Grief is sometimes a long process. I have been grieving for decades.
It’s painful, and hard to get a handle on, and sometimes we veer away from it—take a break, shut down, ignore it, stop grieving for a while. But then we can’t hold out any longer. The grief demands we return to it.
Growing up with mental illness in the family involves ongoing and profound grief. You grieve for yourself, for
what you didn’t have and the ways you didn’t develop because someone else’s mental illness consumed the energy in the family. Or maybe it was your mental illness that robbed you of the opportunity to relate to others in positive ways, that kept you from discovering who you were underneath your mass of symptoms, that consumed your energy and held you back from becoming the person you might have been. Maybe it was both.
Because there is nothing like crazy in the family for making you crazy.
You grieve for yourself, and what you missed out on, the ways you are were damaged or stunted because of the illness in the family. You grieve for who you might have been if your family had been able to really care for you.
You grieve for the lost opportunities, the lost years, the broken relationships you were left with because of the psychic damage you incurred.
You grieve for the relationship you could never have with that person—or maybe it was several people in your family—because mental illness inevitably involves an impaired ability to relate to and care for others.
Hardest of all, you grieve for the person who was ill and who they might have been without their illness.
Nearly everyone in my family is mentally ill. I grieve for them as a whole—for the fact of a family—and I grieve for them separately, as individuals, and for who they might have been without their illnesses.
I am often angry at the entire mental health industry. My anger is a part of that grief. My family members did not get the care they needed, and so I suffered. I lost my family. I lost my childhood. I lost great chunks of myself. I lost the people they all might have become if they had gotten well.
I don’t know if anyone could really have done anything, but I’m angry anyway. I’m angry the way someone else might feel at a loved one who has died. They are angry at being left. I am angry that no one saved us. Strictly speaking, grief is not entirely logical. And yet it has its own logic.
Anger is a part of this logic. So is sorrow. And a lot of people have proposed a vast number of shortcuts you can take to get through these stages faster. They tell you to “let go” of your anger. They tell you that forgiveness will free you. They tell you “stay busy” and to “move on.”
I don’t think any of these things work, but they give you something to do while the grief works itself out in your own time, so that you feel less helpless in the face of it. But I think you are helpless in the face of this kind of grief, and the better course is just to roll with it.
The better course is to admit the degree of your helplessness in the face of the magnitude of the problem—we really have no completely effective treatments for most serious mental illnesses. There is little anyone actually could do to save all of us from the fragility of our minds.
But I do think you need to grieve. What I’m really talking about in this post is acceptance. Like other stages of grief, acceptance cannot be rushed. We get there when we can and stay there as long as we need to.
Stop trying to skip it. It doesn’t help.