Jean Sergent in her show Change Your Own Life. (Photo: Jason Aldous)

Moving on while looking back: How I dealt with unspeakable grief

From the trauma of loss, Jean Sergent built a stage production that offers an invitation to others to embrace the radical possibility that things can get better.

I’ve always been interested in death and dying – not the mechanics of it, but the social conditions. How death is prepared for, announced, and managed. How we mourn, or don’t mourn. Funerals, death rites, cemeteries, and memorials. Take me for a walk through a graveyard and we’ll be friends for life. 

On February 14 2016 my friend Michael died suddenly. Valentine’s Day. What a diva. Michael and I had become cousins when we were children and his grandfather married my grandmother. This ethereal little boy became my flatmate when we were in our 20s, and would wear high heels to do the dishes. He got an A+ on an art history exam even though he slept through the first hour. He used to take mulled wine in a thermos to the computer labs when he was pulling all-nighters.

I’ve had comorbid mental health issues – anxiety, depression, disordered eating, C-PTSD – for a long time, but I never really clicked that that was what was going on until I was in my Saturn return. Saturn returns are like that. In 2014 I was having a major depressive episode, one of those MDEs they write about in novels about beautiful but tragically sad girls, where you can’t leave your bed. After about a week of me staring at the walls and barely moving or eating or showering, Michael started opening the curtains in my room. “Morning, darling, we’ll just let some light in shall we?”

When I told my doctor that I thought I was having a major depressive episode and I would quite like to be medicated from now on because I think I might have major depressive disorder, she said, “I know you do, Jean. I’ve been waiting for you to admit it to yourself.”

When he was on life support, I held Michael’s hand and ran my fingers over the tattoo of a duck on his left forearm. When I had a moment with him, I sang the Rufus Wainwright song ‘Oh What A World’ to try to bring a bit of queer energy into the ICU. 

I’m one of those women who get described as bubbly and vivacious. I don’t mind. I’m funny, charming, good at parties until about 10pm when I’m desperate to go home, not because I’m drunk but because I’m too tired and I just want to watch SVU and vape in bed. I’m also the type of person who would prefer to talk about your traumas and how you’re recovering from them, rather than make small talk about your job.

When I got home from the hospital on the final day we could be with Michael before his organs were donated and life support was ended, I said to my friends Maria, Fiona, and Freya who had taken me home, “You’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but at least now I can finally get rid of that TV.” They didn’t laugh. I still think it’s funny. I didn’t want that TV any more but Michael still liked to get DVDs out from the video store. I’ve still got most of his DVD collection.

The two books he had out from the library when he died were Michael King’s biography of Dame Whina Cooper, and a raunchy ice skating romp called Gay Blades. That’s who he was, summed up in two books. I’ve read Gay Blades. It’s absolute trash and I loved it.

Jean Sergent performing her show Change Your Own Life. (Photo: Jason Aldous)

Nine months after Michael died, one of my brothers also died. I became his big sister three weeks and two days before my 14th birthday. In his bedroom after he died I found pieces of paper with his handwriting on them. He had the same handwriting as our dad and our other brother.

I kept a few of my brother’s things, including half a pouch of Port Royal Blue, a six pack of VB, and a box of washing powder that I used a couple of times so that my clothes could smell like him for a while. I still have the last of that washing powder, four and a half years later. I wonder if I’ll ever finish it.

For my brother’s birthday this year, I got a tattoo. It’s a tiger lily on my right arm. It mirrors a tulip on my left arm that is my memorial to Michael. I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart) and I am never without it. Grief is a universal, inevitable experience, yet individual adventures in grief are so cripplingly specific that two people grieving the same loss can find it impossible to find connection. Sometimes in grief we lose the living as well as the dead.

At the beginning of 2020 I wrote a show about these two deaths and how I’d found my way through the staggering grief of living through such abominable trauma. In the process of writing the facts and interrogating my own resilience and mortality, the themes of my life became obvious: catastrophe, strength, irony, and mysticism. I named my show Change Your Own Life because it reminds me that we have to take responsibility for our own healing, and because the title also acts as an invitation to others to embrace the radical possibility that things can be better than they are right now.

I wrote Change Your Own Life because I needed my own help moving on without guilt. I’m not the only person who is still mourning Michael, or still morning my lovely baby brother. But I am the only one who cleaned both of their rooms, spoke at both of their funerals, and spent time with both of their bodies.

I perform Change Your Own Life so that I can hold my loved ones close to me while spinning out webs of commonality and connection, and at the same time manifesting the conditions for healing, catharsis, and exorcism. Not exorcism of the lost, because I don’t mind ghosts one bit. The exorcism I’m hoping to conjure is more to do with those everyday demons like shame and secrecy.

The best catharsis in my opinion is a good cry combined with a good laugh. That’s what I want to share with audiences of Change Your Own Life. I want you to bring your rose quartz, while you laugh, cry, maybe pick up a few top tips for life and death, and leave our time together feeling a little bit more healed. I make it OK to laugh in the face of unspeakable pain, and I hold space for you and your experiences by sharing my own. I get vulnerable so you don’t have to. 

Change Your Own Life runs from April 13-17 at The Basement Theatre. You can book tickets here.




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