Coping with Grief, Loss, and Mental Health Conditions
I have persevered through my own journey. Working through grief and finding ways to effectively cope with significant loss is possible.
Written by Jennifer Shapiro-Lee, MSW, LCSW-R
I am a licensed, clinical social worker with a private, psychotherapy practice specializing in grief and loss. I am also an individual who has experienced tragic loss. It was 14 years ago in the middle of December, halfway between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when I woke up on a clear, beautiful Sunday morning. The sun was shining bright, the air was crisp, the temperature was unseasonably mild and I was looking forward to spending the perfect winter day shopping at the outdoor holiday street fairs in Manhattan, my yearly tradition. This time of year always made me happy, something about the holiday music, Christmas lights, and seasonal crafts brought about a feeling of nostalgia and cheerfulness. On my way to the fair, I received a phone call that would change my life forever. From that day forward, I would categorize my life into two separate periods, the years before my father died and the years after. My father died by suicide. Needless to say, life has never been the same since.
The last dinner and what I have learned
The last time I saw my father was Thanksgiving 2004. We gathered at my parents’ house every year. My father and uncle were watching the Glutton Bowl, which is an event where people compete against one another by eating weird and unusual things such as sticks of butter, cow tongues and insects. They both thought this was hilarious and continued to talk and laugh about it during dinner. Being in my mid-twenties and completely wrapped up in my own life, I didn’t find it as entertaining as they did. Two weeks later I would replay the events of that night and remember all the laughs and fun he seemed to be having. I was utterly confused about how someone could appear to be having such a great time during one moment but then act out of emptiness and despair a short time later. I hold close to my heart the memories of his smile and laughter.
My father dedicated his life to helping others. He served five years in the US Navy. At 29 years old, he became the youngest CEO ever at any hospital in the state of Massachusetts. Throughout his career he was the head of various hospitals and medical centers in Massachusetts and New York. He was a kind, thoughtful, and smart person. Every Christmas he dressed up as Santa at his workplace and handed out gifts to children.
I relied on my father for absolutely anything and everything, I always knew he was there for me whenever I needed support. He was the foundation of our family and the most levelheaded and reasonable person I knew. He appeared to “have it all together.” Everyone who knew my father was absolutely shocked by his death, especially us, his own family.
What happens when a role model within a community is suffering themselves? Perhaps they feel that the status of their position will not allow them to show their vulnerabilities to others, so there is nowhere for them to turn for help? After my father died by suicide, I learned that he took medication for anxiety. In an attempt to hide any sort of embarrassment, he picked up his medicine from a private pharmacy that was outside the community where he worked and lived. He also used an alias so that colleagues in the medical community wouldn’t realize he was taking prescription medication. I wonder if my father would still be alive today if mental health conditions were seen and treated the same as having a physical disease, how many less people would hide the fact that they are living with mental health issues.
I have treated people that have had past suicide attempts and survived. In the darkest moments of their lives, they never thought things would get better, they were completely hopeless, suicide seemed like the only option they had. After their unsuccessful attempts at suicide, they were given a chance to continue their lives. Many found the right help that enabled them to live more fulfilling and meaningful lives. As I’ve kept in touch with them and followed their stories, I’ve seen some get married, others have children, and others working their way towards successful careers. Had any of them actually ended their lives, none of these happy and joyful events would’ve become a reality. Given enough patience, time, and work, the impossible can become possible.
Feelings of loss and sadness around the holidays are common
For those of you who are missing a loved one this holiday season, understand that you may experience a variety of emotions, and this is a normal part of the grieving process. Everyone handles grief differently:
Family members dealing with the same loss can have vastly different reactions, and that is okay.
Be true to yourself about what you need and let go of expectations that do not work for you.
People dealing with loss, can often struggle with what they want to do versus what they feel they are expected to do by others.
Listen to your inner wisdom and decide what is emotionally best for you. It is important to find an effective way to cope with grief and it is essential to take care of yourself.
