In a previous article, one reader shared her “dark night of the soul”. In this article, another reader, professional writer, and good friend of mine, shares hers. From personal experience, and having known Maryanne since her husband John’s death, I am here to tell you she is one of the most resilient, wise, and loving people I have ever met in my entire life. She had taught me, and so many others about overcoming a tragic loss and rebuilding a life based on meaning and purpose.
Mind Your Grief: When a Traumatic Event Leads to Mental Health Issues
My experience with mental health issues was the result of a traumatic event. In September 2000, my police officer husband, John, died in the line of duty. He was investigating a break and enter complaint at a warehouse when he stepped through an unmarked false ceiling, fell nine feet into the lunchroom below, hit his head and succumbed to brain injuries. There was no safety railing in place to warn him – or anyone else – of the danger. There ended up being no intruder in the building; it was a false alarm.
We were both 32 at the time. In hindsight, I would say that most of my grieving process was normal and healthy, considering the circumstances. In the hours, days, weeks and months following John’s sudden death, I experienced shock, disbelief, sorrow, fear, anger, regret, self-pity, confusion, denial, feeling overwhelmed and so on.
I began to get concerned about my mental health, however, when my mind started to create fantasies about the reality – and finality – of John’s death. As the full extent of my loss began to sink in, the emotional pain simply became too much to bear, so I suspect my mind began to seek – and find – alternative explanations for his death. A simple missing safety railing wasn’t going to suffice in terms of me accepting the end of John’s life. There hadto be a bigger reason…a Divine one.
There isn’t the space in this article to discuss the details of my “Divine Revelation” or how it came about. What matters is that my fantastical idea (that stemmed from a Christian belief) served to isolate me from the very people trying to support me. I felt like I was going crazy – but I was too embarrassed and ashamed of my bizarre thoughts to share them.
Nor did I want to tell anyone what I was reallythinking in the wake of John’s death because then I might be forced to admit it wasn’t true…and then I’d have to face the facts: John was dead, he wasn’t coming back, and I was a widow.
During the first few months after John’s death, the police psychologist kept close tabs on me, as did my family and close friends. The first time I called the police psychologist was after my brother found me curled up in a chair, rocking back and forth and shaking my head. I had become completely overwhelmed about something to do with the memorial fund that had been set up in John’s memory. I was beyond upset and didn’t know how to handle it.
The police psychologist talked me through it and I felt better. At the end of our conversation, he said he had to ask me, for ethical reasons, if I was having any thoughts of taking my own life. I was puzzled by this question. I mean I understood whyhe was asking it – but suicide had not crossed my mind.
A month later, my fantastical religious idea had blossomed into a full-blown belief, so I went to see the police psychologist in his office. But I couldn’t share my thoughts with him because I was too embarrassed. He could tell I was holding something significant back and cautioned me that it was okay not to talk to him – but imperative that I talk to someone about it.
I decided to share my innermost thoughts with my best friend. She listened without judgement and I did feel much better, getting that off my chest. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t yet ready to let go of my religious beliefs…because to do so would force me to accept that John’s death was a simple case of cause and effect: no safety railing, no husband. In other words, even though I had shared my thoughts, that didn’t mean I no longer believed them.
Instead, it was the birth of John’s niece (three months after his death) that forced me to accept the fact that John was dead, he wasn’t coming back, we were not going to have a family together, and I was on my own. In hindsight, I was headed for the dark night of the soul.
After leaving the hospital (where I had seen the baby), I went home and promptly had a mental breakdown. I hit rock bottom. And wouldn’t you know it, as I sat staring at the fireplace, finallyaccepting the reality of John’s death, the idea of taking my own life suddenly bubbled to the surface. But here’s the terrifying thing: I hadn’t had a single suicidal thought prior to that moment, it just appeared out of the blue as a viable option…a way out of the pain.
We’ve all heard it said that “suicide is selfish.” That may be the case but in my personal experience, I was in so much emotional and psychological pain that the impact of my death on my loved ones simply wasn’t on my radar at that point. All I wanted was to feel better…or nothing at all.
And here’s the other terrifying thing: although my phone was ringing off the hook that night because family and friends were concerned about me, I was past the point of wanting help. I just wanted to be out of the pain, so eloquently labeled “grief”.
I obviously didn’t take my life that night. I somehow survived the dark night of the soul. And when I woke up the next morning, I made a promise to myself: that I would neverlet my thoughts get so out of control again. And then I began the long, difficult road back to becoming an emotionally and psychologically healthy – and happy – person again.
I didn’t see the police psychologist (or any other counselor) again. Nor did I join a grief group. Instead, I confided in my best friend on a regular basis, as well as talked to other friends and family members. I wrote a book (A Widow’s Awakening), about my first year of grief, which really helped me process my thoughts and feelings. I worked with the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund (a charity that raises public awareness about why and how to ensure workplaces are safe for everyone, including first responders). I walked my dogs every day. I took a dance class. I took yoga. I watched funny movies. I did whatever it took to make me feel better, moment by moment.
Now that 18 years have passed, I have learned that healing after a significant loss takes time and effort, patience and compassion. My personal experience has demonstrated that grief, loss and mental health challenges have much to teach us about life…even though we may be kicking and screaming our way through many of the lessons.
When we lose someone we love very much, we are forced to accept the unacceptable…and find our own new path forward. This is not an easy process nor a quick one. And sometimes when the difficult emotions become too intense to cope with, our mind takes over. The key is to be able to recognize when we need help…and to ask for it.
For people who are experiencing mental health issues as the result of grief, I would encourage you to find someone – personal or professional – to talk to about what you are reallythinking and feeling. We cannot grieve alone.
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening, the playwright of Saviour and the screenwriter of God’s Country. She is the executive producer of the documentary, Whatever Floats Your Boat…Perspectives on Motherhood. Maryanne is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. If you would like to receive her weekly blog, please sign up here. Maryanne lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.