About 6 1/2 years ago I lost someone very important to me: My brother-in-law. We were incredibly close and his death was a profound shock to my system. I remember the night it happened vividly: The normal day, the racing to the hospital in the middle of the night, seeing my oldest sister’s reaction, receiving the news, and the aftermath. Basically that same day I shut down a lot of my emotions. I didn’t do it on purpose but I was suddenly trying to be strong and I was acting chipper and upbeat, doing whatever I could for other people. My twin told me at the time to “Stop it!” That I had to “Let myself feel.” I got angry and told her that I didn’t know how.
Things were different after that. That’s when my depression really became noticeable or maybe that’s what sparked it. I don’t know if there’s a way to know for sure. What I do know is I spent the next several years being told by multiple people, including a therapist or two, that I didn’t seem to have accepted his death and dealt with the grieving process. I let their opinions affect me and soon I believed it myself. I believed that I never grieved “properly.”
Now is when I call bullshit. (In the nicest way possible.)
I’ve spent the last month or so going over Radical Acceptance with my current therapist, in part because I told her I didn’t think I ever really accepted/dealt with my brother-in-law’s death. But, in going over the Radical Acceptance skill, I found myself wanting to share a few things with her. Things that I had made in the past. Right after he died, I went through all my journals (I’m an avid journaler) and pulled out every reference that I had of him. There were a lot. I then took picture-sized pieces of cardstock and cut them up or painted them or drew on them and then wrote out each entry. It took hours. I put them together in a very colorful photo album. That’s where my grieving process started. I recognize that now. I just dealt with it in my own way. A creative way. Because that’s how I could process it.
That’s also when I started getting into art. That same week I pulled out some photos that I had of him and I started drawing. I drew photo after photo — I have at least five different ones that I drew. Then I joined a grief group in college, where I wrote out a couple short letters to him and wrote/”drew” out my feelings with Sharpies. In bold strokes I wrote/drew out words like “WHY?” and “Who can I blame?” and “Gone forever.” Looking back at it now, it’s obvious that I was feeling a lot of emotions. Anger, sadness, emptiness. I drew another piece of artwork where I drew a hunched over figure on the ground, surrounded by darkness and words written in white saying, “Why Why Why Why Why?” and “Lost” and “Alone.” In all these ways I expressed my grief. This was during my Sophomore year of college, but even 2 1/2 years later, during my final semester of college, I was still dealing with it. I gathered all of these art pieces together, took apart my photo album and created a section in a scrapbook talking about his loss and how deeply it affected me.
Am I still affected now? Yes. I seem to struggle to connect emotionally with people around me and going to other funerals tends to make me shut down a bit. But I have learned recently that I have been grieving all this time and that my process, while it may be different, is no less valid than anyone else’s. It just took me a while to see it and to realize that just because someone (or multiple someones) told me I wasn’t grieving, that doesn’t make it true. Everyone’s grieving process and timeframe is different.