Don’t avoid the healing process, allow yourself to go through it, no matter how painful.
Moving through the five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) is a difficult process and may require you seeking help from a licensed professional.
The holidays can be a difficult time when feelings of loss and grief can be exacerbated. Be sure to engage in self-care and surround yourself with others who understand your situation. Do not be afraid to allow yourself to have moments of joy and to think of your happy memories even if at the same time you are feeling sad. Cope ahead and evaluate your plans and say no to any events you do not want to attend. While, also assessing your holiday traditions and allowing yourself the opportunity to add new rituals you feel that would create enjoyment around the holidays.
Depression can present itself in many ways including silence
The National Institute of Mental Health in 2016 reported 16.2 million adults aged 18 and older struggled with a diagnosis of depression. Each year approximately 45, 000 Americans die by suicide and that rate is highest during the holiday season. We never really know what someone is going through in life especially when someone we care about may be struggling alone and they do not tell us. We all have the power to help by offering people a sense of connection that is free of judgment.
If you know someone who is showing signs of depression, reach out to them and let them know you are there for them. A simple question of “Are you doing okay?” and showing support can go a long way. Some signs of depression to look out for are: sad mood or change in mood, lack of pleasure in activities the individual once found enjoyable, over or under sleeping, change in appetite, low energy, lack of motivation, and decreased concentration.
If you are suffering please reach out to someone. You do not have to go through this alone. There are many resources for help. Often people dealing with mental health conditions believe that their friends and family would be better off without them alive. This couldn’t be farther from the truth-your loved ones do need you. It may be hard to see past the pain now, but your families will never be the same without you and you deserve a chance to get better.
There are resources you can reach out to for help
If you or a loved one is in need of an initial evaluation by a licensed clinician Psychology Today is a resource online where you can find a therapist in your local area.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline takes calls 24 hours a day at (800)-273-8255.
We do not have to be defined by the ineffective beliefs we tell ourselves
I am finally sharing my story. Only a handful of my friends know the truth about my father’s death, many do not. For the first few years, I would tell people that my father died of a heart attack. I didn’t understand how he could’ve taken his own life, so I didn’t think others would understand either. I have been working for years to build up the strength to share what I went through. To be clear, the stigma and misunderstanding around mental illness isn’t the reason why I kept the truth about my father a secret. I have difficulty talking about it because I have feelings of shame and guilt about not being able to help my father. I blamed myself for not realizing that he was suffering. Now, as a mental health professional, I realize that this belief is not serving me well. I no longer hold myself accountable for something I could not prevent.
It is possible to make meaning out of tragedy
Four years after my father passed away, I left a successful and lucrative career in the fashion industry and enrolled at Columbia University’s graduate program for social work. Just like my father, I decided to dedicate my life towards helping others. I absolutely love what I do for a living. Everyday I feel grateful that others trust me to share their own personal stories. I have made a tremendous amount of meaning out of my life through my career. While I am grateful for my education, what really makes the difference in my being a highly effective therapist is that I truly care and can relate to my clients, especially having been through my own difficult life experiences.
In school I was taught not to self disclose too much so I struggled with sharing this story. However, I want to take what I have been through and use this to help others. I am dedicated to my clients’ well being. I do that by working from a place of warmth, being non-judgmental and accepting. Ten years ago if someone told me I was going to put something like this out there for the world to read I would not have believed them. We are all constantly evolving so here I am, and here is my truth. With hard work comes great results. To anyone that is struggling, continue to work on yourselves. Believe that there is another path that will get you through the difficult moments in life.
This article is in honor of my father Bernard Shapiro, the kindest man I have ever known.
Jennifer Shapiro-Lee is a licensed clinical social worker, with a private psychotherapy practice located in Roslyn, NY. Jennifer is also a certified mindfulness and meditation instructor. More about Jennifer’s practice and contact information can be found on jennifershapirolee.com.
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