By Tara J Lal
When I was thirteen my mother died of cancer and my father spiraled into debilitating mental illness. I found solace in the connection I had with my beloved older brother. Then, when I was seventeen, he took his own life, leaving me lost in a devastating chasm of grief.
The anguish I felt after my brother’s death was very different to that after my mother’s. I often questioned whether this was a function of my age, the relationship I had with them both, or the manner of their death. Most likely it was all three. The pain after my brother’s death remains tangible. Just one thought or unlikely trigger can take me there in an instant. It’s embedded within me. Yet I have no such ability to revisit the grief after my mother’s death. I remember feeling sad and disconnected, and desperately wanting to talk, but I can’t ‘feel’ it.
I couldn’t grow after mum’s death. In fact, in many ways I became stunted, stuck as a desolate, frightened, 13 year old girl, who took shelter under her brother’s protective wing. When he died, it crucified me. I found myself sitting on a ridge, looking to either side, death to the right, life to the left. Too frightened to reach for either. Instead I swathed myself in heavy cumbersome layers that kept me alive but unable to touch life, or death. I teetered precariously along my ridge, weighed down and perilously imbalanced by my load, focusing only on remaining upright.
With time I came across rocks and boulders often in the form of broken relationships, or other deaths by suicide. I couldn’t move or step over them. In fact they began to pile up and I had to find a new way to negotiate my path. I began attending therapy, I took good care of myself and I gathered tools. Instead of sheltering from the fear, I turned towards it, peeling back the layers, relying increasingly on the warmth from within to keep me safe.
Grief and the intensity of my pain led me on a search, a search for deeper understanding and meaning, a questioning of life, which terrified me. I found the earth and nature comforting, for I knew the value in the simplicity of life. I knew that no amount of material wealth or belongings could bring me happiness. It wasn’t something I thought, it was an innate knowing that came through a conduit from the defining experiences in my life. No amount of reading or teaching could have gifted me that knowledge.
I knew people mattered, but for a long time I was so bound by my layers of protection that I couldn’t connect with myself or anyone else. I began to break down the wall that stood before me, rock by rock, chipping away, staring directly at the fear that emerged. As I did so I found connection, to myself, to the world around me and to others. I discovered a sense of compassion and understanding of myself. It allowed me to be a more authentic me. The person I wanted to be, but had been dismembered by the crushing weight of my past. Finding me brought empathy for others enabling me to forge deeper bonds with people based on genuineness not merely a meeting of ‘masks’.
I found my passions, or perhaps my passions enabled me to find myself for they engaged me fully in life. I didn’t have some great epiphany, just a gradual awakening to what I can only describe as spirituality. It centered and grounded me, bestowing me with an underlying trust in myself and in the world around me. My search had led me to a deeper meaning and purpose in life – to use my pain to make a difference to the lives of others.
I found the colour in my life and I began painting my canvas. The patterns merged, forming new and previously elusive connections. Vibrant colours, subtle tints, obscure hues flowed from my brush gently blending with the darker shades, creating an entire spectrum. Therein lay the beauty and complexity of a life fully lived.
Just as my brother said: ‘Everything finds its place, just as the colour and the beauty do, so does the pain.’.
About the Author: Tara J. Lal is a female firefighter in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Born and bred in London, she holds two university degrees and is a practising physiotherapist. She is trained in suicide prevention and crisis intervention, and managed the Critical Incident Support Program in Fire & Rescue NSW, working with the Black Dog Institute to promote mental health in firefighters. Her vision is to use her book to endorse evidence-based resilience training as a way to enhance growth through trauma.
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