On helplessness and grief, participating in a grief support group, mother-loss, father-loss, complicated grief, and losing a parent in young adulthood.
*Starred sections have suggestions and ideas that I hope will be helpful.
The San Francisco Caltrain leaves its station,
pulls toward a universe of destinations.
It’s raining large drops that leach
the dirt’s misery into the earth,
like bones giving their exteriors over to broth.
The rain rises back to the ocean as
skies become a darkened pillow. Tomorrow,
more trains will climb their tracks,
more minutes will evaporate into ether.
The whistles bluster in loneliness, fear.
Our cruel mothers, the vinegar
taste of disease, lost children and lovers—
trembling, the train’s heart
pounds through us, and this grief
that will never leave
carries us, to wander off into the storm.
Phyllis Klein in Emerge Literary Journal, Issue 3, August 2012
Grief and Helplessness
The stages of grief run parallel to the stages of dying. Death brings a person to let go of everything in her or his life, from the material to the physical process of breathing. In tandem, the grieving person must let go of the person they love, cherish, and depend on.
When someone has a life threatening disease, they usually try to fight for life. Many times this works, and life continues. There are times when this doesn’t work, the fight is not successful, and there is a transition from fighting to dying. The grieving person is in the position of following along. Neither the dying person nor the grieving person can control what happens.
Helplessness is a very tough feeling. Usually, when someone dies, we ask ourselves (or even torture ourselves) with what else we could have done. The “what if” thoughts can continue for quite awhile. In sudden death or suicide, the helplessness can be overwhelming.
*A beginning step in working with helplessness is to talk to others about it. It’s not possible to “fix” this feeling but it is better to share it than be all alone with it.
It’s hard to understand how the loss of anyone you are close to, a parent, close relative, or friend, will affect you until it happens. When you come close to the presence of dying and death, the one thing we know is that it can change you. Sometimes the dying person is afraid, sometimes silent and of course many other reactions and emotions like sadness or anger. Silence can be an inability of the dying person to talk about what is happening to them, or it can be your own inability to know how to express your grief. You may feel like you are going to fall apart. You might want to push yourself to get back into your life and move on with things.
Grief might surprise you. You might feel you are coping well only to meet another wave of sadness, loneliness, or fear. You might feel tender and raw, but realize you are open to feel love in a new and more intimate way.
Grief groups are wonderful resources. Many grief groups are set up for a short-term number of meetings, maybe 6-12. Others are drop-in and open-ended. Is there right time to join this kind of support group? There is no right or wrong way to answer this question. However, if you are too overwhelmed emotionally or feel it would hurt you to be around others who are experiencing intense grief, it may be a good idea to wait. Jane R. Dorlester, CSW, writes about her grief group in her website Brooklynbereavement.com.
*She has recommendations for deciding if a grief group is right for you: -*Would I be comforted by others also experiencing a loss?-*Would I feel overwhelmed because I myself am in too much pain? -*Can I be there for others who are also in pain and honor their loss?
*Grief support groups can be very helpful to viscerally understand that you are not alone. The support is so useful at a time when friends and family may be having trouble knowing what to say or be overwhelmed themselves with the same loss. There are often a number of agencies and therapists who run these groups especially in city settings, so you can look for the right one for you. A skilled group leader makes sure everyone who wants to share gets a chance, and doesn’t push you if you’re not ready to speak. He/she knows how to set clear boundaries around what is useful to discuss in a support group and what is better discussed individually or elsewhere. Support groups are not usually process groups which means that they are not set up to handle conflicts or challenging feelings between group members. *Sometimes a combination of individual therapy and a grief support group is an excellent combination.
Losing your mother/mothering without a mother
If you are an adult woman and have lost your mother, it is challenging to be a mother for your children or for yourself. If your mother was nurturing, then you will truly miss her deeply and will grieve for her, as you have lost the inspiration of her as a mother, and the simple fact that you can’t pick up the phone to tell her what is going on with your kids or your life.
Mother-loss is a profound and life-changing event. When your mother dies, it can feel like there is an empty place that no one else can ever fill. It may be very hard to believe that she is not there. The grief can come non stop, or in waves that wash over you with scary intensity. Mothering is a symbol of nurturing and wisdom. Of course no woman ever feels perfect in this role but there is a lot of power in the feminine to care for and comfort. When your mother dies and you are an adult, you become the matriarch in your family, even when you don’t feel equipped to take on this role.
