How do we make someone with a mental illness feel seen and supported?
Through On a Dragonfly’s Wings, I post almost daily on FB and IG resources, tools, best things to say, what not to say, motivation and support, love, and as much information as I can to educate those of us in a support role and those who are struggling.
It’s just not enough.
I have a friend who struggles every day of her life to get out of bed, to put one foot in front of the other, to keep going day after day. And even with all that I know, it’s not enough.
I love her beyond the stars and back and I don’t know how to help her.
That’s the thing about mental illness, no matter what we say to the hurting person, their brain will tell them the opposite. We know all those things are awful, but to the person struggling, it’s their truth.
Nikolai used to say all the time how stupid he was. No matter how many bazillion times we told him he was so smart, he just didn’t believe us.
The Real Depression Project recently posted some of the best things to say to someone struggling with mental illness:
1. Your mental illness does not define you.
2. You are strong for fighting an invisible illness 24/7, 365.
3. Your struggle doesn’t make you weak.
4. If all you do is survive your dark days, that’s enough.
5. Don’t feel guilty for resting – it’s essential for your well-being.
I’m pretty sure I’ve said all of these statements to one person or another, including Nikolai, including my dear friend. It’s not enough.
I have zero answers.
Today my heart just hurts so badly for those who live in a mind that speaks lies to them.
Words don’t seem to matter today. All I can do is wrap her up in more love than I can almost bear and pray that it is enough.
Join me today in praying for all those who can’t see their worth, who struggle with thoughts of suicide. Please God cover them in light and love.
Let’s talk about things you shouldn’t say to a grieving parent after their child has died.
Someone recently said to me, “At least you have two other children and now a grandchild.” Yes, you are right, I am incredibly blessed, beyond blessed. However, it would sure be nice to still have my other son here. Their presence does not somehow mitigate my loss.
I know this person wasn’t saying this to intentionally be mean or hurtful. Grief is awkward and I think sometimes people just don’t know what to say so they say really dumb things. Here’s the biggest piece of advice I can give to you: hug the grieving person and simply say, “I don’t know what to say, just know that I love you.”
See how easy that was? There’s no need to try and fill the space with anything else. I don’t want your advice. I don’t want to hear “he’s in a better place”, “thank goodness you have other children”, “at least you know he’s in heaven”, “you have a guardian angel”, “God has a plan”.
When talking to a grieving parent, if you start any sentence with “at least”, don’t finish it. You are already telling the person that your child’s life didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Don’t ask “how are you?” UGH. I’ve written on this at least a gazillion times. How the heck do you think I am? I lost my child. How would you be feeling? Maybe say instead, “I know this is a really tough time for you right now.”
“I know how you feel.” Really? Even if you have lost a child of your own, everyone grieves differently. You have absolutely no idea how I’m feeling and it’s shameful to say that you do. Claiming that you somehow know how I feel is invalidating.
“Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” Asking for help is incredibly brave and it takes humans immense amounts of courage to ask for help, let alone a grieving parent who at this point is just trying to get out of bed every day, much less even know what to ask for. The night Nikolai died, I texted one of my best friends in the whole world. As we pulled into our driveway after leaving the hospital that night, she was already there waiting. She sat with me, let me cry, and then promptly went upstairs to change sheets on beds for guests she knew would be coming to my home. She picked up and cleaned. My mom and my sister came that same night. My sister, in her own grief, went to the grocery store in the wee hours of the morning and bought food for our home and her and my mom made our family and guest’s breakfast. These moments of action not words meant the world to me, and it still brings tears to my eyes remembering all that was done for us in those immediate moments. When you are in the immediate stages of grief, doing laundry, running the vacuum, and getting groceries are tasks that take immense energy to even think of doing. Instead of asking what you can do, just tell the grieving person what you will do for them. It’s simply a change from words to action that make all the difference here.
“You’re handling this better than I thought you would.” Gah. Just stop it. People put up fronts for others every single day. Would you rather I drop to my knees and sob and scream? I could and probably should, but I’m putting on a brave face to save YOU from the awkwardness. Again, you have absolutely no idea how I’m feeling or how I’m handling the death of my child – how dare you presume anything.
