Mourning A Public Figure

Last week was the two year anniversary of Claire Wineland’s death. She was a twenty one year old activist, raising awareness around Cystic Fibrosis and founding Claire’s Place Foundation to support children with Cystic Fibrosis and their families. She spoke at many conferences (including TEDx and the International Respiratory Convention and Exhibition) and posted multiple videos on YouTube, talking about her illness but also her life and her thoughts on various subjects.

In 2018, she went into hospital for a double lung transplant. I remember watching the Instagram Live where she announced that she’d received the call as she dashed around her home, gathering everything she needed. It was so exciting and I was so happy for her. She had the surgery and everything seemed to be going well. But then she had a stroke and a week later, according to her advanced directive, was taken off life support. She died on the 2nd September 2018 at the age of twenty one. I wrote several posts about her, including one in remembrance.

I was deeply upset at the news of Claire’s death. When I discovered her YouTube videos in mid-2017, I instantly fell in love with her personality, her eloquence, her thoughtfulness. I really felt a lot of the ideas she expressed and despite the fact that we’d had very different life experiences, it felt like we had something in common, something in the way we thought and felt. And despite only having a few interactions on Twitter, I felt a connection to her – obviously not the same connection as the ones I have with my friends, for example, but a connection nonetheless. She had a big impact on my life and when she died, I felt like I could feel the edges of the space in which she’d previously existed, like there was a hole where she’d been. It was a very distressing feeling.

Two years later and I still feel her loss. She was so full of life. You know how some people just seem bigger than others, have minds somehow more infinite, have something extra special about them? That was always the way Claire felt to me. I’d felt so sure that I’d watch her go on to do even more great things. Her death felt so unfair and it still does. It still hurts. The documentary about her, CLAIRE, came out on the first anniversary of her death and as much as I want to watch it, I haven’t been able to. It’s just felt too hard. One day, I will but I just haven’t felt ready.

Over the last few years, I’ve had several similar experiences. The first, I believe, was Cory Monteith in 2013. I was still watching Glee at the time and he was so young; his death was so sudden. Then there was David Bowie, who has always been incredibly important to my brother, and Alan Rickman, who had been a consistent presence in my life through his role in the Harry Potter films. If you’ve read previous posts of mine, you’ll know how important Harry Potter has been throughout my life. And more recently, there have been the deaths of Cady Groves, a singer I’ve been a fan of for a decade, and Naya Rivera, another Glee alumni.

I struggled with each of these deaths, all of these people having had an impact on my life. But I think the only death that has had as dramatic an effect on me as Claire Wineland’s was that of Christina Grimmie. I’d been following Christina on YouTube for years; I just fell in love with her voice and her piano playing, how unapologetically herself she was. She was about my age and pursuing music so it’s not surprising that I related to her. But with managing both my mental health and university, I’d fallen behind on a lot of people in my social media bubble, Christina included. Then I woke up one day and she was gone; I still remember the moment I found out. I was stuck in a state of paralysed shock for days and I had nightmares that went on for months. Much like with Claire, I felt like there was a hole in the fabric of the universe where Christina had been, should still be. Even now, I still think of her often.

Grieving for a celebrity or public figure can feel like a bit of a minefield, I think. There’s the internal conflict: you didn’t know them personally but the feelings are still very powerful. Plus there are always people ready to tell you that you don’t have the right to mourn someone you never actually knew and because you didn’t know them, whatever you’re feeling can’t be grief. But personally, I don’t agree.

Grief is an incredibly complex emotion. I don’t think anyone truly understands it. Personally, I wouldn’t classify it as a single emotion; I see it more as an umbrella term, a checklist of things you may experience although you won’t necessarily experience all of them. I don’t think there’s a big enough word to describe what we go through when we’re grieving. It’s a natural disaster, an emotional natural disaster. It’s so complicated and having lived through both the losses of people in my life and public figures I cared (and still care) about, it’s my experience that the two are definitely different (having said that, we could have a whole other conversation about how the grief for each person is completely different) but that they’re both real and they’re both profound.

I definitely want to write more posts about grief but I want to keep this one to the grieving of a public figure. As I said, it is, of course, different to losing a person who is physically in your life but if you feel a connection to someone, it is inevitable that their death will be painful. As far as I’m concerned, that connection is the key. Whether they’re an actor, singer, writer, activist… they’re all reaching out, with their stories, their songs, their words. They’re reaching out with the intention of creating a connection with another person, a person who finds meaning in what they have to say. And I think it’s fair to say that – often – the deepest connections are the ones that are built from the most personal places (for example, their presence or their work has gotten you through a difficult time, you relate strongly to something they’ve said or created, etc). So of course we would feel the loss that connection. Of course it would be painful and distressing and maybe even traumatic.

