When we think of grief, we often think of the exact definition according to google: “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.” Another thing that comes to mind is probably the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And while this is a significant aspect of grief and the meaning of the word. We can also use suffering to describe other situations in life that don’t have to do specifically with death.
Sometimes, when we talk about grief, we just mean loss. There is a lot in life that we lose as we live. Overcoming these adversities can be challenging, especially for someone with a mental illness. Many who are diagnosed with a mental health issue or face something traumatic in their life feel internal grief. The grief of a past self or a past life is also a valid form of loss. We can grieve who we used to be, who we thought we’d be, and who we were with the person we lost. Grief is complex.
In my personal experience, grief is multi-faceted. It doesn’t just mean one thing. With a loved one’s death, I placed my life into “before” and “after” spaces. I did, and still am, grieving the person I was when my loved one was alive. I also miss the life I had then, where this deep ache of longing wasn’t something that came naturally to me.
When you experience the loss of someone close to you, everything changes. Especially yourself. You lose parts of yourself and your identity you didn’t expect. It is OK to grieve this along with your person. I am also mourning the woman that was a college student, that wasn’t mentally ill, and that believed in herself. While I am grieving literally, the grief of who I was is just as real and valid.
Grief doesn’t have to be about losing someone. It can also come from life experiences. Maybe you are in a different career than you imagined as a high school student. Perhaps you have lost touch with your childhood friends and no longer have people to talk to about the simple times. Maybe you just lost a job you loved or became a parent or partner. Or perhaps you just sold your house and moved out of a neighborhood where you spent meaningful years.
While you are gaining things here, you also have to say goodbye to the version of yourself that was independent and single. It is OK to grieve in the happy moments too. Change is a part of life, but it can still be challenging to adjust to or overcome certain things. Sometimes, mentally ill people grieve who they are before they begin experiencing signs of anxiety or depression. Or even other diagnoses that sometimes alter someone’s further.
Living with a mental health struggle often feels like it consumes your entire identity. You probably will grieve who you were before the accident, assault, or diagnosis. Because you undoubtedly have changed either physically or emotionally from all you have overcome.
While it is essential to face and acknowledge your grief and what has manifested it, you also want to find a way to move forward with your new self. Just because you have changed and life is different doesn’t mean that it is less worthy and less of yourself. You are still a human being who deserves love and kindness, most importantly, from your own body.
Find new parts of yourself that feel like home. Embrace how you have grown, even if that growth came with pains. Find a new hobby or new identity to embrace. Discovering new joys can be as simple as meeting someone’s friend, adopting a dog, or finding a new show to binge-watch.
Your identity is not one singular thing. You are a person full of complexities, and naturally, you will grieve many versions of yourself. As we age, we change and grow. We lose touch with people and form new identities. We discover new pieces of ourselves that we both like and dislike. Maybe you are no longer that straight-A student or a healthy individual–but you are still you.
While identifiers are essential, you also need to cut yourself some slack and realize that you are the one that is identifying yourself. You can grieve the past and the person you were in it, but try not to stay there. Try to embrace the person that survived that past and has come out the other end with something to say. You may no longer be the person you were before, but you are still a person that has this life to live and your time on this earth is just as precious and vital as ever.