Hi, my name is Callista.

At first, when Tamara asked me to write a post for Project Night Light around mental wellness, I didn’t think that my story, met the impact of what this incredible Not for Profit is. But upon reflection, I now believe that I initially felt that way because I haven’t really sat down to think about my experiences with mental health in this way,  which is exactly why being able to share our experiences is so important.

“No-one told me that grief felt so like fear”.

This quote encaptures fully how grief has affected me, more so than I can express in my own words. I can still remember the night my sister and I were told that our mom had terminal lung cancer. I can remember what I was doing, eating, even where I was standing in my house when my Dad called me at 9:00 PM to help him move a couch. I remember the short drive feeling like forever because I knew something was wrong. I remember the exact words spoken, and how my sister and I both fell into our mom, who sat between us, hugging her tightly and crying. I remember all of this more than I do my mothers laugh, her voice, her touch. After that night, I was introduced to a lingering sense of fear and anxiety, unlike anything I knew before. If I am being honest with myself, that fear still exists today.

Leading up to my mom passing, I experienced only what I could describe as a rollercoaster of emotions. I felt displaced anger, knowing that I was losing my mother when others (thankfully) get to have a lifetime with theirs. I felt guilty, especially when I saw my mother in so much pain, a skeleton of who she was both physically and emotionally, and I wished for her to go so she wouldn’t feel that way anymore. I felt guilty about being in school and working…and seeing my friends. I felt fear, anytime I left my mom to go home, or when I missed a phone call. I slept with my phone in my hand for two years, fearful and anxious of the call I knew was coming. My anxiety would take form in other ways; the inability to focus at school or meet deadlines at work. I lost my appetite and didn’t practice self-care physically or emotionally. I felt like a shell of who I was – I felt powerless, vulnerable, scared, unmotivated…even small tasks would seem hard.

That call did finally come in April 2015, and I had to physically say goodbye to my mom. It may sound strange but I was ready too. I had two years to prepare…they call this anticipatory grief.

In those two years, I was able to cope, barely, with my situation. I think that from the outside it was hard to maybe tell how fragile I was on the inside. I don’t even think I recognized it myself. I am lucky that during those two years( and presently) I had a community that was the lifeline for my mental health. It wasn’t until after my mother passed that I began to focus on and realize how important my mental health is, and how to manage my grief. Grief has no normal timeline, it is not finite, as even though someone has physically left you, there are parts of them that linger – that you say goodbye to in pieces.

I have learned to understand this process, and it is still something that changes and adapts often. The first step I took for myself and for my mental health was to take time for my self-care, rebuilding that shell of myself, my soul and my physical well-being. For me, this was a long period of reflection and allowing myself to face my feelings. If I wanted to cry over making zucchini ( because it reminded me of my mom) I let myself cry. If I wanted to laugh until it hurt at something I let myself laugh without feeling guilty because I should according to some people be in mourning and sadness.

I learned to identify what my grief triggers are, for me it’s Christmas, for others it could be different. To cope with my grief during these times, I turn to yoga, music, writing, as well as surrounding myself with a strong community. I also learned that if I can take something that makes me feel sad and turn it into a positive it helps. Spending time at Christmas focusing on volunteering helps me cope with the sadness I feel. Another trigger is when someone tells me how I should feel. Grief is very personal, and by recognizing my triggers and being able to talk about how I feel, I am able to put my mental wellness first. I have learned that it is OK to talk about how I feel and ask for help and to be honest with myself about where I am mentally. My grief has manifested itself in new ways, and I have discovered I still have fear and anxiety that lingers underneath the surface. I am fearful and anxious when I get phone calls at weird hours and when someone is vague when I have 10 missed call from my Dad… I have realized I don’t respond well to those situations – I shut down, I cry, shake –  and have to work through this new form of anxiety. The positive is that I can identify that it is a trigger and talk about my anxiety and manage my stress.

In reflection, it is so important to be mindful, to encourage conversation, to seek help and know it is OK to ask for help,  to put your self-care first and lean on your support system. It is OK to express your feelings – for me, it has been freeing as it allows me to acknowledge the impact of my mothers’ life.

My situation is not unique, but the ways in which each person copes is unique. What doesn’t change is the importance of being in tune and mindful to your own mental wellness and where to turn to cope with grief, anxiety, fear and anything else you may be feeling. Knowing your own triggers and being able to manage your stress can be life-saving –  triggers for my own anxiety and grief has helped me climb out of very sad and dark places. The stigma around mental health is something we need to challenge, and everyone from our kids to our grandparents has to know it is OK to love themselves and feel free from judgment so that they can feel supported. I am so grateful to organizations like Project Nightlight for working to break the stigma.