Navigating Grief in the Bipolar Sea

If I thought life in general was hard to navigate with bipolar disorder, life in a state of grief and profound adjustment is like charting unknown waters.  I’ve been preparing and processing the eventuality of my dad’s death all summer, so these feelings that rise and fall are familiar and almost comforting.  I’ve also partnered with my sister and mom in his care, so I know how they respond to their own feelings.  I know what to expect from them, which is also a comfort.  Bipolar demands consistency or it flies off its fragile fulcrum, becoming symptomatic.  At least it does for me.

What I’m finding is that my deep weariness is tweaking the illness and making me even more sensitive to stimuli.  Too many details to take care of, too many  retellings of Dad’s final days, too many people needing to express their own grief to us, too much odd food.  My ability to flex and adapt is compromised.  I dread the upcoming public events—Visitation and the Funeral.  I don’t think I can stand so many people crowding close, talking, touching.

So, I have to figure out how to do this without losing my mind, how to be a part of this process and not get so overloaded that I’ll cease to function.

Two things are important to me—to be able to support my mom and to do the pieces of the funeral service that I’ve prepared.  Supporting Mom requires awareness—seeing when she needs to stay busy and in control, when she needs to talk about Dad and her feelings, and when she needs quiet and rest.  Supporting Mom means keeping other worries at a minimum (like whether or not I’ll fall apart) and supporting her decisions instead of throwing out my own quixotic ideas.  Awareness requires that I stay conscious of my own inner turmoil and thoughts.  Circumstance and emotion carry a strong undertow now, so keeping my head above the surface is wicked-hard.  I’m already bone-tired, so this added struggle feels like flailing.  I’m doing the best I can, but the waters are winning.

On Wednesday at the funeral, I will lead a guided meditation to send Dad off to his next adventure, then do a reading from Awakening Osiris.  In my old life as a ministerial guide at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community in Minneapolis, I performed weddings and funerals as part of my calling.  I led a weekly meditation service.  Spiritual transitions were what I did best and what I loved to facilitate.  Doing that for my own dad and for those of us grieving him is important to me.  I know I’m not the person I was when I used to perform ministerial functions.  I know it will be incredibly difficult to stand in front of a congregation again.  But I need to do this, and my family is willing to let me.

Part of my passion around this is to balance the service.  My Dad was a devout atheist.  When I asked him once where he thought we went when we died, he said, “We don’t go anywhere—we’re dead.”  If he had a whiff of spirituality, it involved the cycle of the seasons, the power of rain and sun and earth.  He said several times that he didn’t want “someone preaching over me.”

But, I know a funeral is for the living, it’s to give comfort to the survivors and offer hope when the uncertainty of death rises up.  And since the majority of people coming to Dad’s funeral will be Christians, a Christian service is necessary.  But, like my dad, I’m not a Christian.  Scripture and words about “going home” offer me no comfort.  The young pastor from my sister’s church is a lovely man and willing to adapt his service to fit Dad’s beliefs to a point.  But, if I want something to take away from this ritual, I have to provide it myself.

So these next few days will be a crucible for me.  Can I maintain some level of awareness even though my illness is active?  Can I find ways to limit the sensory stimulus so that I can remain a part of the events?  Can I support my mom without sacrificing myself?  Can I call up an old part of myself that’s been dormant for years and offer something of substance to those who grieve my dad’s passing, including myself?

I’ll do my best and, as always, that will be enough.

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kathryn McCullough
    Oct 17, 2011 @ 07:14:30

    This post is a profoundly exquisite reflection on the impact grief has on the bipolar experience. “I’m doing the best I can, but the waters are winning”–perhaps, that says it best.

    Please remember to treat yourself with the same care and concern you extend to your mother. Hang in there, my friend! Peace to your entire family.

    Kathy

    Reply

  2. pegoleg
    Oct 17, 2011 @ 09:29:23

    I’m so very sorry for your loss. I hope all your great memories, shared with others who loved your dad, will be a comfort to you. As you said, all you can do is your best and that is all that anyone can do.

    Reply

  3. Deb
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 22:01:17

    Bless you, dear friend, for the power of your words and your indomitable understanding of your disease and compassion for others. My heart, as always, is with you.

    Reply

    • Sandy Sue
      Oct 18, 2011 @ 22:24:24

      This is such a weird thing for good friends to share—sending our dads to the Other Side in the same week. We will have so much to talk about later.

      Reply

  4. ManicMuses
    Oct 20, 2011 @ 09:04:47

    You are wise enough to realize your own well-being must be addressed so half the wellness battle is already won. I hope the events weren’t too stressful and that you now have a chance to grieve on your own. I wish you peace and balance.

    Reply

    • Sandy Sue
      Oct 20, 2011 @ 20:07:09

      It feels like the family is still in Circle-the-Wagons-Around-Mom mode. My brother goes home tomorrow, so that will start the peeling off process. I think Mom, my sister and I are a little nervous about getting back to “normal.” How can we do that, really?

      Reply

  5. susanscotfry
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 13:41:29

    Thank you so much for writing this. It just occurred to me that perhaps the reason I’m so very, very far off kilter is that, in addition to being bipolar, I’m in the midst of grief. The waters are winning. I can surf them through to the other side. I’m so grateful to you for this blog post.

    Reply

  6. angela
    Aug 17, 2013 @ 13:36:47

    I have bp2 and have been stable and on the right meds for over a year now. A month ago, my younger brother took his own life after fighting a battle with his own mental health for several years. It is so complicated and I’m grateful that I was very stable and well before this happened, but I’m worried about how I’ll handle this grief and how my illness will affect me, or how this might affect my illness. I hope you are doing well and welcome any advice or feedback.

    Reply

    • Sandy Sue
      Aug 17, 2013 @ 16:06:11

      Hi, Angela. I’m so sorry for your loss. Your brother’s death must have brought up all kinds of issues for you, but after a month you can probably see how this particular stress is affecting you. My biggest concern is that you seek out support—from your therapist, from friends, and from other family members (if they are supportive). Other than that, I would ask you to stay observant–pay attention to any distorted thinking that sneaks in, be aware of your physical needs like sleep and diet. If journaling is a tool for you, use it. Do what you need to do in order to take care of yourself. My heart is with you.

      Reply

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