And for the love of all that is holy, do not choose to not say anything. This is almost worse than anything else you could say. By not saying anything, by not acknowledging the loss, you are telling the grieving person that you don’t matter, that your loss doesn’t matter, the life that was lost didn’t matter. I am here to tell you that Nikolai mattered. He had a whole lot of people that loved him and wishes he were still here. I know that it’s awkward and you don’t know what to say but saying nothing… it’s just not cool. A simple card, text or email that acknowledges the death and simply says “I have no words, just know that I am thinking about you,” speaks volumes to the grieving person.
When someone you care about is grieving, it is human nature to try to comfort them and help ease their pain. However, sometimes our good intentions can be more harmful than helpful, particularly the things we often say with the intention to make them feel better.
A large part of the problem is our own discomfort with grief and not knowing how to speak to someone who is grieving. Instinctively, we try to “fix” the hurt and make the pain go away. However, grief is a necessary process that cannot, and should not, be dusted under the rug so that the grieving person can feel good again. Grief sucks. Don’t make it worse by saying something ridiculous to make yourself feel better. If you want to support someone who is grieving, choose words that convey love and care, rather than offering advice and wisdom.
This information is provided by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I have simply copied and pasted here one of their documents available to the public. If you are a suicide survivor, I urge you to read through this.
You Are Not Alone If you have lost someone to suicide, the first thing you should know is that you are not alone. Each year over 30,000 people in the United States die by suicide, and it is the second-leading cause of death for college-aged students. The devastated family and friends they leave behind are known as “survivors.” There are millions of survivors who, like you, are trying to cope with this heartbreaking loss. Survivors often experience a wide range of grief reactions, including some or all of the following:
Shock is a common immediate reaction. You may feel numb or disoriented, and may have trouble concentrating.
Symptoms of temporary depression, including disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, intense sadness, and lack of energy.
Anger towards the deceased, others, or yourself.
Guilt, including thinking, “If only I had….”
These feelings usually diminish over time, as you develop your ability to cope and begin to heal.
Why Did This Happen? Many survivors struggle to understand the reasons for the suicide, asking themselves over and over again: “Why?” Many replay the individual’s last days, searching for clues, particularly if they didn’t see any signs that suicide was imminent.
Because suicide is often poorly understood, some survivors feel unfairly victimized by stigma. They may feel the suicide is somehow shameful, or that they, their family, or their friends are somehow to blame them for this tragedy.
Try to bear in mind that suicide is almost always complicated, resulting from a combination of painful suffering, desperate hopelessness and other complicated factors.
One learns to live with the loss, the tragedy, the waste, and the gaping hole in the fabric of one’s life. There is no closure, nor would I want one. I want to remember her all my life, vividly: her laughter, the smell of her perfume, her moments of joy, her humility, and her integrity.
Coping With Suicide Loss
Some survivors struggle with what to tell other people. Although you should make whatever decision feels right to you, most survivors have found it best to simply acknowledge that the individual died by suicide.
You may find that it helps to reach out to family and friends. Because some people may not know what to say, you may need to take the initiative to talk about the suicide, share your feelings, and ask for their help.
Even though it may seem difficult, maintaining contact with other people is especially important during the stress-filled months after a suicide.
Keep in mind that each person grieves in his or her own way. Some people visit the cemetery; others find it too painful to go at all. However, some form of grieving is a basic human need for the healing process.
Each person also grieves at his or her own pace; there is no set rhythm or timeline for healing.
Anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays may be especially difficult, so you might want to think about whether to continue old traditions or create some new ones. You may also experience unexpected waves of sadness; these are a normal part of the grieving process.
Some survivors find comfort in community, religious, or spiritual activities, including talking to a trusted member of the clergy or a counselor.
Be kind to yourself. When you feel ready, begin to go on with your life. Eventually starting to enjoy life again is not a betrayal of the individual, but rather a sign that you’ve begun to heal.
For more information about survivors of suicide you can contact The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This organization reaches out to survivors with two goals in mind: to offer the support that is so vital, particularly to the newly bereaved, and the opportunities for survivors looking to get involved in prevention and advocacy. Their website is: http://www.afsp.org/
I was listening to a podcast recently and the guest speaker, Lori Gottlieb, said this, “Part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself. To let go of those limiting stories that you’ve been telling yourself about yourself so you can live your life and not the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.”