And then there’s the moving forward to consider. There will always be things that remind you of them, such as events they would go to or public appearances they’d make. And in the case of creatives, yes, we will always have their past work but that may be difficult to consume again: the emotions and memories associated with them may be overwhelming; it may be painful because it reminds you that they’re no longer here; if they helped you through difficult times, it may be difficult knowing that they won’t be there to help you through any future hard times; knowing that they’ll never create or release anything new may be distressing, especially when the release of new work was a big occasion in your life.

I think that the only way to truly move through an event like this is to talk about it or, at the very least, express your emotions:

  • Hopefully your loved ones will understand what you’re going through, especially if you’ve mentioned this person before or they’ve seen or heard you consuming their content, whether that’s listening to their music, watching their videos, or reading their works. If you can talk to someone close to you and at least get your emotions out of your body; sometimes I think that keeping the emotions stored inside your body only makes them harder to shift further down the road. (If someone you don’t feel comfortable telling the whole truth asks you why you’re upset, you can always tell them that a friend or someone you know has died – that will explain your mood and they’re unlikely to ask too many questions.)
  • You can express your feelings on social media, if you feel comfortable sharing with an unknown audience. Sometimes that can be too scary but sometimes it can be cathartic to put your thoughts out into the world, not knowing where they’ll go or who they’ll reach.
  • You can write a letter to the person who has died. I’ve always found writing to be a good way of getting my emotions out. If you want to, you could post it online if you keep a blog or something similar, or you could simply keep it for yourself as a reminder of what they meant to you and everything you felt at that particular moment in time. When it comes to such an emotionally charged moment, in the future you may want to remember everything about the experience. You may not, of course, but you can’t know that in the present moment.
  • I’ve always found journaling to be very helpful in coping with and managing the ebb and flow of my emotions. Since it’s just for me, I can feel and say whatever I like without fear of judgement, which I think allows me to move through each emotion with less friction. Putting words to what I’m feeling somehow makes it all easier to process and work through. It doesn’t necessarily mean those feelings go away, but the strength of them does become easier to cope with. And then at some point, they simply become a part of you, a piece in your mosaic.

I’m sure there’s more to say. When it comes to grief, there always is. But I think I’ll leave it there. I hope you leave this post knowing that whoever or whatever you grieve for, your grief is valid and I hope that, if you’re going through any kind of grief, that you’ve found some way to manage it and/or that you have people to support you. I’m not sure if it ever goes away but it does change. Life goes on, even if it feels unbearably unfair. So carry with you the gifts they gave you and try to do some of the good that they would be doing were they still here.

My Mental Health Journey Began With Stephen Fry

I’m not sure how I’ve written roughly two hundred blog posts and never told this story but I recently found the letters containing all the details and so I thought I’d finally tell it because it was a really important moment in my life.

I’d struggled with what obviously turned out to be Autism and the mental health issues that developed due to that going undiagnosed for years but I’d always been dismissed, told that “every teenager struggles.” But if that was true, I couldn’t figure out why everyone seemed to be coping so much better than me. It was awful and I just felt like I was failing and wrong and always slightly out of sync with everyone else. But if this was normal, then I was going to have to figure out how to live with it. Because apparently everyone else had.

As a teenager, I went to the Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye, Wales a handful of times. It’s a really cool arts festival and I’ve heard (and met) some of my favourite authors there over the years. But my most significant memory is from when I heard Stephen Fry speaking about mental health. What he said changed my life. He talked about his experience with depressive episodes and suicidal ideation and equated the ups and downs of mental health to the weather:

“I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather. Here are some obvious things about the weather: It’s real. You can’t change it by wishing it away. If it’s dark and rainy, it really is dark and rainy, and you can’t alter it. It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row. BUT it will be sunny one day. It isn’t under one’s control when the sun comes out, but come out it will. One day. It really is the same with one’s moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. Depression, anxiety, listlessness – these are all are real as the weather – AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE’S CONTROL. Not one’s fault. BUT they will pass: really they will. In the same way that one really has to accept the weather, one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes, ‘Today is a really crap day,’ is a perfectly realistic approach. It’s all about finding a kind of mental umbrella. ‘Hey-ho, it’s raining inside; it isn’t my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow, and when it does I shall take full advantage.'”

(This isn’t the exact quote from the event but this is a metaphor he’s used multiple times and is very similar to what he said that day.)

