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I avoided my grief through work like Carmy from The Bear – it almost killed me

Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto’s character in “The Bear” suffers from the loss of his brother Michael (Source: FX/Hulu)

When my father died in 2016, I was just 23 years old and at the beginning of my career. I had already quit my very first “real” job to go home, take care of him and spend his last weeks by his side. It felt like I had no choice but to go back to work and make up for the time I had missed.

Of course, there was also the financial burden. I was living with my then-boyfriend and some friends, and the lack of income in those few months was already taking its toll. I had to pay rent and didn’t have the luxury of going on more vacations. So I sent out a flood of applications in the hope that something would come of it.

Luckily, within a few weeks I not only got a job, but also my first job as a journalist and was able to enter the industry I had always wanted to be in.

What I also liked about it was the chaos of the newsroom. Unlike most 9-to-5 jobs, news is exciting, exhausting and all-encompassing. You can’t help but be absorbed by it – and at the time, it was the perfect distraction for me.

But after just a few months, work began to affect my relationships and wellbeing. My boyfriend and I barely saw each other, as I arrived at work at 7:30am while he got ready for work. I rarely met up with friends, as my days off never coincided with theirs. And the night shifts I was so often working alone at the time meant I barely spoke to anyone – and had a lot of time to ruminate.

Emma Clarke drinks wine in a restaurant
In the years following my father’s death, I buried myself in work (Source: Emma Clarke)

But that didn’t stop me. Even though I recognized the signs of a breakdown long before, I couldn’t bring myself to take my foot off the gas. I was too afraid to face my grief and suppressed it at all costs.

Instead, I threw myself into work, aspired to be the best, and also did a lot of social activities, regularly going to the pub with my colleagues and leaving no stone unturned. I wanted to be everything to everyone, not just a broken, fragile person defined by her loss.

But about three years later, everything fell apart: my partner and I separated, I had cut off contact with some of my oldest friends, and was living with a girl I didn’t know.

I remember sitting on my bathroom floor, the cold tiles seeping into my bones and my wet hair pooling around me. I was sobbing so hard I could barely breathe and biting my hand to muffle the sound. At that moment I couldn’t think of any other way out but to end it.

My roommate knocked on my door and I was jolted out of my thoughts. I yelled at her to give me a minute before I sneaked back to my room and hatched a plan. At that moment, I felt like no one could understand my experience. And worst of all, no one cared to understand it.

As I write this, many different emotions are coming to mind. It makes me sad to think that my former self was so unhappy and disconnected from the world. It makes me sad to think that she thought the only way out was for her to cease to exist.

And I’m not lying, it was hard to overcome those overwhelming and ever-present thoughts. And I can’t honestly say that I haven’t returned to that dark place since then. But with the help of professionals and by opening up a little to my family, I fought to survive.

Carmy from The Bear with his head against the walk-in fridge
Like Carmy, I threw myself into my work to avoid having to deal with my grief (Source: FX/Hulu)

That’s why “The Bear” touched me so deeply – both in terms of the themes of suicide and grief.

I see Carmy’s silent struggle and how he suppresses his anger over his brother’s death. He only lets his torment out in the kitchen, in misguided outbursts of anger and frustration. He also acts in isolation quite often and doesn’t think about what his behavior does to the people around him.

I can understand that completely. I used to lash out for seemingly no reason. Of course, it rarely had anything to do with the current situation, but I couldn’t stop myself. When you lose someone so close to you at such a crucial time in your life, you can’t help but feel angry at the world and betrayed by it.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I often felt angry at the people around me who were luckier. It wasn’t self-pity, but more anger that some people go their whole lives without pain, setbacks or losses. But that’s a dangerous attitude and inevitably leads to shutting yourself off from other people. After all, it’s not their fault that they’re lucky, just as it’s not your fault that you’re unhappy.

Like Carmy, the hardest thing for me was talking to my family about these feelings. It sounds strange because they went through it too, but sometimes it was all too much, too close to home for me. It took years to get to the point where I could open up to them.