I feel this quote in my soul. This process of getting to unknow myself began the day Nikolai died. When your child takes his own life, you can’t help but to evaluate your own story. What kind of parent was I? Was I the kind of person I really want to be? Could I have acted or done something different? What if I had just done this or just been this kind of parent/person, maybe things would have turned out differently. This is guilt talk telling me that I wasn’t good enough.
Over the course of several months after Nikolai’s death I felt more and more broken. Broken to my very core and guilt ravished my brain. And then I just started to get mad.
When I began the work with onadragonflyswings community, it quite literally stemmed from a guilt complex I just couldn’t let go of – that feeling of I was not enough for Nikolai and so I owe it to him to do this thing, to put myself out there and become very uncomfortable. Insert therapist here and I began the hard work of letting go of this self-loathing that was devouring me. At the same time, I started to really research, read and listen to everything I could get my hands on about mental health and suicide. I participated and spoke at several suicide prevention trainings. This is when I discovered that it wasn’t that I wasn’t enough, it was that I didn’t know enough. And, that my friends, is the shift in my story.
Stories are the way we make sense of our lives. The guilt I felt then is something I will continue to feel, possibly for the rest of my life; however, the heaviness of it is so much less now. This isn’t the story I want for my life and I’m sure that it isn’t the story that Nikolai would want for my life either.
Before Nikolai died, I set the first meeting for a book club called Girl Stop Apologizing (The GSA Club). This book club was made up of myself and six other women who all shared a passion for Rachel Hollis and her new book “Girl Stop Apologizing.” That first meeting was delayed for a couple of months until I felt the timing was right to get back to living. I wrote these six women into the first chapter of my healing and my transformation. And there isn’t a chapter in my story since that doesn’t include them and the power they have wielded to help me change who I am and realize who I want to be. They have shown me that I can choose to play the hero or the victim in my story. I will choose hero every day.
I am a changed person and I don’t mean that subtlety – I mean like a whole 365-degree change. I question everything. I try to view every person and situation with compassion and kindness. I thrive on my faith and my God. I have tightened my circle, yet at the same time completely opened it up. There is movement in my soul, and I love this person I am evolving into. This is my real story. This is the story I want to tell.
You choose your narrative. Make sure it’s the story you want to live.
“In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” – Dave Hollis
Have you really given this any thought – this return to normal and what it looks like to you? Are you going to jump back into “normal” with two feet? Are there things about the stay at home lockdown that you enjoyed and if so how are you going to incorporate those things into your life moving forward?
I have discovered a lot about myself in this lockdown period. I have been working from home since March 13. I was just told this week that I will be required to come back into the office to work on Monday. I have spent the better part of two days now crying, worrying and becoming more bitter by the minute because I realized a lot of somethings over the last 63 days of being at home… there isn’t any place I’d rather be than home, other than missing my friends, these people I share my house with are the people I want to spend all my time with, this puppy we got is the exact therapy I needed, these daily walks and out loud prayer have lifted my soul, and I’ve realized that my passion lies elsewhere. Going back to this daily office job is not my passion and I realized I’m dreading putting my all into something that doesn’t make my heart sing.
So today I have made the decision to quit crying and worrying and swallow the bitter pill. I have decided to take all that negative energy and turn it into a plan of action for my life and the things I am passionate about and the people that I love. What kind of impact do I want to have? What are my goals and dreams?
I don’t want to return to “normal”; although I would love to go to my local coffee shop on a Friday morning and hug all the people like the good ole days. I don’t want to return to the normal daily grind of working for someone else on their time and in their way, for their cause. My life was made for more. I think deep down, I knew that the day Nikolai died.
This quarantine has taught me quite a bit; however, what has really hit me square in the face is that the one thing that has affected ALL of us, yet been talked about the least, is mental health. I don’t think I am scientifically off when I say that more people have and will suffer from mental illness during this time than any physical ailment. I am not trying to be insensitive to those impacted by this virus (my husband had it), but at least we are talking about it. At least there are actions surrounding prevention, spread, cures. What about mental health? What have we put into place for those suffering from mental health?
