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How Grieving My Mom Was Intensified by Bipolar Disorder

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As a person living with bipolar disorder, I’ve learned grieving the loss of a loved one is complicated beyond what’s deemed a “normal” grief response.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

My mother died two years ago after a long battle with cancer. While I have struggled with depressive episodes for a better part of my life, nothing could have prepared me for the emotional agony of losing my mother. I thought I’d learned enough about how to care for my mental wellness — when and how to get help, how to maintain structure, nutrition and sleep habits. But caregiving for a dying parent blows up any expectation of order and planning. My mother put up a good fight for nearly 10 years. I had moved back to my hometown to care for my mother. 

Some people who are caring for their ill parent may be naively hopeful or confused, as was my case. When I moved back home, I thought I would be able to work and care for my mother. With my mother’s changing needs, it was clear things would not happen that way. And so, I surrendered my imagined plan and threw myself into managing the house, scheduling, going to appointments and whatever else was needed.

I had no intention of sacrificing myself so much, nor did I understand my mental health was not a matter to be taken lightly. Limited resources dictated how Mom would have her needs met. My siblings live out of town, and both hold full-time jobs and could not help. At the time, it didn’t seem as if there were any alternatives. Up until the last year, Mom and I had a steady routine. As a strong-willed woman, Mom was a person who expressed her preferences without hesitation. Hospice care was a wise choice at that point. 

While you may know and expect a loved one will die, that knowledge doesn’t make it any less painful. There is anticipatory grief that permeates your day, a steady rhythm of pain. In the last months, when my mother agreed to hospice in her apartment, the wave of fatigue and anxiety was overwhelming.

When Mom died, I struggled with all the stages of grieving. However, my mind kept replaying Mom’s last days. Unfortunately, the negative loop didn’t subside for months. There wasn’t a “normal” progression. I was stuck and getting worse. The mourning process becomes more intense by existing conditions like bipolar disorder, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I found flashbacks and obsessive thoughts plagued me in mourning. 

How did I navigate through this process? The support of my husband, who knew I needed additional help from God, my psychiatrist, therapist, pastor, family and friends. They all took turns, keeping up the “watch.” I wish I could say there’s a tried and true protocol to follow during this experience, but grief and treatment plans are as unique as the struggling individual. It truly takes a village.

I now cry less and can make plans and look to the future with hope. Arriving at this place has been a long and agonizing process. What has helped me is not comparing my journey to that of another’s. I’ve also steered clear of people who judge what they believe is a “reasonable” period of grief. Comments such as: “Are you OK now? Have you been able to move on?” These are not helpful, and you must set your limits to protect your mental well-being.

Unsplash image by Danielle Macinnes

Originally published: March 16, 2020
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