The day before

It was five years ago this evening; the last time that I saw Willie alive.

People tend to focus on the day that someone died when they look back on the passing of someone they have lost. I know I do. February 1st 2012. That was the day that Willie died. That day and the memory of it are something that I live with every day since.

What still catches me off guard though is how much the anniversary of the day before hurts. It was the last day that life didn’t include this pain of his death.

That was the day that everything seemed to be on the upswing, small as that arc was at the time. January 31st was the day that I got great news about getting Willie settled for school in a program that would allow him the flexibility needed to work with schooling and continuing to try to manage his mental health issues. I had a just finished unpacking from a move and was starting to feel like we could settle in there. It was a day that my schedule at work had run on track and I was feeling optimistic that life, as it had been, was starting to “normalize” finally. After a few months of chaos and more stress than I ever thought a person could live through, that day felt like there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Willie had an appointment that day with a new therapist who was going to be working with him on some behavioural therapy methods and he was agreeable to the idea – that alone was a comfort. I had sat and watched him and his youngest brother play together in the waiting room while Willie waited for his appointment time. I remember whispering to his Dad, who came along that day, how neat it was to see him laughing and smiling again. I felt hopeful.

Hopeful, even though there had been glimpses of what still was inside of him – even that afternoon. As I picked him up and we drove to the appointment, I blithered on about the school and the options and how great it was that it was taking shape the way we needed it to. He nodded and mumbled “It doesn’t matter”. His face was turned away from me as he went on to explain that he was happy that I was excited but that it just didn’t matter – he wasn’t going to be around. “I know it’ll be hard at first but it’s for the best for everyone – and for me.” was what he said to me. As we pulled into the parking lot I finished my response of telling him he was wrong… that a day with him not around would never be a “better day”. I told him to stop talking like that – that we were seeing someone new and that it would get better… I told him to hold on and to have hope – to believe that it would get better. He shrugged and said “yeah” and I knew, even then, that I couldn’t promise him that it would all work out. I wanted to, but he wasn’t stupid – neither was I, so I just told him to promise me that he wouldn’t give up. I’ll never forget that he never answered me on that one. He just started out the window.

After the appointment, as we stood outside the building and said our goodbyes before he left with his Dad for a dinner out to one of his favourite place, he was different than he had been the last few months. He stooped down to say goodbye to his little brother. He hugged him and said |love you, little buddy” and messed up his hair a bit to annoy him as he laughed. I grinned and thought how great it was to see him being so affectionate and so happy again. I remember thinking to myself that it was all going to be okay, that he looked like himself again.

I moved towards him to hug him and he backed up, away from me. I didn’t push it and just said “love you, I’ll call you in the morning”. He looked away, said “yup” and turned to leave.

That was it.

The next time I would see my son, it would be in the morgue at Vancouver General.

I drive past that place when I go visit his brothers now. Most times, I take a back street and a different route, out of my way, to avoid having to pass by it. It hurts too much to glance and see the spot where he stood.

Today, 5 years later, as the hour approaches the time that I last said goodbye to him, I see the sun starting to dip and the light starting to fade and it all comes back to me and I remember him and I miss him.

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Ripples and Differences

After Willie died, one of the things that played over and over in my mind was the usual grief fueled mantra of “something good has to come out of this” aka “this has to have some meaning, it can’t just be what it is (which you don’t even know what it is)”. It is the mantra of every grieving survivor of loss – more so of those who have lost someone in a tragic or sudden manner, especially someone young.

I clung to that like a life raft at times. That someday, somehow,in some way, his death would have meaning and it would serve a purpose. A purpose that would bring happiness or solace to a person’s life in the same magnitude that it had brought pain and sorrow to mine and my family’s. That it would be a catalyst for change in policies and systems that needed it the most. A wonderfully rose-coloured view that gave me what I needed at times to get through nights that blazed with lonely hurting. A wish that, I knew, held promise like a sieve holds water.

Aside from this blog, which to be honest, I frequently consider shutting down because it feels like it doesn’t have any reason to be, I haven’t done anything. Aside from this blog.

There are parents, friends and family members who have created fundraisers, walks, awareness building events and the like as their way of making the death of their person “mean something” or “do some good”. They speak or give presentations or write for publications that shine a light on the tragedy or the injustice that caused their loved one’s death. They expose and discuss and petition for change in the gaps in resources, funding, hospital beds, out-patient services, access to care… the list is endless and varied. They open the lines of communications, they give voice to those who can’t speak anymore. They shine a light on the things in the shadows. All great work and yes, sometimes, changes are made and impacts happen.

I’ve seen the almost manic pursuit of trying to realize the dream of making their loss into something that make sense. Of have it not be for nothing… because if it doesn’t have some good come of it, then what? What is it but a senseless and unfair death that shouldn’t have happened? What do you do with that, how do you figure out how to live with that?

