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Grieving the Loss of My Mother Who Had Bipolar Disorder


Therapist and author Brandy Lidbeck recently wrote that grief is never really “gotten over,” that it becomes a person’s “new normal.” She also states the feelings associated with grief often re-emerge during important milestones and the anniversary of the person’s death. In my experience, both of these things are true. As I write this, I am coming up on the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death from a terminal illness. There’s something about not having her in my life for half a decade that makes this anniversary more significant and possibly triggering to me.

When I first heard the term “grief,” I thought it only applied to death. But I believe grief can mean the feelings one experiences whenever they go through any form of significant loss. With that definition in mind, I feel I’ve been grieving the absence of my mother since well before she passed. My mother had bipolar disorder, and as a young child I was often present when she was symptomatic. I saw her risk-taking behaviors when she was manic and her hopelessness when she was depressive. She struggled so much at times it seemed hard for her to be what I needed — attentive, responsive, consistent.

Unfortunately, due to the stigma surrounding mental illness and my age, it was hard for me to make sense of these behaviors. When my mother was feeling well, she was a great mother, but the things she did/said while symptomatic left me feeling anxious and abandoned. Looking back, I believe I was experiencing grief — I was in denial over how much control she had over her illness, and I was angry and sad this illness prevented her from being the mother I felt I needed. It took me years to finally somewhat accept my mother was doing the best she could.

And then in 2010, I learned she was ill, and for the next year I was powerless as I watched her refuse treatment and slowly deteriorate. It was like when I first started to become aware of her mental illness, like I was seeing her slowly slip away from me. My thoughts were, “I just got in a good place with her. I just started building a relationship with her, and now she’s being taken away from me again.” My feelings during her last year were a mixture of numbed denial so I could have the strength to continue to visit her in hospice, anger that she wasn’t adhering to treatment — which echoed the anger I felt in my youth when she stopped taking her mood stabilizers — and anger at myself for not spending time with her when I had a chance.

Lately, whenever I think about her, I feel a muted sadness. I’m sad she was unable to see me get married. I’m sad she was unable to meet her granddaughter. I’m sad we didn’t have more time and that she had to leave when there was still unfinished business between us. I currently cope with these feelings by making sure I honor her memory. I show my daughter pictures so she knows who her Nana is. I light a candle for her during All Souls Day services at my church. My career is actually inspired by her — I used art to cope when I was coming to terms with the impact of her mental illness on my family and myself, and I developed a passion for psychology in order to better understand her. This led to my decision to work on becoming a school counselor, a licensed professional counselor and an art therapist.

The death of someone in your life can be complex and hard. But honoring their memory and finding purpose in the situation, I’ve found, can help one cope and adjust, allowing these changes to become part of the “new normal.”

Image via Thinkstock.

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