There is no “new year, new you.” The turning of the calendar doesn't erase you, and especially, not your grief. Grief is always with us, and with the loss of more than 800,000 people in the United States and life as we knew it due to Covid-19, most people are grieving. Processing this feeling in 2022, not searching for an elusive state of magical bliss, is the healthy way to enter the new year.
I have dealt with grief since childhood. When I was 12, my mother left a goodbye note on my bed on a spring day. For 48 hours, I didn't know if she had started a new life or was dead. My family discovered her at a seaside hotel in Northern California. She had attempted suicide. We checked her into a hospital, and I found out she tried this before I was born.
The key is to process grief and grow from it, not wish it away.
I hoped I could ease any worries that Mom was facing. As a child, that meant making New Year resolutions to be a perfect and happy kid — and not to grow up gay. But the fallacy of changing who you are or that life won't throw you any curveballs after the stroke of midnight as the year turns is as dated as calendars past.
We are the same as we were on Dec. 31 at 11:59 p.m. Of course, the desire to have a fresh start is understandable, but the idea of forgetting our sadness or that life will be perfect is unhealthy because it implies there is nothing to learn from grief. Or that we have failed for not getting over it. Thinking our sorrow should vanish sets us up for disappointment. The key is to process grief and grow from it, not wish it away.
We must acknowledge the pain, anger and sadness that comes with grief, along with appreciating joy and love. Every emotion makes us who we are, and there is no success in denying feelings. Reality will come calling before long. That's what happened in my family.
Bestselling author Janet Fitch once said that "A lot of people think they should be happy all the time. But the writer understands you need both. You need the whole piano, the richness of the whole human experience. Depression, suffering and anger are all part of being human. Even though it's very painful as an individual to go through these things, for the writer it's essential. The idea is to not feel wrong because you're feeling this stuff. It will be of value."
It turns out this is actually true for everyone.
For four years after finding Mom's letter, I watched her struggle to heal from her childhood abuse and find joy. Although she tried not to burden me with her grief, and we didn't often talk directly about what was going on, I sensed her desperation to move quickly past the negative moments in her life. She went to therapists, thinking she could erase her pain, cure her sadness and fix what was broken in the past. Not unlike what many of us have been conditioned to do once Jan. 1 comes, Mom and I focused on the future.
We would look at new houses and talk about moving. She talked a lot about getting a graduate degree and getting back to work (she had been an English as a second language teacher) when she was "better." With each year, I thought that I could fix her by loving her and adding to the fantasies of the hopeful future. I wished each new year would bring some significant shift toward happiness.
But the shift never came, and after divorcing my stepfather and enrolling in graduate school, Mom died from respiratory failure in September 1992 on my 16th birthday. She was 44.
I hoped I could ease any worries that Mom was facing. As a child, that meant making New Year resolutions to be a perfect and happy kid — and not to grow up gay.
Watching her was my earliest memory of how no amount of wishing or ignoring could help you get over emotional pain. She never found the perpetual splendor society told her was just around the corner, and I was living with deeper grief I didn't know how to process.The morning after she died, I moved in with my grandmother and my aunt.
A week later, I started 11th grade. Getting good grades became my way of masking the pain. We all went about our daily business as though nothing had happened. A couple of weeks after Mom died, I came out of the closet. My family was mostly supportive, and my sexuality offered us another distraction from our grief as we neared the end of a traumatic year.
A year later, I was still going through the mechanics of daily life, pretending I was OK. I only wanted to survive until I found my happiness. I was good at posturing. I was well-groomed and an honor student who wore a perpetual smile. Through numbness, I denied my sadness, and at 17, I followed in my mother's footsteps, trying to commit suicide by taking a box of medication. My grief had turned into depression.
According to new research by the Boston University School of Public Health, 32.8 percent of American adults experienced depression in 2021. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2019, suicide accounted for more than 47,500 deaths. That same year, 12 million adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt and 1.4 million attempted suicide.
Depression and behaviors that can stem from depression are serious, and they cannot be ignored or fixed with feel-good New Year's traditions.
My attempt was swept under the rug by my family. My aunt dismissed me as if I had faked it. My grandmother, a devout Christian, turned to God to understand and love me, but I was not religious.
I had just tried to kill myself, but they worried more about the physical violence others could do to me for being gay. Somehow that was easier than facing our grief.
As you go into 2022, I encourage you to reflect on the things you've been saddened by.
With no real support to get through this trauma, I felt like I had to care for myself. As a teenager, that meant continuing to excel in school and acting as though I was living my best life. After graduating, I worked my way through the University of Southern California — earning a degree in psychology.
The whole time, I experienced the many "complicated grief" symptoms identified by the Mayo Clinic: numbness, detachment, persistent longing or pining for the deceased, depression, deep sadness, guilt or self-blame. I had forgotten how to experience happiness. I was only existing.
I stayed busy until I found myself trying to fix a partner the way I tried to fix my mother. Studying psychology gave me some insight that I didn't have growing up. A realization set in: trying to heal someone else would not help me process what I was going through. I needed help outside of myself, so I found a therapist.
By then, I was 25. I ended up spending years in therapy, workshops, books and sound baths. First, trying to get "happy," like Mom tried to do with her therapists, and then I realized I didn't have to "get" anything. I only needed to feel what I felt.
Today, my life is whole. I'm healthy, in a loving relationship, and recently finished a graduate degree. I'm sometimes happy and sometimes sad — and still grieve my mom's death. That's OK. You don't have to pretend to be a "new you" when the clock strikes midnight, and you don't have to pretend to be over something just because a year has passed.
As you go into 2022, I encourage you to reflect on the things you've been saddened by. Is it a personal loss? Perhaps it's the overwhelming feeling of entering the third year of a pandemic? Climate change? The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol? Political polarization? Whatever it is, one of the healthiest things you can do is to acknowledge grief and feel happiness in moments of joy you experience.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.