Welcome to the beautiful Grief Islands where your stay is long and unpredictable!
I’ve been leaving the house more and doing social things with other humans. I believe this is a really healthy thing to do. The trouble with being social is that people assume I’ve made a successful journey back to the Mainland of Sanity. They tell me that I’m doing really well or that it’s good to see me happy. And it’s really hard to explain to them that I still live full time in the Grief Islands. Being social is just a quick trip to Pretendland and, as soon as they leave, I’ll be heading back over to the Republic of Reality.
Pretendland is the most desirable place to be. While here, you basically pretend that nothing bad has happened and you can socialise, drink tea and be merry. The light is brighter here, the colours saturated and everything seems to be similar to how it was before he died. You can even pretend that you are that person you used to be: happy, carefree, content.
You can get a lot done while you’re in Pretendland. While here I like to knit socks, drink tea, play some piano, walk along the beach, sing along to music … basically do all the things that I would usually enjoy. It is possible to stay here for long periods of time. You just have to keep lining up the social activities. Much like those people that continually travel the globe season to season, living out an endless summer. I’ve actually attempted that: one most ambitious Saturday, I enjoyed breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper with six different friends (one at a time) in six different locations. That was supremely fabulous. And it’s just as fabulous with one person: recently I spent a whole day with a friend making pancakes, crafting, talking and listening to musicals. We sat in her living room while the sun poured through the windows, refracted through a hanging crystal and formed little rainbows throughout the room. And it was a really nice day. I could have stayed in that day for a whole week.
One of the positives of Pretendland is that you can talk openly about the grief without being affected by it. You can ask me absolutely anything about how he died, how it affects me and how I cope with it. I feel absolutely no emotional connection to it at all. The huge downside is that I feel no emotional connection to anything whatsoever. I don’t truly enjoy the fun activities. I don’t feel the heat of the warm sun. The colours are false. It’s not exactly that I’m faking it when I’m around people. It’s just that being this numb is the only way I can function. It would be easy to see me in Pretendland and think that I’m coping really well. But that’s only because you never see me on any of the other islands. Of all the islands, it’s the nice one to visit. But that’s kinda all it is: ‘nice’. It’s not happy. It’s not really any of the feels. It would be easier to just stay in Pretendland and never have to deal with what’s happened. But I can’t live an endless summer. I have to leave sooner or later. And if I try to stay for too long, I run the risk of slipping into Dissocia.
Dissocia is a close neighbour of Pretendland. It’s essentially the place you end up when you’ve been pretending for a little bit too long. On the outside you’re the happy, carefree, content Pretendland-person everyone likes spending time with. But on the inside you feel completely detached or dissociated from everyone around you. You smile and nod on the outside, but internally you just can’t relate to any of the humans you’re in conversation with. While here I spend much of my time trying to make my facial expressions and vocal tone match the emotion I think is appropriate to the conversation.
I find that I slip seamlessly from being in Pretendland to being in Dissocia when people start talking about things that seem insignificant compared to the intensity of my grief. It’s not that they talk about trivial things, I actually find that trivial topics can be really safe things to talk about. But it’s when people trivialize death around me. When they say things like “if I had a tattoo like that I’d kill myself” or “what he said was so shocking, like a bullet to the brain” or “why doesn’t she just go slit her wrists”. I can’t deal with that. I get that we use hyperbole in common speech all the time. But some of these just seem so unnecessary when they’re said to me. So thoughtless. So callous. But I get that they slip out. I’m sure I’ve said similar things in my time.
What’s worse is when people start trying to compare my grief to things they’re experienced. Like they understand what I’m going through because their pet died a while ago. I get that people are just trying to find a point of reference. One of the ways we try to relate to one another is by thinking of similar things we’ve experienced ourselves. Grief of any kind is hard. Losing a pet is sad. A relationship breaking up is sad. A celebrity you’ve never met’s death is sad. But these things are not the same as what I’m going through. Not even a little bit close.
