Sadness, Loss and Grief: Not Depression
The last couple of nights that I’ve been watching The National, one of the lead stories has been about the number of attempted and completed suicides by young people in the town of Woodstock, Ontario. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this type of story. It’s been a reoccurrence in a number of First Nations communities across Canada over the years. Most recently, Attawapiskat.
What seems to make this story stand out is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear catalyst. These kids in mainstream Canada have access to the resources and supports that we think protect them from feeling the deep despair that would lead them to considering taking their own lives…unlike the teens who live in isolated First Nations communities that do not have these resources. If suicide feels like the best option for youth to escape from the overwhelming depression they are experiencing in a town like Woodstock, it’s no wonder this raises alarm bells. If it can happen there, it can (and does) happen anywhere in Canada.
How do we protect our kids? I think the problem has become that we think we can actually protect our children from the consequences of living life. We try to make their lives as pain free as possible.
What I think we need to be doing is teaching them that uncomfortable feelings are 100% normal. Did you notice that I didn’t say “bad” feelings? Right there is part of the problem we’ve created in our culture. We polarized emotions as “good” and “bad”. Happy, joy, excitement, confident, relaxed, proud all fall under the “good” category. Sadness, anger, fear, vulnerable, embarrassed, worry, stress fall under the “bad” category.
As soon as something is labelled as “bad”, it becomes something that is considered abnormal and should be avoided. It’s easy for the brain to take an emotion of “I feel bad” and make it into a thought of “If I feel bad, then I’m a bad person and not normal”. Ouch! How does a teen process and talk about that?
The reality is, we can’t prevent our children from feelings of sadness, rejection, and grief. They will experience loss many times in their lives, as we all do. Every life event has both gain and loss. Changing from one school to another. Change in friendships. Becoming more independent. Parents separating. Failing a test. Making the team. Losing a competition.
Being sad is a normal, healthy and necessary response to some events in life. The animated movie “Inside Out” does a phenomenal job of exemplifying this lesson. Here’s a little clip to watch.
It is not helpful to label every sad or uncomfortable feeling as depression. There are some life events that make us sad and we want to stay in bed for a while and avoid the world. If we don’t have a chance to connect with those feelings, understand them, and go through them, they get pushed deep and join with all the other uncomfortable feelings that have not been acknowledged and/or processed. Labelling normal reactions to painful things in life as depression and expecting the medical system to treat these feelings with medication is the thing that is not normal or helpful.
Since I’ve become a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, I’ve had a chance to learn from clients how they have dealt with loss. (FYI: there are over 40 significant losses that can create grief experiences: grief is NOT just a reaction to death). Two of the consistent responses to loss are “I shouldn’t feel bad” and “I shouldn’t burden other people with these heavy feelings (grieve alone)”.
The main goals of the Grief Recovery Method is to redefine grief as a normal and natural response to loss and to provide a safe place for people to talk about their losses.
The ways we have been taught and conditioned to respond to sadness, grief and loss are simply not helpful.
It’s not helpful to hear “don’t feel bad”, when we do.
It’s not helpful to have a loss compared to someone else’s; “if you think you have it bad, you should hear about so-and-so.”
It’s not helpful to be encouraged to replace the loss: “You should get another dog.”
It’s not helpful to hear someone else’s experience: “I know exactly how you feel. This is what happened to me…” when you just want to be heard and understood.
It’s not helpful to consume our way out of sadness and other uncomfortable feelings with food, alcohol, drugs, clothes, activity, time in front of a screen, and other things money can buy.
When I moved from Calgary to Winnipeg at the age 13 in the summer between grade 7 and 8, it was by far the most life changing event I had experienced to that point. I was very sad to leave the only home I had ever lived in, the classmates I had had since kindergarten, my best friend who lived next door to me, my godmother who I crossed the street to visit every Saturday night to play cards and drink tea, the neighbourhood stray cat who I named Sylvester, my two older siblings that weren’t moving with us, my school, my sports teams and so many other things that gave me comfort and a sense of belonging.
This type of loss would make anyone sad. But the message I received from family and friends was “don’t feel bad”. You’ll make new friends. We’ll write letters. You can go back to visit. We have a bigger house. The new school is bigger. We’re closer to grandparents. You can play on the teams here. At least you’re not going into grade 12 like your brother; that would be really hard.
I also didn’t see or hear how the rest of family was dealing with this significant change and loss. My mom didn’t talk about it. I saw my dad tear up briefly for a moment but he quickly covered it up. I have no idea what my siblings were feeling, my brother who also moved nor my brother and sister who were left behind. This message was “don’t talk about sad things; grieve alone”.
This unresolved grief affected me for many years. I did not want to feel the pain of losing friends again and the best way I figured out to do this, was to not get too close to people. If I kept my distance and only depended on myself, then I couldn’t get hurt again. It took me years to figure out that by avoiding pain, I also prevented myself from experiencing great joy.
I just watched a video by Marianne Williamson yesterday that reinforces my thoughts. It challenges the idea that depression is a mental illness and alternatively suggests that suffering it a part of our spiritual journey and growth. She also points out that anti-depressant medication for people under 25 actually increases the risk of suicide.
It seems clear we should not be addressing the issue of youth depression with medication. We need to help them (and all ages) accept sadness and hurt as a normal human experience that we can feel, talk about, and learn from.
The Grief Recovery Method posits that unresolved grief is the result of not recognizing and communicating the emotions we experience in our relationships. What we most need to express are apologies, forgiveness, and gratitude.
By saying “I’m sorry”, we take responsibility for our actions and learn to improve our behaviours for the future. By saying “I forgive you”, we stop relying on the other person to make us feel better. By saying “thank you” and “I love you”, we live with gratitude and without regret.
Being sad does not make a person negative or mentally ill. Putting on a happy face and being positive does not heal pain but may dull the pain to avoid it.
Imagine someone breaking her leg. It’s possible to address this injury simply with medication to numb the pain. But the effects of the injury, if left unattended, will be lifelong. What need to happen is that the bones need to be realigned, which is a very painful process. The person can’t go around the pain…they need to go through the pain in order to properly heal.
The same is true for a broken heart which result from loss. Time is not enough to heal and avoiding the pain does not work either. There must be an intervention to heal, even though it too causes pain. Going through pain is the only way to heal it.
I like to think of myself as a positive person. But this does not mean I don’t feel sadness and haven’t suffered losses. When my parents died within a span of a year and a half, on the heels of quitting my job, I can say that I had symptoms of depression. I stayed in bed much more than usual. I slept poorly and my appetite was very low. I cried every day and I had little motivation to work. I knew and accepted that my feelings were normal and natural. I let myself feel them fully. Never before had I fallen to my knees, overwhelmed with grief, and I recall this happening, without self-judgement. I did many of the steps of the Grief Recovery Method and it helped significantly. Eventually, my heart healed, but the scar is still there. I still cry sometimes because I miss my parents and I’m sad, but that’s normal and natural.
If I can say it one more time, the only way to heal pain is to go through it. If we continue to protect our kids from feeling sad, taking responsibility for their mistakes and the losses that result, and don’t give them the tools to deeply connect with other people, we are setting them up to conclude that any uncomfortable feelings cannot be managed without a drastic intervention, such a suicide.
The worst thing for a teen is to see themselves as different from others. The biggest favour we can do for them is make them feel normal when their life is less than perfect.
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