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.

Claudia Boleyn on BPD and Obsessions

I’ve written about Claudia Boleyn’s videos before but this is another great one that I think really clearly explains something that happens with Borderline Personality Disorder (also becoming known as Emotional Intensity Disorder) and various other mental health problems. I really recommend watching it.

In this video, Claudia talks about how, when you’re struggling with your mental health, you can develop obsessions with certain things, particularly fandom related things: fictional characters, books, TV shows, etc. These special interests can overlap with autistic special interests but they can also come about as a coping mechanism; they can become an escape from the difficulties of the real world.

She talks about how she can categorise her life by her obsessions, including Emmerdale and Anne Boleyn and certain areas of art history. She talks in particular about her obsession with Anne Boleyn, how it strengthens her and gets her through the really tough times. She even uses Boleyn as a surname: “I use it to exist in the world.” She talks about how she uses this obsession and others to understand herself. All of this makes those obsessions really special and important. I can definitely relate to this. My life can be divided up by my obsessions: animals but particularly horses – I obsessively read the Animal Ark and Saddle Club book series – Harry Potter, crime dramas, Taylor Swift, certain youtubers, anything superhero related…

“My identity and my life is sort of filled up with the stories of other people rather than stories of my own.”

With BPD, there’s the extra layer of struggling with your identity and your sense of self. Claudia talks about how she would go to school dressed as her favourite characters and how a teacher once asked her, ‘When will you come to school dressed as yourself?’ But that’s really hard when you don’t know who you are. I’ve always found it very easy to lose myself in fandoms or characters because I don’t know who I am to begin with and I’ve had a couple of experiences where I’ve done things I didn’t actually want to do because I thought that’s what a character would do, i.e. what I should do to embody those good characteristics.

“I’ve never felt like I have a proper identity in myself so I’ve sort of constructed one in a way based on what I admire and what I want to be and what will make me as good a person as I can be and what will make me contribute to the world but it’s really tough.”

It can be a good, helpful strategy – until it starts to dictate your emotional state.

“I think this isn’t spoken about enough with BPD, especially because we can struggle with identity and who we are and what sort of people we are. I think we often construct ourselves based around fiction and around those characters we admire and I think it matters a lot to us. It feels like it becomes a part of our identity in a way, so when it goes wrong, it feels like we’re falling apart. Yeah, it’s difficult.”

Another problem in BPD is that of regulating your emotions. Small things – day to day things – can have massive impacts on your mood. It can be exhausting and stressful to go through such ups and downs and it’s constant; there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty involved. So escaping into an obsession or fandom can be helpful and soothing but then, when something goes wrong in or around that fandom, for example, it can cause really negative emotions because your escape, your safe place, has been threatened. It might seem extreme from the outside but it’s very real and personal if you’re going through it.

I really relate to this video and I’m really grateful to Claudia for putting it out into the world. We need to talk about all parts of living with mental health, not just the relatively straightforward ones.

Grateful 2018

Last year, I posted on Christmas Eve about the things I was grateful for (here) and I really liked it as a practice. Since we don’t have Thanksgiving in the UK, there’s no holiday directly related to being thankful and I think it’s important to make time to think and feel these things. And I always feel overwhelmed by how lucky I am at Christmas so this seems like a good time to do it, to do this post.

My family – I am endlessly grateful to my family. They have loved and supported me through some really difficult times this year and even though that’s what family should do, I’m so, so grateful to them for doing that. I don’t take them for granted. A particular shout out to my Mum for going above and beyond. She’s my hero.

My friends – I am also endlessly grateful to my friends. I haven’t seen as much of them as I would’ve liked this year but I’ve been doing my best to stay in touch. They mean so much to me and I hope they know that. Again, a particular shout out to Richard because he has been incredible this year, supporting me as a friend and a writing partner. I’m more grateful than I can say.

My therapist – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am so grateful for my therapist. My depression has been brutal this year and there were more than a few moments where I had no idea how I was going to survive (I say that like it’s over and I’m not sure whether it’s over or not). I absolutely wouldn’t have made it through that without her.

Song Suffragettes – If you don’t know what Song Suffragettes is, prepare to have your musical life changed. It’s an organisation in Nashville that focuses on boosting the up and coming female songwriting talent and they have weekly shows showcasing these awesome women. I was lucky enough to join them on my last trip to Nashville and it was definitely the best day of my year (and one of the best in my life). Everyone involved is so lovely and they are doing such important work. Check them out on Twitter here.

Claire Wineland – I’ve written about Claire quite a bit (here, herehere, and here if you’re interested) but she’s been on my mind a lot. I miss her – her presence in my life – more than I know what to do with but I am so grateful to have had her at all. That doesn’t make me okay with what happened (not at all) but I am grateful. She was an incredible human being and she’s still helping people even though she’s no longer here.

Flowers – This is a simple one but having beautiful, colourful flowers around improves my mood and improves my day. In a year that’s felt very dark and colourless, having flowers in the house has made a noticeable difference to my day-to-day life.

My bullet journal – Having somewhere to organise my thoughts and my life has been so helpful. Up until now I’ve never had a system that really worked for me so this is a big deal. I’ve written more about it here.

Lauren Kaech – I discovered Lauren on YouTube earlier this year and I have found her videos and her attitude really inspiring. I talked about her in my post about social media favourites and she makes videos about her experience of living with an eating disorder. And while that’s not an experience I can directly relate to, there are aspects that I can. She talks about facing the things that scare you, the realities of happiness, and a whole host of recovery related topics that apply to anxiety and depression as well as eating disorders. I’m so grateful to have had this in my life this year and at my very worst (in the very worst of my depression), looking forward to her videos got me through the day and kept me going.

Swimming – I’ve written a whole post about this (here) but I wanted to include it here because I’m so, so grateful for it. Almost every morning, I get up and go to the pool and do something that makes sense. Even if the rest of the day doesn’t, that does. I’m also really proud of myself for keeping this up for six months, especially given how bad my depression has been.

Taylor Swift – Miss Swift was on my grateful list last year and the reasons are all still relevant. But this year, I got to see her live (twice!) and that experience was so much fun in the middle of a really dark place. I felt all that weight lift for a couple of hours and that is a big deal. I’m also really grateful to her for voicing her political opinions (breaking her career long silence on the subject) and encouraging young people to vote. In the twenty four hours after she made her Instagram post on the subject, 65,000 people registered to vote, which is just incredible. It made me really proud to be a fan. I don’t think I can say more than, as always, I am grateful for Taylor Swift.

So there you have it. I could write more – there are so many things to be grateful for – but I’ll stop there. I’m wishing you all a safe, happy, and healthy Christmas and I’ll see you in the next post.