You just do, because the truth is that no matter what difference you make, it will never make the one difference that will make it better for you. It won’t bring them back. Reality check – it also may never stop it from happening to someone else. Life isn’t always fair and death is part of it and sometimes, you just can’t do anything about it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do what we can though. Reaching out, connecting and shining a light can do things, sometimes.

But you know what it can do, what is has done, for me sometimes? It has shown me that thinking on the small and personal level is where it matters, for me. If I think about the massive shifts in policies and resources in the medical system that need to change – it’s overwhelming and literally depressing. The realist in me says to give my head a shake if I think that any significant changes will EVER be gained. What can be gained though is smaller and yet, so much larger in so many ways.

Having someone message me after an entry and tell me that they don’t feel alone; like they are the only one who feels how they feel…. having an acquaintance come to me in person when we run across each other and share how she never knew that we shared this commonality of grief until she saw my blog entry via social media… having a friend reach out when her daughter expressed suicidal thoughts because she knew that I had been there and that I knew what she was going through…hearing the strength in her voice after that conversation and knowing that sharing DID make a difference to her.

These are the ways that differences are made, that some good is found in the bad. We may not be able to do much, but we can make sure that we aren’t silent. We can ensure that no one ever has to feel like they are alone. Sometimes, all we have is the ability to share and come together, and the power of that is immeasurable. So, we talk and we share and we can’t hide; because people who need someone live with enough shadows as it is, we need to be the light for each other.

P.S. I came across this before and it’s worth sharing. Impact, we all have it, and yes, the ripple effect works for hope and hurt.

As it is

After four years, there are days, most days now, that the grief sits there in the background and just, is. It’s not loud of intrusive or front and center. It just is there. After four years, I’ve gotten used to that actually. I’ve learned to live with it even. I wish it wasn’t there, but it is, and I’ve started to find out what life looks like with it there. Not like there’s a choice anyways, it’s not like I’m going to wake up tomorrow and not be conscious that my son is gone.

After four years though, there are days like today. Still days like today. Days that it doesn’t just sit there. Days that the hurting isn’t just in the background. After four years there are still days like today that I have to keep fighting all day when the grief and the realization of what is real sweeps over me throughout the day. Like waves that appear from nowhere, they hit. I’m not sure why, there’s no reason why today should be like this. It just is.

After four years I’ve come to understand that days like this just are. I may wake up tomorrow and the grief is back in it’s usual place, quietly residing and just there. Or I may wake up and not know how to get out of bed again. But I know I will get up, as always. After fours years, I have come to know that I just have to take what comes, as it is. It’s not like there’s a choice, anyways.

 

did you know?

did you know?

did you wake up that day knowing that you wouldn’t be there at the end of the day?

did you tidy your things and fold your laundry that morning knowing that it would be the last time?

did you have breakfast and think about the fact that it would be the last breakfast you would ever eat?

did you even eat or were your nerves so jumbled that you had no appetite like you often were?

did you shower and get dressed and give any thought that it would be the last time?

did you give thought to which clothes you put on, knowing that they would be the clothes you wore when you died?

did you think about who would be the next person to be in your room after you died, knowing it would never be you again.

did you think about how long it would take someone to find the notes you left in your drawer?

did you wonder how long it would be until someone found your body?

did you know that day that it would be the day that you finally would go through with it?

did you hope that it would be?

did you want it to be?

did a part of you wish that you wouldn’t be able to?

did you feel sadness that you hoped you would?

did you feel scared, alone, afraid to die?

did you feel peace and calmness instead?

did you wish that you didn’t have to be alone?

did you want comfort or was it solitude that you needed?

did you cry?

did you say goodbye?

did you know when that moment was there that it was your final moment?

did that bring you the peace you wanted?

did you think about the next morning, the sun rising with you no longer in this world?

did you wonder what was next, what was after your actions to close this life for yourself?

did you simply long for the end of what you could no longer endure living with?

did you find what you needed and wanted?

 

Tripping the tipping point

Without knowing how or when really, it seems that the tipping point has been tripped. A little slip of the balance shifting. Imperceptibly almost, slowly.

Somewhere over the last few months life has started to flow again. Somewhere over the last year actually, there have been more steps forward and fewer steps back. Somehow I find myself today realizing that the days have more happy hours than sad ones. So slowly this has happened that I didn’t even notice it.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of what’s happened. Not a single day passes that I don’t silently wish that Willie didn’t make the choice he did and that he was still here. Not a single day finishes without my mind having played through the years past – the memories and the loss that hurts because of his death. Not one day goes by that I don’t scream inside at how wrong it is that Willie is gone. 16 years of his life lived and now just simply – gone.

