our head does not correspond to words in a language, that decoding the words that I speak doesn’t mean that the person I’m speaking to understands my original thoughts… and also… that we have been conditioned not to talk about grief. It’s uncomfortable. Whenever we hear someone talk about death or grief, we kind of want it to be over. We have not learned what to say, and when we try to think of something on the spot, all our options sound terrible. So we either say terrible things, or opt to say nothing. (Which is also kind of terrible if you think about it.) And then we sigh this huuuge sigh of relief when we switch the topic.
In December of last year I was scared to talk about grief, even though it was very relevant at the time.
My cousin died. It was confronting because she was 46 years old, the same age as my mother when she died, leaving behind young children. I saw my cousins, around the same age that I was twenty years ago, and I suddenly felt how young ten years old is. I suddenly felt very fragile. When I was ten, I felt independent and grown up. I wanted to keep moving. Keep moving forward. Yeah, yeah, that happened, it sucks, can we now talk about something else? I didn’t feel how fragile I was. How wrong it was not to stand still for a little bit.
And I feel shitty about it, because in all my experience in this shitty club, I feel too far away and disconnected to actually help them. The only thing I could think to do was to reread my old diaries from when I was growing up, about how alone and sad and depressed I felt, for so long. I wanted to take those diaries and wave them in the faces of the people close to my cousins. A part of me wanted to yell at them: “TAKE BETTER CARE OF THESE CHILDREN SO THEY DON’T END UP ALONE AND SUICIDAL LIKE I DID”.
I didn’t do that.
I went back to Antwerp and I told my family how grateful I was that in the last years, and thanks to therapy, I felt like we could communicate a little bit better. We’re not perfect, but it’s not as bad as it was. It helped me a lot. Another thing that happened is that I ran into someone else who’s a member of the club. They’re also many other things, and luckily it’s not the reason why they’re an important person in my life. But talking to them made me think about how we never talk about grief or do something about it. And how, in a weird way, I think being in the same club also helps us.
The problem with people who aren’t in the club, not understanding what it’s like, is kind of complex.
First: people don’t understand because of not having firsthand experience
Second: you don’t talk about it, so they can’t understand
The first we can’t fix, because we don’t want that. You don’t want people to understand firsthand because you don’t wish this horrible thing on them. So, we have to go for second hand. It’s tricky. Just as I will never understand the relationships of people with mothers that are not dead, they will not understand me. I have run into problems because of this misunderstanding, unfortunately. Of course, I realise it goes both ways, as with all interactions: you don’t feel what I feel and I don’t feel what you feel.
Will talking about it help?
I sure hope so. It does in many cases, so hopefully also in the case of grief.
I don’t want to continue my life with dark days. I like having someone by my side who sort of understands, in their own way, what it was like. Growing up as a member of the club. Having this need to remember and honour the dead, sometimes. Even when they’re not there. Even when you never (really) knew them. Just let me tell my story. I feel safe enough to do that. Luckily I have friends who understand. But we can do better. I don’t know how yet. I can’t believe I wrote this whole thing saying I want to talk about things, to conclude that I don’t know how. But it’s part of my life, and it’s part of life in general, and it must be done.
If you’re reading this and you’re going through something similar: please go talk to a professional. I didn’t want my mother’s death to define me, yet I can’t forget it either. I owe that much to her, as to myself. It is part of who I am. I am much more than just the girl whose mother died. My life is so much more than grieving. Still, in my case, I wish I had done it differently. I don’t have regrets, because erasing things means becoming a different person, and I like where I am today. I can be proud of where I am.
But let my life lesson be an inspiration to someone else.
Please don’t become depressed and suicidal. Grieve. Mourn. Cry. Be angry at the universe. Shake your fist at things. Feel deeply. Let that intense feeling be a sign that you are allowed to be alive, and be so much more than fury and sadness. Fill the world with your love, for if you hurt deeply, it means you love deeply.
And as ambitious as I was when I was ten years old and said “when I am older, I want to help other children who are going through the same thing”, I hope my story helps someone. I am not a professional. I know only my own story. But I truly believe that sharing is caring. We all play a part in figuring out how to make grief and death less of a taboo, so let’s start small. If you want to talk, I want to listen. And, with sincerity, thank you for reading.
Photos in the text are of the beautiful lake Mälaren in Västerås, Sweden, which I visited this year.
Header photo is the holiday wishes card my family sent out the year I was born. The little alien looking, premature baby is me. Happy holidays!