What I Learnt From Joey Essex
Recently I sat down to watch Joey Essex: Grief and Me on BBC iPlayer, with the expectation that he would be ignorantly jumping on the mental health bandwagon, sharing his experiences in a way that would make the misunderstandings and social stigmas surrounding mental illness worse.
Yet, here I am, unable to remember a time when a celebrity TV documentary moved me quite so deeply.
Joey lost his mum to suicide when he was just 10 years old and now, at the age of 30, he has decided that it's time to stop running from his pain and start to try to process it with the support of therapist, Stephen Blumenthal.
In sharing his story, Joey has helped us shed some light on the way grief and bereavement changes when death interacts with shock and tragedy; and how that interaction makes the grief response more complex than when it is experienced in more expected circumstances.
So, let's explore some of these insights:
1. We live in denial
When a death is shocking and tragic, it is often simply too much for your brain to process so although we acknowledge what has happened and we outwardly appear to go through the motions of grief and bereavement, our brains rarely accept shocking deaths. This disconnect between our internal and external worlds can cause a whole host of emotional challenges, anxieties and behavioural conflicts.
Additionally, this disconnect can often extend into therapeutic environments where friends, family and therapists offer support and guidance that is entirely redundant given our lack of processing and acceptance. The pain and processing cycle surrounding unexpected death can last decades; with us being trapped between the desire to process death and remove the anxieties and emotional challenges that unprocessed grief creates whilst finding the very act of that processing too psychologically damaging to undertake.
2. Recovery feels impossible
When an acute trauma occurs; whether it's a fatal road accident, a homicide or an accidental death, returning to a normal life feels impossible. Society often reaffirms this thinking in the way they perceive and portray shocking and tragic death. The TV & Film industry normalise self destructive responses to grief. As a society we believe that people in the most pain often show it through substance abuse, antisocial actions and destructive behaviours. Responding to acute trauma feels all the more challenging because we simply don't know how; we don't have access to the tools or resources so desperately required and even health professionals struggle with knowing what to 'do' with complex cases of trauma and grief.
3. We don't want to let go
When someone you love has been taken away from you, having your pain and sadness is better than having nothing at all. I clearly remember people telling me that I needed to 'let go' and thinking that it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. How or why would I want to let go of someone I loved so much? What people don't tell you is that when you let go of the pain and the hurt and the anger, you can make way for love and gratitude and an acceptance that previously didn't seem possible. It can be useful to change the language we use and realign expectations of what 'letting go' really means. 'Letting go' is actually reconnecting. It is switching our focus from how we have been affected by someone's death to how we were impacted by someone's life. Letting go, is in fact the only way to celebrate, remember and maintain life without constant unbearable pain and heartache.
4. Love is a Catch 22
Shocking and tragic death often leaves us desperately searching for love; a relationship or even fleeting moments that can temporarily fill the void that grief creates. Yet, love in all its forms is much harder to trust when it has been taken away from us; friendships, relationships and even family relations can feel hard to maintain. On the outside is the appearance of being erratic, selfish and unreliable but the internal reality is often much harder to understand. We often push people away in a frantic attempt to protect ourselves and remain in control of our loss. It can be difficult to feel lovable or even likable when we are carrying so much pain and hurt and subsequently we are looking for someone to help 'fix' us, to fill our void rather than create a relationship that has value in its own right.
“We are often expected to trust in a process, that no one explains to us, without being given the knowledge needed to really understand the unique response that acute trauma creates. It leaves us alone in our brains battling with confusing, complicated and often frightening thoughts that conflict with any rational reasoning.”
At This is Acute Trauma, we continue to develop research, practice and create resources to raise awareness of the acute trauma response and improve the quality of support and interventions made available to those that need it.
Find out more about our work on COVID-19 as an acute trauma response here.