If you don’t have children, losing your mother can prompt you to have some, if you are not past child-bearing age and your life circumstances make it possible. Even if you never have children, there is still the child in you who will miss your mother and need nurturing from you.
*One way to find help is to reach out for support. Being a parent is the hardest job out there, and caring, loving support can make a huge difference in renewing your energy for the tasks that don’t stop. This support can range from friends, other family, parent or grief support groups, child care, or therapy.
Howard Thurman, an author and theologian speaks touchingly about support in his poem A Time for Sorrow. The whole poem is on a website posting daily mindfulness poems.
He says in part:
I share with you the agony of your grief…
I can but offer what my love does give…
The strength of caring…
This I do in quiet ways,
That on your lonely path
You may not walk alone.
–Howard Thurman, from A Time for Sorrow
Your own self-concept as a woman and mother can be challenged if you do not have a positive relationship with your mother. Women whose mothers are/were critical, verbally, physically, emotionally, or sexually abusive may have problems deciding how much contact they want to have with their mothers. Also, emotions that arise in this situation can be confusing or complicated.
Many women who have difficult relationships with their mothers fear judgment from others, especially if there is estrangement in the relationship. They may hear that it’s important to work out the relationship before their mother dies. However, it is becoming more understood in our society that sometimes taking care of yourself by setting limits on toxic relationships, even when this involves your parent, is an acceptable thing to do.
If your mother was abusive, neglectful, or a combination of the two, it can be really hard to know how to find the qualities in yourself that are nurturing and loving. You may be grieving for yourself and what you missed out on. You may struggle with how to become the parent you want to be. You may struggle with the question of whether to even take the chance to have children of your own.
If you are estranged from your mother and she is ill or dying, it can be very hard to decide whether to become more involved with her in that process. You may feel the pressure of “shoulds” or you may want to try to find more peace in the relationship. Guilt can be a strong emotion in this complex dynamic. There is a risk that you will try for something healing and be disappointed. However, taking the risk to heal is a brave and worthy effort if you want to try.
*Getting support and learning how to care for yourself are very helpful enterprises, especially with others who are in the same situation. One online support group is about getting help if you have a parent with Borderline Personality Disorder. Follow this link for more information to see if your parent fits the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder.
Losing your father
Your father starts out being the most important man in your life. You are born with great capacity to love and be loved. Fathers offer the male perspective and sensibility to their daughters. When your father tries to understand you as a girl/woman and doesn’t try to push you to be someone else or something you are not, you can develop positive self-esteem. If your father praises you instead of criticizes, you will feel confidence and develop assertiveness.
For girls who have such special fathers, the grief of loss when your father dies is very powerful. It can feel as if you have lost your best friend and guide in life, the person you can lean on to help you feel safe and protected.
In trying to cope with the magnitude of this loss, it is important to honor your father and let people know about this special man. Keeping photographs, possessions, and special mementos can be comforting. Some women may wear their father’s ties, shirts, or sweaters. If you have male friends and/or a partner, this is a good time to lean into their support. As with any profound loss, attending a grief group can also be very helpful.
There is no quick way to travel through this kind of grief. *You may hear people say to be “gentle” with yourself. What does this mean? Of course it is different for different people. For many it means slowing down and not expecting as much of yourself. For a time you may not be able to be as productive as you normally have been. * It might mean forgiving yourself if you are forgetful, distracted, tearful at embarrassing moments, or irritable. (How true is it that women will cry at work and feel shame about it.) It could mean being around people who are kind and thoughtful to you rather than those who cause negative feelings for whatever reason. *If you need to work, it can be helpful to ease back into work slowly rather jump back in to full-time. You might want to try some soothing activities such as massage, yoga, gentle exercise, or hot tubs. *Small things can be really helpful– a special lotion for your skin, a soothing warm drink or cup of soup. Certainly, nothing will make this experience easy. But with time you can gain perspective and hold your father close even if he is not here in real life.
Grieving for a parent is a difficult task in any circumstance, but if he/she was neglectful or abusive the loss can be complicated. If you have not been able to work out the relationship with your parent before they die, then you are left with more to work out before you can feel sad for the loss in and of itself. Sometimes there is a lot of unfinished business because your parent may have been unwilling or unable to do his or her part of the work to repair the relationship. This can be especially true if there has been sexual, physical abuse, and/or substance abuse in your relationship. Death is so final that it can bring up feelings and behaviors you thought you had already worked out.
