Sasha Howell speaks fondly of her ‘rock & roll’ childhood. Her father, Dave, whom she lived with primarily, was in a band, and she was constantly surrounded by music and musicians.
“It was an unconventional childhood, but I just always thought it was normal, that all kids had cool dads and all this excitement in their lives,” Sasha recalls.
In her teenage years, Sasha dealt with a lot of extreme fear and anxiety. Therapy and medication helped, and in her 20s, she repaired her relationship with her mother, Roz, an exceptionally caring Personal Support Worker, who had previously battled with addiction.
At the age of 29, her mother was killed in a car accident on the way home from Sasha’s house, after they had just returned from a trip to Cuba together the night before. “I felt like I had just gotten my mom back,” she says.
Six years later, her father died by suicide.
“They both died suddenly and tragically,” Sasha remembers. “It brought me back to the anxiety I felt in my teenage years, and now there was an added layer of grief.”
Sasha writes about her journey living through anxiety and grief and finding happiness, as part of a new book called ‘She Grieves’. She also shares her story on her Instagram page, @the_grieving_daughter. You can connect with Sasha there to find out how to get a copy of 'She Grieves.'
Read more about Sasha’s life and her commitment to sharing her story to help others, in this Q&A.
Sasha, tell me about your mental health and grief journey…
When I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with hypochondria (now called ‘medical’ or ‘health’ anxiety) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That was one side of what I was dealing with. I was also afraid of a lot of things. Through therapy and with medication, I was treated for that and I felt a lot safer. But then my mother’s death brought some of that back. She died in a car accident at 52 years old, so I started to obsess again about freak accidents, getting really scared about what could happen. My whole life really began to focus on not letting myself go back there, and not letting it affect my life in the same way it did when I was younger.
Again, through a combination of therapy and medication, I began talking myself through the reality of what was happening, rather than going from zero to 100 in my thoughts. What I found really helped me with anxiety and grief, personally, was workbooks. They guide you through your thoughts and prompt you to think about certain things, help you to understand what you’re feeling and put it into context. If you don’t really know anyone else going through what you’re going through, you’re probably thinking, “Why am I like this? Why am I so scared all the time?”
What was the ‘breakthrough’ moment for you, in terms of learning about the power of telling your story?
It took a while, and to be honest, I think it was other people recognizing in me that I was resilient before I saw it in myself. I had people tell me, “Sasha, you’ve been through a lot, you’re so strong, you’re doing great things.”
Being able to talk about your experience, about your own story, is huge. It’s a form of therapy in itself, but it’s not easy for everyone. Generally, a big part of my life is helping other people. So maybe it came naturally to me to share what happened to me, in the hopes of helping others who are going through a similar situation.
I’ve now contributed to a book, I’ve been asked to speak at events, I’ve been interviewed on podcasts and I’m a Wellness Ambassador at the hospital where I work, which involves coming up with ways to help people deal with emotional stress and reduce the stigma around mental health and asking for help.
What kind of feedback do you get from people when you do share your story?
When I’m speaking about anxiety and fear, people come up to me after every talk and tell me that I have helped to validate their feelings. If you don’t know anyone else who fears the same things, you don’t talk about it. So people end up internalizing it all and feeling crazy.
Just opening up that conversation is what people come and thank me for after.
My dad died by suicide. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I didn’t know anyone else who had lost someone by suicide. It’s just so helpful to hear your story and know you can understand mine.” I have even stayed in touch with some of the people who I’ve met at these events and many of them have bought copies of the book. They say hearing other peoples’ stories helps them process their grief.
What do you wish you could tell your 16 year-old self?
I wish I knew then that I would make it this far, in terms of everything I was going through. I wish I knew that others were experiencing the same thing, that would have been helpful.
I really wish that I could tell my younger self, “You’re going to be able to do this. You’ll get through this. You’re stronger than you think.”
How can we all be just a little bit kinder to each other?
I’m a big fan of stopping, pausing, being patient - just talking to people about what’s bothering them and how I might be able to help. Just taking the time to have that conversation, it helps people feel that they’re not alone. Just knowing that somebody’s there, to ask them how they’re doing, to hold them up when they’re not good.
I think the message that I always try to focus on when I talk to people is that, my story is not unique. Everyone goes through hard times. But staying positive and finding a way to stay happy, or be happy, and find joy in whatever form, is so important.
Also, I do feel it’s important to deal with guilt, after grief. After my parents died, it felt weird if I was happy. I felt like I had to stay in that sad, dark place.
You hear about ‘triggers’ for negative things. I think it’s much more important to find what triggers happiness for you. Find those things that spark happiness in you. That’s how I’ve been able to move forward.
Some of my happiness triggers include: my family, chocolate, heat from the sun, seeing the sun shining, cooking for other people, sharing food. I’m Italian, so that’s just what we do and it makes me happy! Music is a happiness trigger, specifically, guitar music. Flowers and gardens. And things like the smell of warm laundry, fresh out of the dryer.
Sasha Howell is an advocate, author and public speaker who talks about grief, resilience, mental health and corporate wellness - specifically, how to get through hard times, grow from the experience and take back control in your own life.
Connect with Sasha on Instagram: @the_grieving_daughter
Buy ‘She Grieves’ on Amazon or Indigo – watch for it in 2022!
Helpful links to workbooks:
Calming your Anxious Mind (2nd edition) – Jeffrey Brantley, MD
The Worry Trap – Chad Lejeune, PhD
The Road to Calm Workbook – Daitich and Laurberbaum
I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye (book and workbook) – Noel and Blair
The Grief Recovery Handbook – James and Friedman
Becoming: a Guided Journal– Michelle Obama (Companion to her book)