But today I realized that I’m doing what he asked me to. I’m going on. I’m living still. Moving forward. Finding happy again and finding mySelf. Seeing a future where just a couple of years ago I couldn’t see through the heaviness of grief.

Missing Willie, learning to live without him has been the hardest thing – and the one thing I have fought most. Learning to live with grief and not let it swallow the rest of my life – even harder maybe. More steps forward, some steps back… but firmly striding forward at least. Finally seeing that the light is at the end of the tunnel, and it’s attainable.

So the tears happen. I don’t even try to stop them tonight. Mostly because now I see that while I still cry, I am smiling again as well.

“And he turned out just fine…”

It strikes me sometimes how far-reaching and entangled mental health issues can be and how it impacts me in so many ways.
How it alters so many aspects of life. How Willie, and his life and his death are enmeshed in even simple interactions that seemingly wouldn’t have any connection.

I was talking with a colleague today who is in the process of working out details of coming back to work after a maternity leave. As it happens with a couple of people who have the common bond of having had children, talk turns to commiserating on sleepless nights and teething and general craziness of infancy and toddler behaviour.

She is the new mother of her first child, a son. Her and I have a good work relationship with a friendship bond as well. She is one of the very few people at work that know that I have lost a child, and that it was to mental illness ending in his suicide.
Amongst the laughter and the sharing of frustrations and story telling of common moments shared of parenting, I offered the simple encouragement that it does get easier. That while the nights of no sleep and the endless-feeling days of wondering if you made the right decision are taxing, it’s all so worth it – and that even the hardest and most challenging kidlets turn out just fine. A simple and heart-felt – and sincere – shared thought.

There was a moment when she said that she wasn’t sure he would ever sleep through the night… I started to say that Willie was the worst sleeper I had, he was awake every night for hours and it went on for months but that eventually he settled out his rhythm and became a great sleeper… I started, then stopped…. and purposely changed it from “Willie” to another sons name. Why? Because the stigma still sits heavy. Because I am too scared of what her reaction will be when I tell her that Willie had the same behaviour as her son has. Because I’m too scared that I will put that thought in her head of “what if?”. Because the I don’t want to risk the look on her face that will say “but he DIDN’T turn out ok, did he?” So I changed the name… and she didn’t notice, why would she?

It strikes me that maybe I shouldn’t have changed the story. Maybe I should have spoken up and taken that moment to help force the acknowledgment that how Willie was as a baby wasn’t indicative of what was to come. Being a rough sleeper is not at all uncommon and not something to think of as a herald of mental illness. But the fact remains that I couldn’t utter the words “and he turned out just fine” now could I? Because he didn’t.

So another encounter that has no apparent relation to mental health or suicide plays connect the dots again for me. Leaving me wondering how and when and if it will ever be different. Or easier. Or better.

How far we’ve come? I think not.

I’ve had this blog bouncing about in my head for the last week or so and have been so emotional and upset that It’s been “stuck”. Let’s see if I can shake it loose… settle in, this is a long read …

Mental health and how we handle it in the workplace is something that I have lived with for a while now. Personally, it started back when Willie became ill and I found that I had no idea what to say when people asked how things were going. So I didn’t say anything. I went through months of hell while we struggled privately as a family to try to get Willie help and later, to try to keep him here and stop him from the suicidal thoughts that plagued him.

No one knew except for my very close colleagues who were also my friends. I shuffled my schedule around and had the blessings to have understanding people who supported me and helped me to be where I needed to be. They accepted that there were days that I was in the bathroom crying more than I was at the desk… and I am grateful for them.

When Willie died, it was many weeks before I went back to work. When I did, it was beyond what I could face. The silence and the looks. The hesitancy of anyone to even acknowledge because no one knew what to say. I finally elected to leave my job that I loved. I felt unable to explain what happened if someone did ask.

Flip to a year later and I am in a new city with a new job that I love and I find myself spiralling down quickly. Grief has turned into a depression that had me barely able to make it to work every day before getting home to fall onto the couch and not move until the next morning. Day after day of struggling to not make the same choice that Willie did. The pain more than I wanted to feel. The cutting started to try to stem the thoughts that I was having to do worse and more final things to myself. Eating and sleeping were almost non-existent. I finally went to my doctor and shared how I was feeling and what I was doing. I was terrified and ashamed and the only reason I did that was because of how scared I was of what I might do to myself. There was still a part of me that was not wanting to be gone.
I was lucky, my doctor saw the crisis and before I got home that day I had an appointment made with an urgent intervention center.

