Untangling grief

Aly Blenkin
7 min readMay 29, 2022

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” — Jamie Anderson

A black and white scientific drawing of a 6 plant root system, showing the plants above ground and their tangled roots below the surface.
Root system from the research archives

Content notice: Before you continue reading, please note that this post could be triggering; I discuss mental illness, trauma, addiction, and loss. As difficult as those topics are, I wrote this piece to process the events that unfolded around me and untangle grief through reflection.

remembering

I’ve heard people describe a panic attack as something that rises inside them. Thinking back on my own experience, I remember everything started to spin, and a rush of emotions prevented me from breathing or seeing properly. I remember people speaking to me, but nothing made sense, as if I wasn’t in my body; everything was muffled and distant.

I was back at home for the holidays — seeing family for the first time since the pandemic — when I heard a deep wailing sound come from my mum’s bedroom. My mind raced, and I immediately thought of family members struggling with mental health. My mum opened the door and dropped to the floor in tears. It was my cousin; he overdosed. He died alone at his dinner table after taking something unknowingly laced with fentanyl.

I was in complete denial of what had happened. It was like my mind and body couldn’t register information. I was in shock and started to panic. How could this be? We had plans to see each other in the next few days. I had a gift for him in my suitcase; a notebook for his love of reflective writing and meditation. I refused to accept that the police had all the information. In my mind, he wasn’t going to become another statistic in the opioid crisis.

The reality of my cousin’s death started to sink in when my partner took me outside to stop me from hyperventilating. It was dark and windy. His intuition was right; the frigid -40c degree weather managed to slow down my thoughts. And I realised, at that moment, that the police did have all the information and we wouldn’t be seeing my cousin again.

making sense of the pieces

My cousin was a bright light, beaming with love—the type of person who was fiercely present, always contemplating life’s questions about finding meaning. Like so many people, he also struggled with mental health and addiction. He went from living on the streets of East Hastings in Vancouver to finding his way and helping others at an employment centre through the support of my mum. He was unreachable for years, and when he came back into our lives, it seemed like he was finding a bit of happiness, but we only saw what was on the surface.

At the time of his passing, I was reading Elif Shafak’s book, Island of Missing Trees. She draws connections between trees and people in the book and how early life experiences shape our growth. Trees, like humans, can become root bound based on these experiences, but the strangling of roots often isn’t noticeable to others, as Shafak describes:

“Because it was happening under the earth, it was undetectable. If the encircling roots are not found in time, they start putting pressure on the tree, and it just becomes too much to bear.”

Root systems have been on my mind ever since. Mental illness and addiction often go unnoticed or unacknowledged, like tangled roots below the surface. I forget what it’s called when you notice something, and then that’s all you see. Lately, all I notice are analogies about root systems and people’s tangled pasts. It seems like trees and humans present one way outwardly when the inner reality is much different.

black and white drawing, consisting of thousands of dots, of driftwood roots
My drawing of tangled driftwood

It’s becoming more common to hear people talk about mental health, but the scale of the problem is much deeper than what we might assume. In Canada, 1 in 3 people will experience mental illness in their lifetime. We’ve also seen a 95% increase in opioid-related deaths during the first year of the pandemic, driven by an increased toxic drug supply, feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety, and lack of accessibility to mental health services, according to Canadian public health data.

What is even more devastating, as Zena Sharman, author and Canadian health advocate, points out, is that the health system is running just the way it was designed. The medical industrial complex was designed to oppress and “fix” problems rather than provide inclusive health care and safety for people and communities.

It’s painful reading about our broken health care system and how it’s failing us. Why isn’t more being done about the opioid epidemic? Why don’t we have accessible and integrated services for people who struggle with addiction and mental health? It makes me wonder if our collective silence and denial of the root causes of the problem contributes to the tangling of our roots.

unearthing the silences

I remember hearing alcohol swishing around in coffee mugs as the family sat together after my cousin passed away. Everyone was lost for words. I sat there thinking about his death connected to the past and how prevalent addiction is in our family. Nobody, including me, talked about these tangled histories aloud. Perhaps it’s easier to see his overdose as an isolated event or see him purely as an addict, unlike generations before him or the those who continue to precede him.

We didn’t have a funeral for my cousin. The decision was made, and that was that. Everyone was left to unpack a tragic ending to a young life rather than finding closure as a collective — to celebrate the beautiful human he was.

Grief seemed to spill over into everyday life. We are taught that it’s okay to grieve, but not too much because we need to get back to ‘normal’. After all, we need to get back to work because you can’t take off time when they aren’t an immediate family member –– a social norm that assumes who is important and who isn’t. We need to act normal as if seeing family members through the extreme highs and lows of mental illness won’t shape us for the rest of our life.

I’ve learned how shame around mental illness and addiction can become internalised from a young age. The silence eats away at you; it fractures families and your ability to find joy without fear of something bad happening. These unspoken truths weigh on us, and to heal, we must acknowledge and name what happened in the past. Liz Ogbu, Founder of Studio O, beautifully articulates the Preconditions for Healing:

“It is about being willing to stay vulnerable and brave long enough to ask hard questions of ourselves and others, listen to and be in dialogue around the answers, and make peace with where those conversations take us. It is not something that many of us know how to do well, if at all, but it is a necessary step for healing.”

(re)growth

We can’t remove difficult memories, but we can move through them and find tools to support us when they inevitably come up. Art offers me a place of solace. It quiets my mind and allows me to flee to an inner world. I’ve written about art as a resource for healing before, but I think I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for art as therapy during these challenging times.

I hope to use art as a medium to facilitate conversations about mental health and addiction. Inspired by Elif Shafak’s book, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we see above the surface and the tangled histories beneath. Drawing root systems, made up of thousands of tiny dots, is my way of exploring difficult questions about my family’s roots around mental health — something that isn’t limited to my situation but to individuals, families, and communities everywhere.

Black and white drawing of a Peyote cactus plant with a very intense tangled root system –– crated entirely with thousands of dots to make up the plant.
My drawing of the tangled roots of a peyote plant

In addition to healing through making art, I’ve also experienced regrowth through working at an organisation where I can apply my skills, in a small way, to address the mental health crisis. It also just so happened that I landed this new job shortly before my cousin passed away. I now work with health care practitioners to design and deliver new services, like psychedelic-assisted therapy, to treat depression, addictive disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Knowing these therapies can offer alternative ways of healing for people struggling with mental health is a huge motivation.

There are so many opportunities to design a better care system, one that is rooted in providing safe, inclusive, and equitable care regardless of the situation. It gives me hope that health justice movements continue to push for radical change, and people are coming together to collectively imagine ways to support people to heal and be well.

I wrote this piece originally as a way to process what happened and begin to untangle grief. Whenever I’m going through something complicated or confusing, I often look to art for other viewpoints to bring me back into a collective shared experience. If you’re going through something similar or parts of my reflections resonate, I recommend checking out the resources below in case they may offer guidance for you too.

Covers of the books listed below
Image of a few of the resources listed below

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Aly Blenkin

Writing about the intersection between design, technology, and impact.