According to counsellor Georgina Starmer, it’s natural to seek distraction when dealing with such complex emotions. “It’s normal to want to find something predictable, safe and secure that can help us detach ourselves from these feelings,” she tells me.

How to deal with grief

There is no “right” way to process grief, but there are certain steps you can take to better manage your emotions.

Bianca Neumann, Deputy Head of Bereavement at Sue Ryder, says:

  • Acknowledge your loss: Allow yourself to feel all the emotions associated with grief and try not to suppress them as much as possible. On the other hand, you may find that the feelings are missing and that is perfectly normal.
  • I am looking for support: Reach out to friends, family or professional bereavement counsellors who can offer comfort and understanding. Use the network around you or Sue Ryder has set up an online community for bereaved people which provides a forum where people can talk to other bereaved people. People can join in conversations, ask questions, share their feelings and support each other with those emotions that are less represented and expressed in our environment.
  • Express your feelings: Some people find it helpful to process and express their feelings in different ways, such as talking, writing, art, journaling, or participating in activities and hobbies that help them make sense of their grief and lead them to a better understanding of their grief.
  • Take care of yourself: Pay attention to your self-care through rest, good nutrition and exercise. Some days are harder than others, so take time to take care of yourself.
  • Take your time: Learning to live with grief takes time, so be patient with yourself

However, she warns that this can cause our feelings to manifest themselves in sudden and unpredictable ways. “This can happen, for example, through outbursts of anger or panic attacks, or through physical sensations or symptoms, pain and insomnia. It is important to remember that these feelings do not simply disappear.”

But distraction can also play a healthy role. “Grief is not a short, self-contained process with a clear beginning and end,” she explains. “It is a new part of our life story. It can go up and down, and we learn to deal with it and grow from it.”

“So our work commitments can help us feel a sense of stability and act as an anchor when everything around us is shaky. They also allow us to feel a sense of normalcy when everything around us has changed.”

Bianca Neumann, deputy head of bereavement at Sue Ryder, says work can sometimes provide a positive distraction. She also advises that it can be helpful to talk to your employer when returning to work after a loss.

“Grief can sometimes go unnoticed and affect our thinking and planning, which in turn affects our work performance,” she says. “It’s important to make space for grief because stress triggers a fight-or-flight response and overwhelms the thinking part of our brain with emotions.”

Interestingly, Sharon Jenkins, bereavement counsellor at Marie Curie, says people can also fall into the trap of leaning on colleagues during these times.

“Most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work, surrounded by people who take up the lion’s share of our time but may not be our friends,” she notes.

“Although we spend more time with them than with our spouses, family members and friends, our interactions are often superficial and our conversations do not necessarily lead to deeper topics.”

Ultimately, says Bianca, it is crucial to listen to your inner voice. “You should ask yourself: ‘What do I need now?'”

The only plans I made after that were travel-related, as I embarked on a two-month solo trip around America. I suppose that was a form of escapism in itself, but personally it felt more like a lifeboat and something that gave me some joy and purpose again.

Emma Clarke stood on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York
I decided to take a two-month trip through America (Source: Emma Clarke)

Since then, I’ve channeled some of those feelings into my work and write frequently about the impact of grief. I share what I (and my family) are comfortable with, but in many ways it’s cathartic and helps me process the tremendous loss.

Am I no longer a workaholic? Absolutely not. Has workaholic become an extension of my personality? Probably yes.

But I’m much better equipped to deal with my moods and grief now. I don’t think she’s completely gone – nor will she ever be completely out of my life. And in some ways I never wanted her to be, because she feels like the last tangible connection I have to my father.

However, I’m at a point where I can face my feelings head on. I can take some precautions when those emotions are triggered. And, more importantly, I’ve allowed myself to be happy and let go of some of that trauma too. After all, that’s what he would have wanted for me.

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