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Holding grief and joy together

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (10–16 May) is nature. Here, Rachael Newham bravely shares her story, as well as the part nature has played in her recovery – and how she thinks we all need to give ourselves time and space in this season.

When I was at my most unwell in my teens with depression and anxiety, self-harming every day, I barely ventured outside. The sun was too bright for my swollen eyes, I was scared that others would see my scars and I couldn’t face the happy smiles the sunshine seemed to bring to people’s faces.

I hid away from the beauty, oblivious to the changing seasons as I fell, like Alice in Wonderland, through the looking glass of mental illness with my world shrinking.

Even as I began to inch toward life and recovery, I tended to stay indoors (citing the need to avoid pollen during the summer months, and the icy air of the winter). My preference remained curling up with a book and a cup of coffee indoors, rather than braving the elements!

All this changed when my son was born, because he is (as someone at church recently commented) a Duracell bunny who needs fresh air and open spaces like I need caffeine! I began to appreciate the way autumn graces the world with a gold touch, and the blooms of summertime.

Then came 2020.

As someone with asthma, I ventured out very rarely during those first twelve weeks of the strictest lockdown; but I began to notice a thrill of joy when I spotted the blossom appear on the trees outside my window or flowers creeping through the cracks in the pavement. I found that capturing these moments under the clear blue sky reminded me of the hope of life as the death toll rose.

Finding our way through

This spring, I’ve been on the hunt for bluebells in memory of my late grandmother who could always be heard saying: “Have you seen my bluebells” every spring. I’m ashamed to say I never did notice them, and so, since she died earlier this year, I have been hunting them to keep the memory of her with me.

My bluebell hunt has been a way to channel my grief, and I think we may all need to find ways to channel and connect with our grief as we hopefully emerge from lockdown for the last time.

It’s a strange contradiction to hold together; the enjoyment of beauty and new freedoms with the acceptance of what has been lost.

It will be acutely felt in our churches, as perhaps more of us are able to gather, and look forward to when we can raise our voices in praise together again. We must find a way to encourage people to bring this grief and joy to God in worship.

It’s a time to lament; and I truly believe that lament is a vital part of how we can grieve and come to terms with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, of how we can ensure our churches are safe and welcoming spaces to re-enter, but also how we can face our own personal mental health struggles and the wider mental health crisis.

In Psalm 23, David sings of God leading us to quiet waters and green pastures, and it might be that we continue to connect with the great outdoors in our prayer life; prayer walking with friends discussing how to navigate these next months, processing the feelings that the unlocking of society will bring and knowing that through it all God is our comfort and guide.

This beautiful world is broken, but the mercies of God rise brand new with each morning, and we can rest in them whether through times of great grief or full joy.

Rachael Newham (@RachaelNewham90) is the mental health friendly church project manager for Kintsugi Hope. She also founded mental health charity Think Twice. Rachael is also the author of Learning to Breathe (SPCK), a memoir and theological reflection on mental illness. Her second book And Yet (Form), looking at joy and lament, will be published in November.

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