What is complicated grief?
There are different definitions for complicated grief, but generally speaking it refers to debilitating grief that lasts longer than an average period of time. It is right to wonder what an average time for grief is, and there is no exact answer, but there are times when grief is profoundly disruptive of normal life and continues to impair day-to-day living for an extended time period. It doesn’t seem to improve or go up and down. It just stays with you. There could be serious depression, panic, or even physical health symptoms that don’t improve with time. Grief, trauma, and post-traumatic stress can overlap and be related.
*There is help for traumatic or complex grief. This usually involves some form of psychotherapy, such as somatic therapy, EMDR (two techniques that specialize with healing trauma), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, medication, and more. It is really important not to give up and not to isolate. Depression can make it difficult to motivate yourself to reach out for help, but keep trying! You deserve to get help and you are certainly not alone even if it seems that way.
Losing a parent when you are a young adult
Young adulthood is a time of launching and happens best when under the guidance of supportive parents. Toddlers go through separation anxiety and need to reconnect with the parent to get reassurance. “Rapprochement” is the term invented by psychiatrist Margaret Mahler to describe healthy attachment and separation/individuation in children. Young adults work developmentally and literally on separating from their parents. In addition, young adults need the parent to be supportive and stable during the time of launching.
If a parent is ill and dies, or dies suddenly, this is a profound loss for a young adult. The parent is gone in the middle of an important developmental phase. Parent-loss can be devastating no matter when in the life cycle it happens but young adults who have to face dealing with parents who have cancer, heart disease, or other life threatening illness have a burden that is truly challenging. Not only are they working on getting started in their own adult life, but are also pushed into the role of adulthood in an unnatural way. A great feeling of guilt can arise as the demands of growing up and loss occur simultaneously. For young adult women, there may also be a sense of responsibility to care for the parent and sacrifice her own emerging life of independence. This conflict can be very emotionally torturous.
It may seem that the young woman can put her grief on the back burner and seem to be handling the situation masterfully. This can happen with intention and sometimes it is automatic. In either case, the grief doesn’t really go away, and can return later, showing up as grief, feelings of emptiness, depression, or impulsive behavior. Sometimes alcohol or drug abuse can occur as an attempt to ease the pain.
*In situations of grief and loss, it is usually a good idea to get help either from supportive friends, support groups, family, spiritually, or therapy. *Sometimes family therapy, where everyone or certain family members are present to talk together, can be helpful. Siblings can be invaluable to each other to face the loss together, but sometimes because of personality differences or different coping mechanisms, siblings may feel divided from each other. No one deals with grief in exactly the same way. One person might get really angry, while another person might withdraw and talk less. *Individual therapy for the young adult can also be helpful to alleviate guilt, make decisions about how much to focus on her own life vs. be with the dying parent. Individual therapy can also facilitate healthy expression of feelings that might get suppressed. The grief process usually includes anger as well as sadness. It is quite natural and normal to feel angry with a parent who is leaving prematurely.
*As always, in situations of stress, it is also helpful to find means for self-care, rest, good nutrition and other forms of stress reduction. Finding time to focus on self-care may trigger guilt so it is important to feel permission to do so. It may seem impossible to find the time for self-care, but it’s important to make an effort.
*As a young adult in this situation, it can be helpful to try thinking about what you need to help you get through this significant loss. Your siblings and other family members may be there for you or there might be some conflicts and awkwardness. Your friends might have a hard time understanding because they are young and feel afraid to get too close to this kind of pain. They may not know what to say or say something that feels bad. You may feel alone and misunderstood. You may feel jealous of others whose parents are healthy. This is a normal feeling to have! A good chance to find connection is to find others who have had a similar experience–someone who has lost a parent will know more about what it’s like, even if they are older. The internet has many ways to connect and get support. One example is a website I discovered called Hello Grief. Their byline: We’re not afraid to talk about grief and loss. There you will find community, and resources, articles and forums, . Perhaps it will be a start or a next step on your journey of healing.
The journey through grief is unavoidable. Being alive means losing pets, friends, and family members. We are not meant to be alone on this path. Through the pain of grief and loss, there can be connection and renewal.
When one flower blooms, spring awakens everywhere. -John O’Donohue
Thanks to Dog Madik for the photo