This lockdown has brought most of us mentally to our knees at one point or another. Watching friends and even strangers struggle makes my heart hurt. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we are also on the brink of a mental health pandemic – neither of which we are equipped to handle.
A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 45% of U.S. adults said the pandemic has affected their mental health, with 19% saying it has had a major impact. A majority of Americans (57%) also said they were worried they could be exposed to COVID-19 since they couldn’t afford to miss work and therefore couldn’t stay home. (US News source)
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, roughly 1 in 5 Americans experienced a mental illness within a given year, with some 10 million adults having serious thoughts of suicide. And these are just the adult statistics. What about our kids and the affect this is having on them?
And while we are discounting and even eliminating insurance barriers and costs associated with physical health right now because of coronavirus, we aren’t making these same concessions for those suffering from mental health. Insurance coverage, or lack thereof, is the greatest barrier to most people seeking mental illness assistance. We need to take a hard look at providing lower cost options for people to find help and we must focus on both prevention and recovery, teaching people how to navigate through the different stages in their lives.
The teaching part is so important because it’s clear that we have all struggled this quarantine season. While we as humans are not equipped for lockdown or how to handle it – if we had the tools to navigate mentally through tough times, maybe, just maybe we could weather this storm better.
Because whether you are an essential worker, working from home, working from home and also teaching your kids, students, graduates, elderly, living home alone – whatever category you fall into, I see you. We have good days but we also have bad days. Those days when we feel like we just can’t do it anymore. We are at our wits end. We are lonely. We need human interaction. We need the world to not be so scary. We need empathy. We need kindness.
And so I ask again – what part of your new “normal” are you rushing back into? Has this quarantine changed you or the way you think? Has it given you a new perspective on life and who you want to be? I encourage you to take this time to find yourself. Find your passion. Be kind to yourself and to others.
And if you are struggling, please reach out for help.
I choose joy has become my daily mantra. Do I wake up every day feeling joyful? No. That is a hard and fast no. However, I get up, get dressed, pour my coffee and make the choice to live joyfully each day.
I have a lot of things to be sad about right now – don’t we all? But what happens when you focus on all the sad? All those negative emotions spiral you into a black hole that is very difficult to escape. I’m not saying it’s not okay to be sad – it absolutely is; however, don’t unpack there. Cry for a minute. Grieve your losses. And, then choose joy. Because when we choose joy, when we choose to look at how blessed we are, it changes our outlook and allows us to be more content with our situation.
I have five days “off” from work. This wasn’t ideally how I wanted to use my PTO; however, I’ve decided to use it to further my dreams and goals. I’m choosing to refocus my energy these few days into projects that light my heart on fire. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I can’t think of anything more important to focus on right now than that. It has always been extremely important to educate about mental health; however, these days it has become even more important. People all around us are struggling with one thing or another and how they are able to handle those things will determine much in their lives.
I made it my mission the day Nikolai took his own life to do whatever I could to help educate our community on mental health and suicide. I decided that day to make sure that as many people as I can affect know that they are enough – they are strong and courageous and we need them and the impact they are going to make on this world. Nikolai’s death transformed me in a million different ways. I grieve the loss of my child, yet I have found my purpose at the same time.
Nikolai lived joyfully. I believe he struggled with mental health all his life; however, he always chose joy. The last few years of his life, he desperately fought for that joy. The week before he died I asked him ‘where his joy was’. He said he didn’t know. He couldn’t find it. That was hard to hear. This is when I knew things were bad, really bad. For someone who lived for joy, saying those words was his last ditch effort at this mental health battle. He lost the war.
So when I say I CHOOSE JOY. I choose it for me and for him and for all of you who are battling finding your joy every single day.
Use this time to find your joy – whatever that may look like to you.
I am tired of being bereaved. I want my life back.
“I’m tired of being bereaved. Tired of my son being dead. I want out. I want to go back to being a “normal mom” who didn’t make decisions about end of life, or what to do with ashes, or how to celebrate birthdays for a child who isn’t here to celebrate. I didn’t sign up for this life, and I’d like the one I planned for back, please.
