The 11th of March was my birthday but much like most years since my father passed away, eleven years ago, I couldn’t fully enjoy it. While I was excited for the day at the beginning of the month, I became more and more melancholic as it drew nearer. Why? That’s complicated grief for you.
My father, whose passing was a shock to me because I hadn’t seen him in a while, shared the same birthday as me and growing up, it was one of our main sources of bonding. Even though he lived abroad during most of my childhood, I considered our relationship as loving and I was definitely a daddy’s girl. When he passed, I wasn’t told for six weeks because I was in the middle of GCSE exams and once I was told, my mother thought it best that I did not go to his funeral in Ghana.
Since his death my birthday has become a big part of my depressive triggers. I have divided them into categories which are physiological triggers (hormonal changes etc), spontaneous negative life events, seasonal changes and my ‘mourning cycle’ which starts around march and ends in July (the period of my birthday, the anniversary of my father’s death and the anniversary of his funeral).
After feeling irritable and inexplicably upset on the days leading up to my birthday and the day itself, I decided to read up on how grief affects depression. Not because I didn’t already know that loss of a loved one can cause depression but because I had noticed that my mourning cycle presents slightly different symptoms than the others. While I am not keen on socialising during any of these relapses, I was able to have a relatively good day without anxiety attacks. I have recently relocated too, because I needed the change of environment to help me deal with a recent depressive relapse, but I knew that this wouldn’t be helped just because I was getting more vitamin D. Examining the past two or three birthdays, I have dealt with my ‘mourning cycle’ much better over time than any other trigger.
While, grief and depression can obviously co-exist Schimelpfenig, writer at Very Well Mind, claims that grief tends to occur in waves, triggered by reminders of the lost person but more significantly, the grief decreases over time. The reason I am noticing a difference between my actual depressive cycle and when I’m grieving is because I know that the pain of the latter has decreased over the years. Although I cancelled my plans to go out and celebrate over the weekend, I did go to church and spent time with my family which is something I never did in the first few years of my father’s passing. I would wear black every year, switch off my phone and cry all day for the first five years at least. During depressive lapses, I am usually unable to leave my house without anxiety attacks or be alone for extended amounts of time without having to consciously resist self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
So, grief and depression are very distinct experiences for me, but they are also intertwined. Schimelpfenig also states that someone going through grief can usually be ‘distracted’ by being around supportive people and this is why I believe it is important for people to recognise when differences in grief and depression. While depression often requires a lot of medical insight to determine the best course of action, which often includes medication, the burden of grief can be relieved (at least partially) when sufferers have the right emotional support from family and friends during the hardest times.
Unlike depression, grief actually gives way to distractions and I believe that creating new memories to associate with the trigger (in my case, my birthday) would go a long way to decrease the effects of grief, over time, as suggested by Schimelpfenig. Personally, I believe that acknowledging someone’s grief is important. I think in a quest to take clinical depression seriously, we have forgotten that not all mental health issues require drugs or professional therapy. Making an effort to recognise that a friend misses their dead mother, or that grandfather may still be heartbroken over grandma’s death (even though he never says anything) could be a sufferer’s saving grace. Reassuring them that it’s is ok to grieve but that making an effort to distract themselves, as it will help in the long run is something that might be useful here, but care must be taken. If the sufferer shows no signs of their mood elevating, they have probably progressed into depression and Schimelpfenig also states that negatives thoughts unrelated to the deceased person is an indicator of depression rather than grief. However, because grief could have easily become a trigger for a person’s depression, dealing with the grief could possibly improve a person’s quality of life.
Knowing that there is a distinction between depression and grief (even if complicated) is a relief, because now I know that one of my ‘depressive cycles’ isn’t depression at all. This helps me make the necessary behavioural changes in order to deal with my moods more effectively. I have noticed that people are describing depression as a ‘trend’ now and that they can’t take people seriously anymore when they claim to be depressed and I think that is a very uninformed statement to make. I believe many people class themselves as depressed because other conditions, such as grief, have some similar symptoms. I think that rather than labelling people as wolf criers, it is important to keep the conversations on mental health going, in order for people to receive the help they really need – be it medication or more attention from family and friends.
Written by Adjoa Manu
Schimelpfenig, N. 2017, How Do You Know If It’s Grief Or Depression, Very Well Mind, https://www.verywellmind.com/grief-and-depression-1067237