'Far too many of us bereaved': Mental health campaigner Grace Curtis on grief, hope and learning to prioritise her own wellbeing

Warning: This article discusses suicide.

It's been more than a year since Grace Curtis co-founded Cool Change, a social media movement allowing her to open up publicly about her struggles with grief after losing her dad to suicide.

"Initially, the grief was so overpowering there was not much more you could achieve in your day apart from the bare minimum and sometimes, not even that. A lot of tears, a lot of anger, confusion and questioning."

But since launching the online support hub, Curtis has played a key role in starting much-needed conversations about suicide and grief - becoming a driving force for change and encouraging others to open up.

"I think when something affects you in such a significant way, whether positive or negative, you will make something of it and try to educate others. Unfortunately in New Zealand, there are far too many of us who are bereaved by suicide, and it can be very easy to shadow this as being embarrassing or associated with shame," Curtis told Newshub.

The latest figures show 607 New Zealanders died by suicide in the year to June 30. Curtis' drive to help bring those numbers down further is evident, knowing the work still needed to be done.

Why Cool Change?

Curtis named Cool Change after the song played at her dad's funeral. It all started after she became so desperate for other families not to be in the same position as hers.

She started the movement with Tori Wheelans and Georgia Harris - who also lost their dads to depression.

"I think it all began with desperation, I was so desperate for others to not be in the position that I found myself in, so I began opening up and hoped for the best."

Curtis said it took months to adjust to life without her dad.

"It is like taking the training wheels off a kid's bike on the first day and then sending them through an expert level track. Unfortunately, when something like this happens, there is nothing that can prepare you for the utter chaos your life becomes, you just have to suck it up and hope things will turn out alright, that is the brutal reality.

"Purpose is one of the most important things to find after such a huge loss or else it can be extremely scary going into every day blind and uncertain. Once I began finding small purposes in my day, such as feeding the dog, looking after myself or even just getting invested in television shows, it was easier to build on these purposes and find new ones to explore, and that's where I began to recover from the initial grieving stages.

"It is important though, to realise, you will never completely move on from it and it is likely you will continue to have bad days here and there for years to come, the sooner you make peace with this, the sooner you move forward."

Curtis is humbled by the positives that have come from Cool Change - both for herself and others.

"I found it very comforting to turn my worst days into words that had a purpose and helped others to either be educated or encouraged to do the same, which was an incredibly humbling feeling."

And she wants to keep creating solutions for others.

"For the three of us at Cool Change, I think we just create content, as raw and as authentic as we possibly can and then we close our eyes and press 'upload,' and we know in our hearts, the most difficult content to share will be the content that makes the most difference or is the most relatable." 

On a personal level, Cool Change has not only helped the thousands of followers it has on Facebook - but too helped Curtis prioritise her own wellbeing, amid the grief of losing her dad.

"To be completely truthful, I never gave much thought to my mental health before losing dad and now looking back I can acknowledge there were times where I really did struggle but did not know how to cope or what to do," she explained. 

"Since losing dad, I have tried to keep my mental health as positive as possible but I still have my bad days for sure. It has taken close to a year to learn what helps and what hinders my brain and my overall wellbeing. I don't always get it right, but if I can make it a priority it seems to allow me to have more positive outcomes than negative ones."

She wants no New Zealanders to go through the grief she's experienced.

"I now view every suicide as nothing other than a tragedy, which most of the time is preventable one way or another."

Curtis had a message for those struggling with mental health and looking out for one another.

"At the end of the day, our mental health might be all we have, so cherish it, look after it and lean on others around you. We all need support at times in our lives and that is nothing to be ashamed of."

Where to find help and support: 

  • Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633
  • Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
  • Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
  • What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)
  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584