Everything he was talking about made absolute sense to me; for the first time, someone was saying ‘this isn’t normal,’ ‘this isn’t something you should have to learn to live with,’ ‘this is something that can be helped.’ For the first time in my life, I felt like someone understood what I was going through. Some of the feelings and experiences he described were so similar to mine that it took my breath away. I walked out of the tent in a daze and as soon as we had a bit of privacy, I told my Mum everything.

After that, we went to see my GP and started steadily exploring the options that the NHS provided. Things really deteriorated and the search became much more urgent after I failed an exam (I talk about that in this post and this post) and we were forced to go private to get me the help I needed as fast as possible, before it got worse. If you’ve read the posts about me getting my various diagnoses, you’ll know that, after several years of talking to lots of different people, I ended up being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder.

And on and off during that time, I thought about that Stephen Fry talk and what he’d said and how everything might’ve turned out differently if not for that moment. So, not long after I got my diagnoses, I wrote to him. I wanted to thank him for his part in my journey. I didn’t know if he’d get it but I wanted to try anyway.

To my utter surprise, he not only got it but a few months later, I got a response. I don’t feel comfortable sharing it because he wrote it only for me and to circulate it feels like a breach of trust. I don’t know if that’s how he’d feel but that’s how it feels to me. But he was warm and kind and generous with his words and I’m so, so grateful. I’ve often returned to it in times of difficulty and it’s helped me pick myself up again and again. This letter is a deeply cherished possession, a gift I never in a million years thought I’d receive.

A Letter Under The Floorboards

Today is exactly a year since we moved house. That was a terrible day. It was stressful and upsetting and exhausting. I had a meltdown when we finally collapsed in the new house (surrounded by boxes and carefully balanced furniture) and neither me nor my Mum slept that night. It was all just too much.

It’s better now. I’m still adjusting, but then I had spent most of my life in that house so I didn’t expect a quick recovery. I’m getting there. My room almost feels like my room.

Since we moved out, we’ve actually learned quite a bit about the history of the house and the people who lived there. Our favourites are two women who lived and worked together their whole lives, the first head and deputy head of Varndean School. We even found pictures of them, which is really cool. We were all weirdly moved to learn these stories.

When we moved out, I wasn’t thinking about the history of the house and our part in it. I was just trying to figure out a way to say goodbye. So I wrote a letter and tucked it under the loose floorboard in my room. It was a letter to any and all future occupants, asking them to look after the house for us, for me. We’re part of the house’s history now and perhaps, one day, someone will find this letter and feel the same way about us as we feel about these two women. And since we live in a technological age and the first step of investigation is to google something, I thought I’d put this out into the internet. Maybe one day they’ll find me.

To whoever finds this,

This has been my bedroom, on and off, for about seventeen years. That’s most of my life. That’s a surreal thought, one that I’m trying not to obsess over. It took a long time to feel okay about moving and I’m scared that thinking too hard about all of it will be the wind that blows me back into that storm. I didn’t think I’d survive it the first time. I don’t want to leave but I don’t want leaving to be a life altering tragedy. I’m trying to remember that I don’t need this room to be me, even if it feels like that sometimes.

A lot has happened in this room, in this house. I grew up here, watched thunderstorms, brought friends over for dinner, celebrated birthdays and Christmases. I wrote stories and songs and my brother learned lines and turned the flickers of ideas into masterpieces. I said a last goodbye to my cat of fifteen years, learned that I could love another one, and then raised two litters of kittens with her. I taught my dog to sit, sneaked him onto the sofa when no one was home, and sang to him while emptying the dishwasher. I studied for GCSEs, A Levels, and my degree. I graduated with a first and I found out in this room. I had my heart broken. I struggled with my health and my mental health. I found out that my Dad had died.

 I worry that leaving this room, this house, means leaving all of those things behind and that I’ll lose myself because of that. It may not be rational but it’s how I feel. I hope that I’ve managed to box all of that up with my belongings but I guess I’ll see when I get to the new house. There’s a little voice in my head that says that the rooms feel empty because we’ve packed all the memories and emotions but I’m scared to believe it.

Maybe this is all too flowery and fluffy for you. That’s fine. A room can be just a room. A house can be just a house. But regardless of whether you see it as four walls or a time capsule, please take care of it for me. For us. We have loved it dearly and hope that you will do the same. Fill it with life (and extra radiators because, as you’ll soon find out, it’s practically impossible to keep it warm). I hope you will feel as safe here as I have.

Look after this place. I’m trusting that you will.

LAH

16/04/18