Content warning: This post contains discussions of mental illness and suicide. For help please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
We all experience pivotal moments in our lives when time is suspended, the Earth seems to stop spinning, and our lives are forever changed. These moments may be incredible celebrations of pure joy, or the most despairing challenges that throw our lives into complete chaos. They are moments that define us, and we never forget them.
I am privileged to have experienced incredible moments of unbridled joy and happiness. But I have also been through the most desperate moments when all sense of reality is lost, and I have been totally engulfed by the darkness that death has thrown at me, as the bereaved, just as it snatched my loved ones away from me. It snatched and grabbed, without a backward glance.
My sister Zoie, and her partner, James both died in a horrific car accident when I was just 19 years old. I had never experienced the grief of losing a loved one before, and it ripped me apart to my core. Zoie and James had died in the most sudden, cruel and violent circumstances. I struggled to accept what had happened. It was totally incomprehensible to me that our families should lose Zoie and James when they were such young, vibrant, kind and gregarious adults with their whole lives ahead of them. Our own lives would never be the same again without the joy and privilege of being able to share them with Zoie and James.
Over time, I developed my own skillset to bear my grief which seemed to travel with me wherever I went. Unbeknownst to me, and only several years after losing Zoie and James, my first husband would suffer the most overwhelming and unrelenting depression. He could not get past it or through it, and yet it defied belief that he thought he could self-manage the torture of his mental illness. On the same day, that the clock went forward an hour for daylight saving, so the daylight lingers long into the night over the summer months, my husband took his own life. It was so heartbreaking that such a young man, a very talented solicitor and advocate with incredible commercial acumen, should be denied a long, happy and healthy life. I again struggled to deal with my grief. It was beyond understanding, I could not shake it, rationalise it, reason with it, or dispel it.
Around the same time as my husband died, my younger brother Justin, was also dealing with his own gigantic health struggle. He was a dedicated officer and Dog Handler with the New Zealand Police Force, and he and his Police dog “Sabre” had many “catches”. Justin also risked his own life to save the life of another from a burning house in Christchurch, New Zealand. It must surely be one of life’s greatest achievements to save the life of another, but my brother was a very humble man, and he took it in his stride. Even so, he was awarded the Royal Humane Society medal for his incredible bravery.
Justin was married with a baby boy. He was also diagnosed with brain cancer. At the time, I refused to believe that brain cancer would claim his life. He was such a physically strong and incredibly fit and active man and I desperately wanted to believe that he would beat this cruel and vicious invasion into his body and his life. I have never been so wrong. Instead of beating the cancer, by a cruel twist of fate, cancer took my brother from us. Justin was denied the justice that he deserved, for the exemplary life of kindness, fairness, good natured fun and love that he had shown everyone who had the pleasure to know him. We were all left devastated.
Since the death of my brother, I have sought to rebuild my life and I have remarried, and had my own young family. But in doing so, I suffered the silent but heart breaking loss of multiple “miscarriages”. It is a word that no one wants to hear, or share but miscarriage, can create as much pain, sadness and grief as might any other loss. It is a tragedy that in our modern society, where social media exposes every facet of the human experience to the global universe, that miscarriage and grief are still taboo words.
Mia Freedman speaks to Gold Logie Winner Samuel Johnson after the death of his sister Connie.
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I have also watched the slow and silent demise of my mother to Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease. It is an insidious experience for her and her family. My mother has slowly lost her identity as everything that personifies her is stripped away. My mother has always been a very gracious and feminine lady, who loved wearing colourful dresses, makeup and bright lipsticks, with nail polish on her long, elegant fingers to match. But the final hours of this long goodbye will not afford my Mum any dignity or grace in her passing. It is a horrid state of affairs that shouts out for legislation that would permit voluntary euthanasia or assisted dying for the terminally ill, and where ever they might live – it is a fundamental human right that should not be defined by geographical boundaries, the current political or economic climate - or prevailing religious persuasions.
