In 1997, my Dad took his own life. The shock of it felt physical and I still vividly
remember the feeling of the world falling away beneath my feet when I found out.
Back then, there wasn’t the awareness of mental health issues that there is now and
he wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for help. We had no idea that he was so ill, even
though we could tell something was wrong. In trying to understand him as a man,
through the eyes of my now adult self, I can see that his mental health was
something he must have struggled with for a long time and that his suicide didn’t
happen in isolation, as I presumed at the time. We will never fully realise the extent
of his mental illness but I can see that he was a complex man who never gave
himself the opportunity or the permission to process his feelings in a way that is
more commonplace now, although still not as accessible as it should be.
I once described loss as a pulsating energy within a black hole that you can’t guess the depth of, even when you’re in it. It’s now almost 25 years after his death and I still feel his loss acutely – the immediate grief has gone but it’s been replaced by an overwhelming sadness of all the things he’s missed. These pulses of unhappiness often happen when I’m least expecting them, such as when I’m telling my kids an old joke of his or hearing the cuckoo for the first time each year, which always reminds
me of him.
My dad was a farmer and I grew up with a kind of embodied love of nature and the
land. It’s through this that I was first most able to process his death and then, after
the initial bereavement had passed, find a way back to create new memories of him,
despite him not being here. I found the only way I could process his death at all was
by trying to feel part of something much larger than me. I wanted mountains, the
ocean and wide-open spaces. I went to Australia a few months after he died and I
clearly remember watching the sun go down across a vast expanse of desolate
country from the seat of a bus. For the first time since his death, I was able to feel
close to him at the thought of the universe moving through natural cycles and
seasons. On the third anniversary of his death, I went for a long, snowy walk through
the hills and it seemed for the first time, out there in the crisp, white landscape, that I
was able to honour and acknowledge his loss with a level of acceptance that had
been impossible until that point.
Over the past few years, the power of a close connection to nature on mental health and wellbeing has become widely recognised. There are whole branches of
academia devoted to it and studies prove time and again how it can have a
beneficial effect on our lives. Having developed a greater understanding of myself and how I view the world, via spending time in nature, it seems to me that processing loss through a dedicated connection to nature is something that the human race knows innately but has perhaps forgotten, or overlooked. Spending time in nature offers the space and solitude needed to process complex emotions and surrendering ourselves to something more-than-human allows insight and acceptance. Moreover, the opportunity nature affords us to relax and find inner calm when we are grieving and in pain is something that cannot not be underestimated.
As I’ve got older, the irony that my Dad and I would have probably grown much
closer than we were when I was a judgemental, bored teenager is not lost on me. I
live in the countryside and spend a lot of time looking at the trees, plants and
animals around me, telling my largely-unappreciative family about it, in the same way
he used to do. Every year, he would always mark the day he saw the first swallow in
his diary and now I find myself doing the same thing. I know the calls of birds and I
watch the seasons unfold in front me of in wonder and amazement. Getting out of
bed early to watch the sunrise and having a front row seat to the world waking up
connects me to a way of seeing and feeling that I know we would have shared.
3 May was my Dad’s birthday. Like all the anniversaries – birthdays, death days and
all the other important occasions that we remember when someone close to us is no
longer here, it’s always a day of mixed emotions. The strength of feeling on these
days can sometimes take me by surprise, especially as so much time has passed.
The raw pain of his loss can still come sharply into focus and it’s easy to start asking
myself unanswerable questions and fall into a trap of ‘what ifs’ and ‘should haves’.
I’ve learnt to lean into these feelings when they come but also that it feels better for
me to take the time to acknowledge him in my own way, rather than be sideswiped
by thoughts that seem to come from nowhere. This year, on a cool Spring morning, I
rise early, take my tea outside and listen to the birds as the earth continues to spin
on its axis. The knowledge that the world keeps turning long after we’re gone
nourishes and sustains me and I can feel a connection to him all around me, even
though here’s not here. I am one part of a whole universe and the love and
memories that I carry allow me to create new stories to be passed further along. I am
part of a never-ending cycle of seasons. Weathering the storms and basking in the
sun, accepting, remembering and celebrating.
Rosie Neave runs The Vertelle Project which connects women with nature. You can
find out more at www.vertelle.co.uk or follow her on twitter @rosieneave.
With special thanks to Rosie for sharing her story so beautifully for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022.