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Grieving Mental Illness A Guide for Patients and Their Caregivers
By Virginia Lafond (reprinted with permission)
Published by The University of Toronto Press © 1994
Virginia Lafond is a social worker in the Schizophrenia Service of the Royal Ottawa Hospital.

The following reprinted text is from the introduction to the book Grieving Mental Illness, by Virginia Lafond.

Mental illness really takes its toll on our lives. In my case, I've lost my marriage, and my career - I was once earning fifty thousand dollars a year. Mental illness leaves us feeling we have lost control over our lives. Sometimes we don't know which way to turn. There's a real journey in coming to terms with this illness and its many losses.

Dan's1 statement, though full of reasons for feeling sorrow, gave me a moment of contentment. Dan was stating openly what needs to be talked about, but isn't: people whose lives are shattered by mental illness have a lot to grieve about.

The grieving begins with the loss of health that mental illness is of itself, and goes on to include other major losses that can touch every aspect of life, both for those who suffer mental illness first hand and for those who give care.

As a professional caregiver, I have worked with people who suffer mental illness, and with their families and friends. I have witnessed and been touched deeply by the grief of mental illness: the shock, disbelief, anger, guilt, heartache, outrage, and, for many, the disappointment that the illness they are experiencing cannot be cured, only treated. Often there is also self-doubt and self-blame: 'Did we cause this? Where did we go wrong?' There is anger at the professionals: 'Doctors should have medication for this'. There is struggle: 'My husband has an illness that makes his behavior terrible to live with, but I feel that to leave him would be to abandon the love of my life'. There is shame: 'I've behaved so weirdly when I've been really ill, I've shamed my children and my husband forever.'

Especially early on in our experience with mental illness, feelings and thoughts take second place to concerns about medications, other treatments, and expected outcomes. Later, however, loaded down with unresolved grief, we feel exhausted (sometimes frankly ill) from dealing with the experience whether we suffer it ourselves or are caring for someone who is ill. Failure to recognize mental illness as loss and to do the necessary 'grief work' takes its toll.

When grief is looked upon as a valid and, in its own right, interesting topic of study, it becomes possible to treat it in a way that neither trivializes it nor puffs it up; to treat it, in effect, as another part of the 'life-space' which must be examined, understood, and assimilated ... Willingness to look at the problems of grief and grieving instead of turning away from them is the key to successful grief work in the sufferer, the helper, the planner, and the research worker. 2

Colin Murray Parkes, eminent pioneer in the field of grieving, demonstrates through his research that there are similarities in the way people, over time, come to cope with different losses. These similarities form patterns which show that 'stages' or 'phases' are present in the grieving process. Because of his work and that of other grief theorists, notably Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, denial, sadness, anger, and acceptance are concepts many are familiar with. Indeed, countless numbers have found this knowledge helpful when dealing with events commonly recognized as losses: the death of a loved one, the amputation of a limb, the destruction of one's home. This information forms a large part of the foundation on which this book stands.

There is no doubt in my mind that these concepts are of immense value to those of us who experience grief because of an encounter with mental illness. Perhaps most enlightening and comforting is the knowledge that the grieving process has stages or phases, including one of acceptance. Also, specific information about these stages can give us some needed light, not only 'at the end of the tunnel' but also for use on our journey. If we allow ourselves to have some faith in what the grieving experts tell us, I believe we can experience some easing of our pain.

If you have doubt about using the grieving process to come to terms with your mental illness experience, let me assure you that you have lots of company. Actually, I have found most people to be cautious until I explain the following two basic points:

1. The process of grieving mental illness is a positive experience through which hope can be rekindled.

2. Renewed hope gives each of us a chance to make other positive choices for ourselves.

From the onset it is essential to appreciate grieving as the healthy, normal, adaptive process it is. As you proceed through this book, you will see that grieving becomes effective when we give ourselves permission to become conscious of what is happening to us, and to both tune into and work with that process. As we move from unconscious grieving -- being unaware of how we are feeling - to engaging in the grieving process consciously, we enable and enhance our recovery from our mental illness experience.

Consciously grieving mental illness can bring healing to many, even all, aspects of our lives. It can help us become aware of the coping skills we already have and how to use them better. It can also help us develop new ways of coping, reduce stress, and boost our self-esteem. For those who suffer mental illness first hand, the conscious grieving of mental illness could help you prepare, not only for a formal rehabilitation program but also for your ultimate success in such a program. For family members, friends, and other caregivers, having a better understanding of the links between loss, grieving, and mental illness can help you use your grief to come to peaceful terms with your experience with mental illness. Finding some peace in the midst of the mental illness maelstrom is absolutely essential!

1 The names of persons quoted or referred to in other ways are fictitious. To respect confidentiality, some biographical details have also been changed.

2 Colin Murray Parkes, Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life, New York: International Universities Press, 1972.

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