I have had a mental illness for more than half my life, and have experienced many of the losses that go along with it.  For a long time I grieved profoundly the alteration of my sense of self, the loss of my livelihood, and of the possibility of a better future ahead. 

Roy Ellis, Bereavement Coordinator for Capital Health Palliative Care, says, “Grief is just an expression of our love for the thing lost....it’s reaching out for the thing loved and not finding it.”  Grief, says Ellis, is a natural response to loss, and there is no right way to grieve, just as there is no right way to be happy. Many men, for example, may work harder, attend to other tasks with greater gusto than usual, and see their grief as a private thing.

Ellis does not view the variations in the way people grieve as pathological.  However, he does see society’s attitude to mental illness, and the losses that occur, as problematic when it comes to grieving.

If someone dies of cancer, Ellis says, people know what to do. “People gather around for support, they make lasagna, make some calls.”  But the losses experienced because of mental illness are “often disenfranchised.” If grief can be seen as a kind of pressure, then society doesn’t have a mechanism to allow for the venting of that pressure.

People living with a mental illness often grieve their losses privately.

“People don’t get recognized,” Ellis says. ”They don’t have a community. A community of professionals is not enough.”
People living with a mental illness often grieve their losses privately; they withdraw because they feel abandoned and rejected. The danger, says Ellis, is that this withdrawal can lead to denial of feelings and even the exacerbation of symptoms of mental illness.

The body will find a way to cope. Grief might be expressed as anxiety, emptiness and sadness.  The real tragedy, says Ellis, is for society, which has missed out on the “deeper, richer human experience” of recognizing and supporting some of its most vulnerable members.

Ellis spent several years as the spiritual care clinician at the Nova Scotia Hospital, and has seen plenty of grief, both from people living with mental illness and their families. But the brain, he says, is resilient.

“Stay with it, know that it will pass,” he advises those who are dealing with loss.

And know that the feelings of grief you experience today are the wisdom you will carry with you tomorrow.

About Anna Quon

Anna is an accomplished freelance/creative writer and writing workshop facilitator. She lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  She is passionate about many things, especially writing. It is through her writing, and her volunteer work with community organizations, that Anna honours the lives of people who, like her, are living with mental illness.

In 2008, Anna received the Inspiring Lives Award from the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. In 2009, Anna published her first novel titled Migration Songs which was short listed for the Dartmouth Book Award.

Visit Anna's website.