Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and Saturday night as I made preparations to celebrate the following day with my wonderful mom I found myself thinking back to Mother’s Day of last year. We had a big celebration with the entire extended family on my mom’s side -- each of her five siblings, most of their spouses, their children (my cousins), and even their children were there. We gathered around a long, long table in one of my grandmother’s favorite restaurants in Greensboro, North Carolina, and showered my Gram with cards and gifts and -- her favorite, I suspect -- a lot of hugs, kisses and family time with her kids, grandkids and great-grands.
Without context, this sounds like the kind of Mother’s Day memory that should make anyone smile; and yet, as I reminisced while driving home from dinner with my husband Saturday night, I caught tears running down my cheeks. I couldn’t make them stop.
The context is this: my grandfather, the patriarch of a family of six children, the husband of my grandmother for 65 years, had passed away in March 2015, and we held his memorial service on Mother’s Day weekend of that year. We celebrated my grandmother that weekend after we mourned her husband; and to say that “the whole family” was there is a half-truth, because my Papa was not there, and we felt his absence like none other (even and especially, perhaps, when the check came and he was not there to fight doggedly to take it away from my aunts and uncles).
And, for more context: in March of this year, my beautiful, strong, sarcastic and loving grandmother passed away as well. That giant family Mother’s Day lunch we all celebrated a year ago was to be her last. Mother of six, grandmother of 13, great-grandmother of 13 (I think? And with more on the way, and one already named in her honor): gone from us, with no warning. My mother, who was visiting, said goodbye to her mom at 9:00 in the evening and watched Gram make her way to the great hall of the retirement home to “say hey to the girls playing dominoes.” By the time my mom arrived to pick her up late the next morning, Gram had been found, quietly passed on, sitting in her recliner. There was still an indent on her pillow from having slept in her bed the night before.
At one point during the aftermath of my grandmother’s death, my brother asked how I was doing and I told him the truth: “Well… I guess I would say that grieving on top of having depression is like a pretty big kick in the crotch.” I stand by that description still. I told him I felt like I was wading through cement, like every tiny action of daily life took an enormous amount of energy to complete. What I didn’t tell him is that some days it felt less like wading and more like drowning.
Grieving while depressed is, I think, its own special kind of misery. You are already a person who, as my college therapist described it, “tends toward the melancholy” -- or more accurately put, who experiences chemical imbalances that cause you to feel sad, tired, empty, apathetic. Add to that a life-changing event, a loss that most mentally healthy people find difficult, or painful, or maybe even soul-crushingly awful, and it’s no wonder you begin to feel that you are drowning under the weight of grief and emptiness and loss. I try not to use any of these words lightly -- I don’t want them to lose their meaning -- but in the months following Gram’s death I really found myself fighting desperately to crawl out from under the weight that was pressing down on my heart and my mind. I certainly grieved when I lost my grandfather the previous year; but he had been sick and weak for a long while, and his hearty, soul-warming laugh had been absent for so long, that I had a chance to come to terms with losing him and I was able to say goodbye. This -- this sudden phone call from my mother, her quiet words: “Gram is… gone,” this sudden emptiness in a part of my life that had been so joyously full of love and support and gratitude: how was I supposed to cope with this?
I looked at pictures. I spoke at her memorial service. I reminisced with my husband, my brother and parents, my cousins; I did all of the right grieving things. I knew she was no longer suffering -- from skin cancer, from diabetes, from arthritis, from the depression that I think she too experienced during parts of her life -- but I could not make my own pain and sadness abate. I missed her; I wished I had visited her sooner (I had planned for this coming summer); thinking of losing her made me miss my grandfather terribly, all over again. I remember crying in my therapist’s office, telling her how bad my depression had gotten. I had been doing better over the past couple of months, but now I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t want to work. I was cancelling plans, avoiding seeing people I loved, trying so hard to climb out of the pit of despair I felt I was in, I told her, “and I just don’t know what else there is to do.”
While I believe I had gone through my five stages of grief and accepted that she was gone, really gone, and without a goodbye, I was still desperate for help recovering from this loss. When my therapist offered to add a prescription for Abilify to my current medication to help me “for a few weeks,” I eagerly accepted. But the medication didn’t help, and the side effects were, for me, intolerable. I stopped taking it as soon as I could and, slowly, in my own time, I began to come to terms with having lost two people who had shaped my life so deeply and meaningfully. I was able to feel more gratitude than sadness. I still waded my way through the cement of depression during that time, and some days I still do, but I’m going to choose to feel thankful that I am able to feel enough to grieve, rather than feeling completely empty of emotion. I’m going to make my way through the muck of grief with depression and try to be glad, because my depression will not take away my ability to grieve the people I have loved so profoundly. My mental illness may have taken many things from me, but it will not take that.