‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.’
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Loss and mental health is something that people often ask me about: how does it impact? What help is available? Does it get better? I’ve researched academic articles and reflected on my own work and personal experiences and all I can say reliably is yes it does. But as with everything in life after loss, it is complex and completely individual.
Grief in itself is not a mental health problem (i.e. a diagnosable one) yet it impacts on our mental wellbeing considerably. It is a normal reaction to a painful, sometimes traumatic, event. A response that reflects the loss of someone or something meaningful. Someone we loved. Someone we will miss infinitely. We wouldn’t want to pathologise what is part of the human condition; to label it and to find ways in which to eradicate it. Grief is part of life and living as much as it is a response to death and dying.
Yet I had no idea that grief would feel so much like fear. Terror. Crippling anxiety that robbed a part of me that I thought was permanent and unbreakable. I had no idea that it would make me fearful of being alone whilst also scared of people. I didn’t comprehend how my stomach would knot, how I would struggle to look into someone’s eye and how I would become a prisoner within my own home. I did not know that it would make me fearful of everyone around me dying and the need to check that they were okay. Again. And again.
Grief slowed everything down and sped everything up at the same time. Noises were louder. Lights were brighter. The ability to concentrate on two things at once evaporated. My physical self was shutting down when what it wanted to do was stand in the middle of the road and scream ‘my baby died’. I walked with invisible blinkers that protected me from the perceived threats in my periphery. I felt heavy under the weight of the metaphorical bereaved mother sign that I carried.
In many ways, grief mimics depression. It has similar symptoms, similar physical and cognitive responses. Until very recently, grief was an exclusion criteria for the diagnosis of depression, the rationale being that we should not diagnose what is a normal and expected response. But at what point does one shift into another? When can we say that someone needs more than time and space to process and learn to carry their pain? This is a question that is still often debated within services.
And when we consider baby loss, there is almost always an element of trauma involved. The unexpectedness. The physical nature of loss. The cruel and devastating decisions that are made. Trauma is an anxiety based event. PTSD is an anxiety disorder; trauma and anxiety go hand in hand. And therefore baby loss, trauma and anxiety are intrinsically linked.
Trauma can alter your sense of self and of the world. What was once safe and predictable becomes unsafe and terrifying. Or maybe we have always seen the world as unsafe; that bad things always happen to us and this just further confirms it. We bring our own baggage and our own personalities to the table when it comes to loss and no two people will respond in the same way. There will be as many differences as there will be commonalities. Maybe we have always been anxious and this just amplifies it. Maybe we were once fearless, but now overwhelmed with fear. Or maybe we feel stronger, because the worst has happened and we are still standing.
It is also important to remember that none of us exist in isolation. We are part of a system of family, friends or colleagues. We may belong to a spiritual or cultural community that can hold some of our pain for us. Or maybe they cannot. Yet we are not made to do this alone, and the support that surrounds us can make or break our experience of loss and grief and our mental health as a result. Resilience is not an individual matter and we should not treat it as though it is.
I am aware that this post has not given the subject matter the justice it deserves. But for Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I just wanted to say that baby loss and mental health and wellbeing are intrinsically linked. That your mental health matters whether or not your baby survived. And although finding the support you need may not be straightforward, never suffer in silence or alone. You may have to shout louder and for longer. Just don’t stop until you’re heard.