Give me the uncomplicated small talk, the easy play dates, the simple family photos. Bring on the joyful holiday celebrations.
Return me to that place where sad stories were sad stories, not triggers reducing me to a pile of tears one day or a disassociated robot the next. Make me strong again, in the way only the ignorant can be.
Paint the world in black and white, in simple colors and shapes. Good things happen to good people, bad actions have consequences. Restore order and balance. Make sense of things.
Because this randomness, this roulette wheel of tragedy, it is heavy.” – Elizabeth Thoma
This is exactly how I feel. I could not have said it better
than she does.
This isn’t how my life was supposed to go. I had other
dreams and plans and all of those included having Nikolai physically part of my
I was not unfamiliar to grief before Nikolai died; however,
the death of my child is vastly different than the losses I have experienced.
For 15 years I raised this child. I read books to him, we ran together, went to
the park, Pontiac Lake in the summer to swim. As a family we did vacations,
camping, hiking, movies, hanging out at home. We laughed, we cried, we argued,
we loved. And all of that is over. There will never be another day with him,
another hug, another stupid joke.
I just want my life back.
I am tired of this pendulum between grief and joy. I’m tired of having
a day full of amazing dissolve into wracking sobs for what feels like no
apparent reason. My anxiety is at an all time high. I worry every time Joe
leaves on a business trip that something bad is going to happen like it did
that day in June 2019. I fear every day the loss of another child because I
honestly don’t think I could live through another. I am a colossal mess of what
if’s and worry and damn it, it’s exhausting!
I have built up walls and I’ve mastered the fine art of pretending. I’m
an extrovert that has slipped into an introvert. My circle has significantly
shrunk and very much on purpose. I need to feel safe and I don’t mean
physically (although that’s important to) – I mean in groups of people and
conversation. Self-care and protecting my family is at the absolute forefront
of my mind at all times.
I am a self-proclaimed hot mess! And yet, as much as I fight against
this new life I have been forced to live, I know that this too shall pass as I
evolve into God’s plan. The goals and dreams I had for my life were clearly not
God’s. He has a different plan for me. In Genesis 1 – “His plan is good because
of the purpose it will serve. It is good because of the hope it will give. It
is good because of the lives it will save.”
On a dragonflys wings and a prayer, I find myself living on faith.
Faith that the advocacy I am doing is educating people, bringing more awareness
to grief, suicide and mental health. Most days I am full of hope and know that
even in those moments of desperate heartache, I cannot quit.
Grief is uncomfortable. When you grieve it is a constant struggle to capture the wide range of emotions that occur not just within a week or a day, but each dang minute. It’s struggling to figure out what kind of support I need when people ask. It’s figuring out what to say when people reach out. Grief is uncomfortable. It’s an awkward silence that is always there laying under the surface.
People never know what they should say to you. Heck, most days I don’t know what to say. I used to get angry at people for being awkward and weird around me, but honestly, grief is uncomfortable. And, I don’t have an answer to make it easier for you or me.
Here are just a few things I continue to tell myself every
Everyone has a different grief journey. There is no right or
I will never get over it; however, I will move through it.
Nikolai’s suicide was not my fault.
It is okay to smile and experience joy.
Do not allow people to shame you for not being the parent
they think you should have been. They did not walk in your shoes and cannot possibly
fathom your life or that of your son’s.
How I decide to grieve is up to me. Don’t let anyone tell me
how to do it.
Be patient with myself.
There is no timeline for grief.
Therapy is hard but you need it.
Grieving is lonely, yet you cannot do it alone.
Moving forward doesn’t mean letting go.
You will survive.
For those of you looking to comfort someone going through
grief, please remember that the absolute most important thing you can do is
just listen. So many of us are “fixers” and all we want to do is help the
person grieving so we offer advice on how to get through situations. I don’t
want you to fix me. You can’t fix me. Stop trying to fix me. Just hear me out.
Let me cry, let me vent, let me talk, let me scream.