I’m not saying that you can’t talk about your smart phone. I can even show you mine: it’s so bad that the glass has fallen off and you can see it’s inner-workings. Just don’t compare it to that time when my brother died. Comparisons are never good. Even with people who have been through massive grief and loss, it’s not a competition. Not one that anyone wins anyway. It’s very isolating to feel like you can’t relate to people anymore. I try not to stay here too long. But I find myself here unexpectedly. It’s not an island you set out to visit–but take a wrong turn and you’ll find yourself here again and again.
The Republic of Reality
This is the island of sad, stark reality where my brother is most definitely dead. And I most definitely have to deal with it. This is the place I come back to after I leave Pretendland. It’s the place I find myself in when I wake up in the mornings. It’s the island I sleep on when I go to bed at night. There’s a cold reality to how bad the depression gets. There’s a misconception that grief just boils down to a whole lot of sadness. Like if I could just remember the happy times with my brother rather than dwell on the loss that I’d feel a lot better. Or that grief is a state that I’ll come out of sometime soon and I’ll see the sunshine and things will be ok like they used to be.
It’s not glamorous. It’s not a little cloud. It’s not just sadness. It’s misery, guilt, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, fear, panic. All of the things. It’s a complete loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities. It’s that black feeling. It’s that feeling that something is profoundly wrong and it will never be put right again.
I can’t explain this place to you. If you don’t know it, I don’t want to take you there. I’m happy for you to not understand. I wouldn’t want you to understand. You just have to trust me that it’s dark there and I spend a whole lot of my time there against my will. I don’t choose to be here. But the waters around this island are deep, muddy and treacherous. I’m wading my way out and holding onto all the lifebuoys I can reach (i.e. counselling, support, etc). But I’ll be here for a while yet. When I’m not slipping into Catatonia.
Reality is exhausting. Depression is exhausting. Eventually I get so tired of being so goddamn sad that I just zone out completely into something of a catatonic state. I spent the first 3 months after he died in shock on this island. And I still spend days at a time here. On this island you sleep at least 12 hours a night. Wake up after midday and move to the lounge, still in your pyjamas. You watch a whole season of a tv show on your laptop. You live on whatever food you can microwave. For those first 3 months it was just crackers and iced tea. I’m glad I can at least work the microwave again now. Between episodes you can take a break to stare at the wall for a while. Or watch the cat while she looks out the window at the birds. It’s just another version of the numbness. There’s an unsettling pleasantness to just not feeling anything.
It’s another bad place to stay. You start to not care about anything. You don’t eat properly. You stop showering. You never leave the house. You stay up so late watching tv that you become almost completely nocturnal. I stayed up so late one night I only just managed to slip into bed 10min before my partner’s alarm went off for work. I really don’t recommend a holiday here. But sometimes it’s the only reprieve from Reality. I just try to keep it to a short stay.
The Mainland of Sanity
I guess this is the place I’m trying to get to. I don’t really know what it looks like or how to get there. But I’m sure it exists for me.
The Grief Islands are pretty bleak, each in their own way. But I think the secret is not to try desperately to swim away from them, but to understand why they are so separated. Why am I unable to be sad when I’m out with people? What are the prompts that force me over to Dissocia? At what point do I slip from depression into Catatonia? I know that I can’t run away to Pretendland, but I think that part of sanity is spending more time there in a genuine, emotionally-aware state. And while the Republic of Reality is completely necessary (I shouldn’t just try to just forget that my brother died and live in denial), I need to find a way to deal with reality without staying in my depression. I think once you reunite the islands, you’ll find that the Mainland of Sanity is made up of those separated lands. It’s just that everything is so fractured that you can’t deal with all of the feels at the same time. And you need to be able to escape to the different islands to separate out the moments of denial (Pretendland), detachment (Dissocia), depression (Reality) and despair (Catatonia).
Hope you enjoyed your island tour. Here’s your complimentary kitty.