There have been many other challenges in my life that have confronted me and made me question every aspect of my being, but none more so than facing and coming to terms with the deaths of my family. I have had to learn how to live without them, and learn how to live with my grief. Even now my grief sits quietly on my shoulder, and can make itself known to me at any time of the day or night. It has no calendar, and no time limit. What I do know is that my grief will always be with me, and that whilst I now live in a very changed landscape, it does not define me. I have discovered some central themes to my grief experience that have helped me to manage, to live, to dream, to vision and to convert my grief into energy that motivates and inspires me into action to lead the best possible life that I can. They are described in my book “Hitting My Reset – A Memoir on Grief and How to Make it Fit Your Life” which is to be released in July and is available for pre-orders on www.lisagallate.com. Some of those themes include:
Finding your Fan Club: They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I believe that it takes a village to console, nurture and support the grieving. It is really important to find your grief buddies – they may not be your most obvious nearest and dearest - but may come from within your own wider network of friends and extended family, including from unexpected corners in your life, who can offer you support and understanding as well as different perspectives, which will help you with your own.
A Counsellor As Part of Your Village: The great benefit of counsellors who are trained in grief and loss counselling is that they are able to be empathetic, non-judgmental, objective and realistic. As a confidential and private relationship, it makes it much easier to be open and honest, not just with the counsellor, but also with yourself. It also helps to keep you in the present, whilst also working through the past, so you can look to the future and start to dream new dreams for yourself.
Speaking the Truth: Learning to talk about your loved one who has passed, even when it causes you to feel upset or distressed. It's really important to be able to say their name, to hear it in your own voice, and to hear their name spoken by others. Rather than hide my grief, I have been open to it and resolved to myself that I would live and act from a place of truth, which included being truthful about those who had died even if it upset me, or upset others, or made others feel uncomfortable by my response.
Solace in the Cement: I found solace in running regularly, which led me to train for a marathon. I ended up running countless half marathons and four marathons (I may yet have a fifth marathon in me!?!) You will know what your form of exercise looks like or what sports you enjoy. The physiological benefits, physicality, and challenges of exercise and sport can help you to deplete some of the negative energy that is the angst and pain of your grief, helping you to move forward through it, and helping you to fit it into your daily life.
Being prepared: There is no time limit, and no calendar, for grief. It is likely, that just like me, you don't feel your grief just on anniversaries, birthdays or Christmas. Instead, your grief sneaks up on you at times when you least expect it. I have had many moments when I have been blindsided by my own grief and I have learnt that grief is complicated and easily triggered. Whilst it is always real to feel the grief, we can also work out our triggers and prepare ourselves for them, and then seek to avoid them when we need to. It isn't to deny how we feel, but it is also a step of acknowledgment of our grief, that we need at times to protect ourselves from those triggers, if we are to continue to live productive and meaningful lives.
Traditions and Rituals: Continuing the traditions that you used to have with your loved one and creating new rituals to acknowledge significant dates, events, and occasions that remind you of and connect you to your loved one. They create moments for reflection, moments to feel the memories, and moments for gratitude and thanks for their lives. As time has passed, I seem to have created more rituals rather than less. It is my way of holding onto my memories of my loved ones, how important they were and always will be to me. It's also my way of letting those memories into my daily life, honouring them alongside the traditions and rituals that I am now creating with my own young family.
I Am Not Alone: In 2011, 55.3 million people were dying globally each year (Population Reference Bureau and World Factbook). I like to think that every person who died was loved by someone, by family members, and by friends who now grieve their deaths. It is proof that I am not alone in the grief that I feel and that grief is not a disease. It is a human condition suffered by those who have loved and lost important and special people in their lives. It is and will be suffered by us all. We should try to increase our understanding and awareness, and create discussions about grief and loss in our modern consciousness. It should not be a taboo word, but embraced as an important part of life, of a life in which we care for and love others. My own perspective has made it easier to share my grief with others, in the knowledge that many others will know, and understand, something of my own experience. I hope by sharing my experience, that it will also help others to feel, understand and share their own grief experiences.
“Let’s convert our grief into energy that will motivate and inspire visioning and action for a meaningful life”