When someone you care about is grieving, it can be difficult to know what to say or do. We struggle with so many intense and painful emotions, including depression, anger, guilt, and profound sadness. And for many of us, we feel isolated and alone in our grief. Remember that it is simply your support and caring presence that will help those of us grieving cope with the pain and gradually begin to heal.
I am not one to do resolutions at the new year, instead I choose a word. A word to help me focus on something important. One year it was determination, another listen. Joy was my word for 2019. I wanted to live as joyfully as possible, choosing joy and seeing joy in all the things. And then June 20 happened and I thought I lost my joy forever.
While my sadness has been overwhelming, almost consuming at times, there are so many things in life to be joyful about that this word actually helped me get through the toughest year of my life. Talking to a friend over coffee the other day, it occurred to me that 2019 taught me many things:
My children have always been my greatest source of joy. I lost one to the physical world, but he is always a part of my heart. For my two living children, I will continue to always be their biggest cheerleader and love them more fiercely than the day before. My love for them is intense and immense and I am more proud of them this year than at any other time in their lives. They have lived through something no one their age should. They have lost a brother, a friend, a confidante, yet have come out the other side with resilience.
My relationship with my husband is the strongest it’s ever been. God started this path for us over a year in advance – bringing us together in a much deeper way than we had ever been. I believe with every ounce of my being God did this to help us weather the storm of Kola’s death. While the statistics of marriages dissolving after the death of a child is astounding, Joe and I love and support each other on a whole different level of peace, understanding and kindness. I could literally not do the day to day without him.
My faith and belief in God and the way He works in our lives is at a level I cannot describe. I have never felt so close to God before in my life. Ever. I really do see Him clearing my path – setting it out for me to follow. And, the people He has put in my life at just the right moments – unbelievable.
This little book club I started in July is one of the single best things I have ever done. This group of women have become some of my very best friends. I have realized over these past few months that we actually all needed each other, for very different reasons. I love watching us laugh, cry, grow, empower, motivate and inspire each other. This group is what living fantastic is all about.
There are friends I thought would support me through my sadness with their every breath, and many of them walked away from me because my sad was too much for them. It doesn’t make them bad people, it just means they didn’t have the capability to be there in a way I needed them.
There are people in my life that I never in a million years would have thought would be able to offer support to me in any meaningful way. Yet, today, these people have become friends that push me to get up every single day and do the impossible things.
I have friends who have become a part of me. People I talk to or text every day. Friends that love me unconditionally. Friends that pray for me and love me through all things good, bad and ugly. These people bring me such joy.
Kola’s death has made me realize who I am. I am strong. I am courageous. I am brave. I am kind. I am pain. I am sorrow. I am joy. I have a purpose now that I didn’t have before. I have direction. And while this is still sometimes fuzzy and full of obstacles, I know that all of these things will become clear at the time that I need them to.
Mental health and suicide deserve more attention, and alongside friends I have made through this journey, we will make this happen. We will do the important things that we can and help as many people struggling as we can.
Every day since Nikolai died, God has continued to show me that there are so many things that bring joy into our lives. Life really is joyful. This year, I urge you to take time to appreciate the present moment and learn to live where life actually takes place. At this exact moment.
Today I had an exceptional day. I had coffee with two amazing women who are
helping me fight the good fight, building awareness for mental health and
suicide. We are doing exceptional things and pushing things to a new level of
advocacy and I am so excited about all of it. Today, I feel like I am
conquering the world in your honor.
Nikolai, I want you to know that I am finding more of my
days to be like this. And what makes it better is knowing that this is what I
am supposed to do – this is God’s calling for me. These women were put in my
life at the exact time that I needed them. At the exact time WE needed them. To
help us get the hard work done. The important work.
I do all of this in your honor and to impact the lives of
people I may never know.
Some days though the heartache of losing you hurts so deeply. And some days I feel as if I’m not doing near enough, fast enough. I get tired and sad. Some days I have to take a step back and quiet myself.
Many days I experience both in the same day, like last Thursday. We educated so many, yet it was so very, very hard. This morning was fantastic. Tonight is very reflective. I suspect this is how it will go for a bit.
But we have a humongous tribe of people advocating for us
and with us and the impact we are and will make I pray is enough to bring great
change. I take heart in knowing we are making a difference.