Olive Von Topp
Thoughts on Loss & Healing: A Personal Account
*TW contains discussion of death, mental illness, and suicide*
My uncle passed away yesterday and today mark’s seventeen years since my brother Morgan took his own life. So naturally, I have been thinking about loss and well, healing.
I’ve lost quite a few people in my life, though I don’t know that any loss has shaped me as much as the loss of Morgan. Like I imagine many people feel when they lose someone, I feel like he took a huge piece of me with him when he went. A piece of my history, my lineage, my heart, my innocence. And I, of course, have never been the same.
In many ways, seventeen years feels like a lifetime ago. In fact, it was. I was a different person then. And have been several iterations of her since.
Sometimes I berate myself, for not being further ‘along’ on my healing journey, like there is some type of destination you arrive at where you victoriously get stamped “healed” on your grief passport.
Truthfully, in many ways, my healing journey only really begun in the last 10 years, after I had some space for it; some lightness. And some of the deeper work has only happened in the last three. What is that expression, “you can’t heal in the environment that made you sick?” It really wasn’t until after I got out of a toxic relationship (that I got into as my brother was dying) that I had the space to even begin to heal. And so much of that was getting reacquainted with myself; my needs; my desires; my own capacity (as well as trying to heal from that relationship).
So, as I reflect on healing as it relates to (my) loss, I thought I would share some (rather personal) thoughts and lessons. If emotional vulnerability makes you uncomfortable (or if you are triggered by these topics), you should probably stop reading now.
1. Confronting your emotions is integral to healing
Well, this isn’t shocking or ground-breaking at all. But for the longest time, I mean a long ass time, I avoided my emotions. They have always felt too big to be able to manage so instead I developed coping mechanisms to avoid them. My best strategy: Stay so busy you have no time to feel your feelings. And that works, for like a hot minute, until you burn out, develop chronic health issues, or they finally catch up to you and you have a breakdown in the middle of a Wendy’s because they don’t have any mustard packages (or whatever).
After Morgan died, I did the majority of the planning of his funeral. He was really anti-establishment, anti-capitalist, so we held it at a community college, which meant doing most of the prep and planning ourselves. And I took on that roll happily; from picture displays, to setting up, to planning the service, to writing a eulogy. No one else seemed able to do it and I was happy to have the distraction. After the funeral I promptly got to planning his 26th birthday celebration for 5 days later.
But it wasn’t just these isolated events. I kept myself so busy for years. With school, with multiple jobs, with projects, with hobbies, with businesses. If I stayed busy, my feelings couldn’t catch me (spoiler alert: I was wrong).
Not that I consciously thought this, but I know now, from much reflection, that that was what I was doing.
Anyone who has heard me preach the gospel about sitting with your emotions, please know, I come by this honestly. It has taken me a long time and a lot of work to be able to a) identify my emotions (as separate from my thoughts) and b) be willing to sit with and experience them.
And it still continues to be a lot of work and struggle. But it has been key to my healing.
The pandemic has actually been really healing for me, primarily because I had a lot more time and space (and privilege) to be able to sit with and experience my emotions.
2. Ask for help
This may come as a shocker, but I’m not very good at asking for help. Though I’m getting better at it, partly because I know it is also integral to my healing.
I could have (and should have) asked for more help around the funeral. I should have (this is one of the only times you’ll see me use that word) asked for help from my friends when I was in some dark places. I should have asked for more help when I was in my unhealthy relationship, instead of choosing to suffer in private. It took years before I was ready to ask for professional help and consistently see a therapist. I still struggle in asking my friends for emotional support when I need it, but I’m learning. And I continue to push myself to because I know it has and will help me heal.
I’ve also learned that most people want to help you but don’t know how. Often people will be delighted if you give them practical/tangible things they can help with. Though it goes without saying, asking for help doesn’t show weakness, but rather, it shows strength at identifying your own needs and struggles and being willing to be vulnerable enough to ask for what you need. And we know vulnerability creates connection. It also gives others the chance to show up; to feel useful and connected.
3. Your needs are just as important as anyone else’s
Maybe this seems obvious to you, but it didn’t seem obvious to me. For lots of reasons I won’t get into today, I had internalized that my needs weren’t as important as anyone else’s.
So it wasn’t surprising when I put off my own healing and prioritized other people’s emotional needs over my own after Morgan died. Hell, I even built a relationship on that foundation. Truthfully, it seemed easier, but I know differently now. I also know you can’t save anyone but yourself.
It has taken years and countless repetitions of the mantra “Your needs are valid” to start a) recognizing my own needs and b) start asking for them. It wasn’t until I started to believe this that I could really begin my healing work. Part of this work was recognizing my needs and feelings as valid, just as important but separate from others’.
Some of my needs around healing have included: asking for alone time and giving myself permission to say no to things, as well as sit in my feelings and not take on other people’s, putting in boundaries around my own emotional capacity to support other’s, and asking loved ones to ask me/talk to me about Morgan.
Recognizing my needs as valid has helped in my healing journey so much. I still have lots of work to do in this category but I am miles from where I was.
4. Spend time in the happy memories too
This can be really difficult because what were once happy memories are met with sadness, but it is important in keeping your loved one’s memory alive and as a way of celebrating their life.
Because Morgan’s illness started when he was about 12 and I was about 7, there are a lot of painful memories. Often it feels like there are more painful than happy ones. But I also recognize that Morgan was more than his illness and that it is important to honour the fullness of who he was and the joy he brought many by spending time in the happy memories. This in itself has been healing.
5. Healing is not linear and messy af
Oh man, is healing ever messy. It doesn’t look one sort of way. It can feel like one step forward two steps back. It can feel slow. Raw. It feels like being ripped open and sewn back up, only to be ripped open again. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. It takes bravery. It takes time. It gets easier. Be gentle with yourself.