What followed was a year of counselling and eventually medication for a short-term to help with severe depression. Throughout it all, I functioned at my job. Barely. Looking back, I don’t know how really. My psychiatrist suggested and strongly encouraged me to take time off, that he felt I needed to for my own safety and to be able to focus on getting well. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I would explain again and again that, as the manager at my office, I would be jeopardizing my job to go in and explain and admit that I wasn’t “ok”. Why? Because the admittance that I’m not well – mentally and emotionally – still carries a very real and large potential to threaten job security. I’m not stupid, I know that we have laws now that say you can’t be fired for that reason. I’m also not stupid and know that companies have ways around labour laws. A drop in job performance, an unacceptable increase in sick days… there are many ways that depression and mental illness can affect you that you can be fired for. My psychiatrist finally convinced me to talk to my supervisor and explain that I was under care for depression and that I was getting help. His reasoning was that if there was a record that I had been open about it, then it was better than trying to hide it and ending up being fired for performance issues and then trying to save my job by divulging the depression.
My company was understanding and supportive but certainly not overly so. I was told that I had holiday days and could use them as needed for days when I wasn’t well enough to come in. And that was that. I regretted immediately saying anything as the “feel” was different from the words of support.
Time went on and I slogged through. Months have passed now and I function. I still have bad days and days that I just can’t make it in. Days that I have a “migraine” or am “just under the weather”. Wonderful euphemisms.

Which brings me to where I am now with a work situation.

A practitioner at work has been slipping in performance for many months now. Without going into details, it has been apparent that job duties have been lacking and it has seriously affected her performance to the point that it was impacting other practitioners and something had to be done. Repeated meetings and deadline for improvement were met with seeming disregard and a lack of respect. Deadline after deadline passed and finally I set up a meeting to discuss termination. It was at that meeting that she finally told me, in sobs so hard I couldn’t understand her even, that she was struggling with a depression so bad she was seeing medical help and had been advised to take a leave of absence. She explained that this had happened years before and she had pushed through and ended up being hospitalized for her own safety and that this time, she was trying to avoid that. She was apologetic… she was exhausted and she couldn’t hide it anymore. I assured her that her job was safe, she could take a medical leave of absence and when ready to return, we would work that out. Her relief was amazing and I left that meeting drained and emotional, feeling both glad that she finally came to me and told me but also sad that she held it in for so long out of fear of not wanting to admit that she “wasn’t strong enough to be ok” (her words).

So here’s where the issues come up. I have been stunned and shocked by the reactions and responses to this situation at work. I had really thought that we, as a society and as compassionate people, had come farther… but apparently not.

One staff member in particular who is privy to the fact that it is a medical leave due to mental health issues shared this info with just about everyone in the office. I had explained it as a “personal medical leave of absence” but office gossip travels faster than wildfire and by the time I talked to the last person I had to, they already had heard.

Here are some of the reactions;
“You know what her problem is, she’s single. Too much time to think. She needs a social life then she’d be fine”
“What she really needs to do is just hunker down and focus and stop dwelling on being sad. What does she have to be sad about anyways?”
“It’s not like there’s anything actually wrong with her. She’s not sick, she’s depressed. Nothing a walk around the block and some change in attitude won’t fix”

These are well-educated people who work in the paramedical field. People who are nice and caring and considerate people. Yet the prevailing sense is that with mental health, it’s not a “real” medical issue. It is, quite simply, all in her head and she should be able to get over it.

The matter worsened for me when I went to advise my supervisor of the development. What I thought would be a simple act of me reporting and letting her know that the other practitioners would cover her hours and that it was all taken care of turned into a nightmare meeting.
I was advised to terminate her contract. Immediately and to replace her. When I explained that wasn’t appropriate I was given clear direction that she had given us just cause by not fulfilling her job duties (she’s a contractor, not an employee) and that we could, at any time, for no cause even, chose to terminate her contract. Again, I reiterated that letting her go because she is taking a leave for mental health issues is morally and ethically wrong.
I was advised that she was a liability now. That she has shown herself to be unreliable and that we can’t be sure this won’t happen again.
I argued that if she had come to us and said that she needed a leave of absence for a physical medical reason like cancer that we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The response was that was true, but mental illness affects her ability to perform her job in a way that a physical ailment wouldn’t. That we can’t risk someone who is “unstable”.

I am mad and I am more sad than anything else in some ways because the truth is that we, as a society, haven’t come anywhere near as far as we celebrate. Even myself today, working from home because I couldn’t bounce back from the night of tears and depression last night… I didn’t feel that I could say I was having an emotional day and needed self-care. Why? For all the reasons already shown to me. It would make me appear unstable and unreliable and a liability. That my ability to do my job would be questioned. All because it’s mental health and not a physical ailment that afflicts.

So let’s stop patting our collective selves on the back for all the gains and see things for how they really are.
As a note, the practitioner still has her contract and is not being replaced. I am, after all, the manager and I’m sticking to the fact that it hasn’t to start somewhere if we’re going to change this. She’s taking time off to heal and will be welcome when she is ready to return.