It was finals week. I was just days away from completing my sophomore year of college. As I was cleaning my room, I couldn’t help but look one last time at the pink obituary lying on my dresser. It had been lying there for almost two months, and there was a sense of freedom associated with school being over that gave me the space to finally reflect on my grandma’s death. So I read her obituary and scanned the pictures in it again as if I didn’t know who my grandmother was. Maybe I didn’t.
My grandma died in March. I didn’t cry about her because that’s not how I choose to express my grief. I didn’t become filled with some unresolved anger due to us not having a closer relationship. Actually, I couldn’t properly grieve about her at all because stress from school was too overwhelming for me to focus on losing my grandma. It wasn’t until a month after the funeral (during the last week of school) that I started to heavily reflect on my grandma’s life and legacy. And an integral part of her life and a lasting memory of mine that I’m still pondering is her battle with mental illness. During our last phone call, she was in a manic state when her caretaker’s son informed me that she was about to take her medication.
Since I’ve been alive, my grandma had bipolar disorder. I never knew my grandma before she became mentally ill, but it was by simply reading her obituary that I discovered she had an accomplished life that seemed to not be overtaken by mental illness. LaDonna Davis graduated summa cum laude from high school, went to college to study business and worked her way up to becoming the youngest manager in the history of First Federal Bank’s loan department in Detroit. She was also active in her church community. I was impressed by what I read. In fact, I learned more about LaDonna Davis, the woman, through an obituary than I did knowing her as my grandmother, which is sad, to say the least. I guess I never fathomed her life outside the boundaries of mental illness.
As I glossed over her achievements, I didn’t see any paragraph about her mental illness. No one even mentioned it during the funeral. This surprised me because her mental illness was a significant aspect of our relationship, but I later realized that maybe her illness wasn’t a factor in her relationship with others. As a child, I knew that there was something wrong with her. However, “something’s wrong with grandma” never translated to her being bipolar. No one voluntarily told me. I guess you don’t just voluntarily tell a child that a family member has been mentally ill. I guess it’s something that’s not talked about in many black families. I guess you don’t just talk about someone’s failing mental health to a sanctuary full of family, friends and strangers. No. And I guess you don’t do that in a space that warmfully embraces the practice of recommending prayer over therapy.
As I glossed over her achievements, I kept wondering how did those achievements translate to mental illness. How did making the dean’s list and having a successful banking career end up in a life that was scarred by bipolar disorder? Did she get it after she had my father? Before? All of those questions raced in mind as I tried to pinpoint the moment she became mentally ill. Then I had an epiphany— being successful and seemingly having it “all together” and being mentally ill aren’t mutually exclusive. My grandmother could have made the Dean’s List and graduated with high honors while battling her mental health. It’s likely that she could’ve been dealing with it as a child and never received proper treatment.
It’s also likely that the church couldn’t help her. Throughout her life, LaDonna Davis was a member of several churches, even serving as a Sunday school teacher at one of them. She was a diligent servant in Detroit’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) community. She could’ve been mentally suffering while being active in the church.She could’ve been suffering silently because mental illness is typically dismissed as “a sign to go to God and pray” in black churches. And maybe her illness was something that couldn’t be fixed by only God. Maybe God couldn’t fix it at all. Considering these things, I’d imagine my grandmother being frustrated that a mental illness was starting to consume her life.
Maybe that’s why her heart gave up and stopped beating—— because she was simply tired of being in a battle in which victory wasn’t imminent.
And maybe that’s why I couldn’t cry about her death—— because the desire for freedom when fighting a mental battle without a subtle victory is a feeling that’s too familiar for me.
I don’t know how long I’ve battled with depression. I do know that my teenage years have been engrossed by it. Thanks to High School Musical (1,2 and 3), I thought my teenage experience would be fun and carefree. Instead, it was filled with a lot of pain. In college, it became worse. I started isolating myself from people and settings that would likely make me happy because I thought people would eventually find out that I wasn’t “ok” on the inside. I still do it.
I often feel empty and alone because I’m not enjoying the “best years of my life” as I thought I would. I felt uncomfortable at the only college party that I’ve been to (I basically just sat there and acted as if I was on my phone the entire time). I rarely hang out with people, and I don’t have a close group of friends that I would even hang out with. When I see photos of my peers enjoying college with their friends, I instantly want to cry because I desperately wanted those things to happen for me. I always envisioned myself of having a close circle of friends that mirrored something like “Girlfriends” or my auntie’s crew of best friends. And I thought it would happen once I got to college. Instead, my depression exacerbated itself to the point in which I became used to being alone even though I wasn’t satisfied with it.
I tried seeking a therapist through my school’s CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) program twice. In scheduling my appointment, I was met with a man whose inability to pronounce my name accurately for 15 minutes overshadowed him making arrangements for my appointment. When he finally got around to making the appointment, I was discouraged by having to wait two months before meeting with a therapist. My busy schedule with school and work ultimately made me forget about the appointment, and a $15 fee was immediately billed to my account again.
That was the last time I sought therapy through my school. Although my school boasted about their psychological services, my experience certainly didn’t match what they were saying. It was in that moment that I realized college wasn’t the place for me to focus on my mental health. The standards set by some teacher that are often hard to attain makes it difficult for students to focus on things other than school. At least that’s what it felt like when my grandmother died. I had two projects and an in-class writing assignment that interfered with my chances of attending the funeral. Honestly, I was going to skip it because travelling to another state for a funeral felt like entirely too much for me to do, considering my workload. College doesn’t just give you a week off from school for bereavement. Missing a week of classes ultimately means risking your grades. But I knew that I couldn’t miss my grandmother’s funeral, and I knew that not attending meant more than just keeping my grades and being able to work on projects. It meant that I couldn’t be in Detroit to emotionally support my dad, auntie or great-grandma. Thus, without any sleep, I took the earliest flight to Detroit and returned the same day.
I know that sounds ridiculous, but school obligations would only allow me to miss one day. That was it. In retrospect, though, I wish I had more time to be with my family and grieve (or simply just think) about my grandma’s death.
As I prepared to move out of my apartment, I looked at that pink obituary on the dresser again. I scanned it for ten minutes and thought about how my grandma transcended her mental illness. I thought how maybe her mental illness actually didn’t define her. I thought about her strength. I thought about the many ways in which I saw myself in her. I thought about how she never neglected our relationship, although I could never hold a phone conversation with her due to her illness. I also thought about how I almost neglected her when she needed me because I was too busy with school. In almost neglecting her, I neglected myself by not giving me the space to properly think about my feelings,which is a trend that I’ve practiced since I’ve been in high school. I’ve finally realized its pernicious effects.
LaDonna Davis was only 63-years-old when she died, and I couldn’t help but think about the stress from her mental illness and other health issues that led to her death. It’s something that reminded me of how weathering, a condition in which physical and emotional stress tears on the bodies of marginalized communities, impacts black women. It makes them more susceptible to chronic diseases and makes them age earlier than their white counterparts. I think that was a factor in my grandma’s death. I don’t want that to be a factor in mine.
I threw the obituary away. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to deal with my grandma’s death. It was because I knew that the best way for me to honor my grandma’s legacy would be to confront my mental health with at least half as much of the strength that she had when battling her mental illness. And I can’t do that by just reminiscing on pictures in an obituary; I have to act on it.