Mental Health Matters – Living with Anxiety after Grief

Since my last post I’ve had a few worried friends message to ask If I’m okay because I said I was “going through a few things.” It’s mental health awareness week, and so I thought it was about time I responded.

The truth is, I struggled to respond to the “how are you?” and “what’s going on” questions. Whilst so well intended and so genuinely appreciated, when your problem is mental, and not physical, it’s much harder to describe. How much easier is it to say “ah, I haven’t been blogging because I’ve broken my arm” or “Sorry I’ve disappeared, I’ve had the flu” and yet, from someone who has had both of these things.. when my mental well-being has taken a battering, I struggle so much more with daily life than when my limbs are broken or I’m down with a virus.

I always wonder what an adequate response is to these questions.

“Are you okay?”

“Em.. no”

“What’s up?”

“Well both my parents are dead and I’m really sad about it”

“Ah, I’m so sorry.”

As someone who cares a lot about how others feel, I don’t want to make anyone feel awkward, or sad, so instead my conversations usually go:

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, getting there! How are you?”

So, when I said I was “going through a few things” what I really meant was my brain was completely overwhelmed and I was feeling… for lack of a better word.. crap. Nothing major has happened, I’ve just been struggling.. but I finally feel my head is back above water and I can start writing, responding and participating in the multiple missed whatsapp messages and chats again (sorry!).

Losing my parents has done many things to me. It has made me stronger, made me more resilient, perhaps even made me a better parent, because I treasure every minute.. however.. the level of anxiety it left me with is something I didn’t quite expect. The past few weeks my anxiety has been heightened. Sometimes something sets me off.. like big crowds or an impending social occasion. Other times I just wake up and know it’ll be “one of those days.” Living with grief sometimes feels like living on a tightrope. Each day could go either way and it’s very difficult to preempt which way I’m going to fall. On the bad days, nothing changes. I wake up and go to work or get on with my daily routine. As a grown adult with two little people depending on me, I have no choice but to get through the day. The people I come across will have no idea I’m having a bad day because I’ve learnt to cover it up but inside, my head is full of anxieties and fears.

Some days my anxieties are ridiculous, and I know it, but it doesn’t make them any less real. I worry about the ironing pile that’s waiting for me at home, or panic that I’ve left the oven on. I’ll get a headache and panic that I’m dying or I’ll wake in the night and have to go and check my children are still breathing. Strangely, my biggest anxiety attacks often come after having a “good day.” I know in my heart of hearts that my parents would never ever want me to be miserable and yet I often find that I scold myself if I’ve had a happy day, or I’ve not cried for a few days. The guilt I feel that I’m somehow able to “live happily” without my parents is something I’m struggling to deal with.

I have a few big recurring fears that my anxiety likes to prey on. One is fear of my own mortality. I am absolutely terrified that my children will have to go through what I have gone through. As a parent you do everything you can to protect your child, yet death is something I cannot protect them from. One day they will have to experience loss, and the thought makes me feel physically sick. I worry how they’d cope without me. I worry about my husband and how he’d cope on his own. My heart aches every time someone comes to visit because I know my children will have to say goodbye to them at the end of their stay. I really struggle to find the right line between over protecting them and allowing them to grow into strong resilient little people.

Another fear I worry about every day is that I am losing the memories I have of my parents. I am so afraid I will forget the way mum smelt, or the way dad laughed. I can feel my memories are fading as my brain creates new ones. I find the harder I try to focus on finding memories, the less I remember.

Which leads me to my ultimate fear…that I won’t be able to sufficiently portray how much my mum adored my children. They brought so much joy to her and I don’t know how to explain it well enough to them. How can I adequately describe the desperation when she wasn’t allowed in the ICU to see them on the day they were born. The adoration on her face the first time she ever held them. The fact she couldn’t go shopping without coming home with new clothes for them. Her excitement when she won baby bundles on eBay. All the times she cuddled them, took them out on day trips, made them giggle uncontrollably. Or the times when I was tearing my hair out because their dinner was all over the walls/ceiling and she would just laugh and plonk them in the kitchen sink for a bath.

I am so afraid that I won’t do her justice. The worlds most besotted grandmother and they won’t even remember her.

I talk about “Nanny Kim and Grampi” all the time. They still remember them at this stage and recognise photos and videos but I know that eventually their memories will be manufactured by stories I’ve told them rather than their own memories.

Before she died, one of the only times I saw mum cry, was when she said “how will they remember me?” It was one of the only times that she showed her weakness. We talked so positively until the very end, but she knew they would forget her and when she said it, we both just broke down and cried together.

S & L’s minds are so innocent and pure at this stage. I struggle to explain death to them. One day they both decided that Nanny Kim and Grampi live on the moon, and that’s something we’ve gone with. Now when we see the moon they blow kisses and wave. Their innocence won’t last long but for now it makes things easier.. most of the time.

On my way to my “motherless daughters” grief group the other day, my daughter had this conversation with me.

S – Where you going mummy?

Me – I’m going out to talk to my friends about nanny Kim.

S – Nanny Kim.. cool.. can you ask her to buy me some new shoes.. these don’t fit anymore (shows me shoes mum bought her)

Me – I wish nanny Kim could buy you some new shoes but she’s a bit far away.

S – Aren’t you going to the moon mummy?

Me – No baby

S – Can’t you put on your wings and fly to the moon and get my new shoes from nanny Kim mummy?

My heart broke and smiled all at once. If only it was that easy.

If you’ve lost your mum or dad, I’d love to hear how you keep them alive in your children’s memories. Do you struggle to do them justice too? Do you have photos around your house or routines that help them remember and recognise their grandparents importance?

I’ve never really opened up about my fears and anxiety to anyone other than my closest friends and family, so this is quite a big thing for me. It is so important to understand and recognise that our mental health and well being is as important, if not more so, than our physical health.

As I’ve said before, talking openly about our grief and how it affects us both mentally and physically will help remove the stigma and will help make life so much more bearable for those who are suffering.

Our mental health matters.

One thought on “Mental Health Matters – Living with Anxiety after Grief”

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