after all these years
August 14, 2019 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Is it normal to experience a resurgence in grief a few years after the loved one has passed? How do I seek emotional comfort without being a burden on others? Are there productive/creative ways one can process one's grief?

Dad died 3 years ago (I moved home to take care of him when he got sick, and I was his primary carer during that time). I think I managed it pretty well all told, at the time, but now I find myself hit by grief and loss often and very abruptly. Sometimes a random smell in the air will remind me of him and set me off. Or I'll see a man on public transport who looks like him. Or I'll be reminded randomly of phrases he used, etc.

Lately, I've been doing a lot of thinking about things Dad got wrong and things I'm mad at him about. The way, for example, his anxiety made me so cautious and risk-averse. I think he was depressed and never sought treatment for it. He could be defensive and prone to sarcasm and cynicism and expecting the worst of people; something that I realise I learned from him, but that doesn't really serve me, has affected my confidence, and gets in the way of my making genuine connections with people. Sometimes I just feel mad like, thanks a lot, Dad.

But I also feel sad for him. Since he died, I've done so much thinking about his life, and realised for the first time how many people let him down, and how he was sad a lot of the time, and that makes me feel so bad for him, that he had to suffer like that. I never realised when he was alive that he was actually struggling with untreated depression. I find this so terribly sad. That he suffered unnecessarily for so many years, and that so many things I dismissed as annoying quirks or just Dad being Dad, were actually symptoms of an illness.

I feel very sad that I get these feelings of love and they have nowhere to go. It is so hard having these feelings and it's weird that it's hitting me such a significant period of time after he died. A couple of friends of mine are dealing with parental illnesses and every time I hear about that, or I try to offer support, it hits me again, what my family had to go through when my dad was dying, and how awful it was.

I can only really seek support from my sibling, they're the only one who would really understand, but I also don't want to be a burden on them, and make them feel sad too. I know they also feel sad about Dad frequently.

I think I'd feel better if I could do something positive to process these feelings about him or feel like I was living in a way that honoured him. I'm trying to read the books he loved. I can't think of anything else I can do. I know Dad loved and was proud of me, but I also know he wouldn't necessarily approve of some of the choices I have made in life. I try not to think about that too much, because it makes me feel really bad.

Sorry for the essay. Even typing this has made me cry! My question has 3 parts - is it normal to experience grief anew after a number of years; how do I comfort myself without being a burden on others; and how can I honour him and my feelings?

I don't think I'm depressed, btw. I'm functioning perfectly well and completely cheerful most of the time on the surface, people around me have no idea I'm experiencing these feelings.

Thanks, Mefites, for any help you might be able to give.
posted by unicorn chaser to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Grief is a very, very, very individual and personal process. It is totally normal for you to get pangs of grief after the fact, especially since it sounds like a lot of the immediate time just before his death was caught up in dealing with practicalities and maybe you didn't have any energy to process some of the deeper emotional stuff that you're going through now.

A grief counselor can help you sort through processing these feelings, if you don't feel comfortable talking with your friends or your sibling. And please don't assume that you'd be a burden on your sibling; instead of being a burden, you may find that your sibling considers you sharing your feelings a consolation, because they may be sitting there wondering why they're still feeling so sad about your father and feeling like they don't want to burden you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:43 AM on August 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm new to grief and found this analogy to be very helpful. I hope it helps you.
posted by GoldenEel at 12:09 PM on August 14, 2019 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I've heard these called STUGs – sudden temporary upsurges of grief. In my experience (datapoint of 1), they're normal. The occur less frequently as time goes on; I haven't gotten sandbagged that way in a while now.
posted by Lexica at 12:19 PM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am so sorry for your loss. My dad has been gone 12 years (!) after a brief but difficult illness. I am not continually consumed by grief, but when it hits it takes some time to recover. So many things trigger me, even seeing peoples’ family pictures with grandparents since my kids will never know him. You are definitely not alone in your experiences.
posted by gryphonlover at 12:37 PM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have been in a similar spot for the last few months. My dad died in 2016 and it sometimes feels like it was ages ago and others it feels like it was last week.

For me, I realized that it was time to get back into therapy. I'm still struggling with anger and sadness, but my therapist is helping me understand that it's okay to be sad about losing my dad. And to not feel like I'm not allowed to feel that grief even now

Because it's not as hard to deal with grief in the immediate aftermath, but years later we expect to be better. We're not though. A person who shaped you isn't here any more. 3 years is barely enough time to wrap your head around what his death means to you, let alone get to a place that it doesn't hurt.

I, too, spend a lot of time thinking about how the world bent and hurt my dad and made him into the man he was. It makes me furious that he was forced to deal with this harsh world without the tools to cope in a healthy way. It also makes me realize that I don't have to do the same. I can get therapy, I can talk about my feelings, I can heal as much as anyone can heal from losing a parent.

I feel like I owe it to him and to myself to stop the cycle of repression and pain.
posted by teleri025 at 12:38 PM on August 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Grief can be a sort of expanding spiral: you'll come around the same points over and over, but you'll be in a slightly different plane each time. The Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief are a little reductive and outdated now, but an important thing to remember is they were never meant to be linear, it wasn't supposed to be "take five steps and now you've won the grief game!", only that you can characterize the place you are at any given moment as one of those five categories.

I don't know anyone who has lost a parent, whether they are 20 or 70 and whether the loss was yesterday or 50 years ago, who ever considers themselves done with grief. Plus we spend our entire lives recontextualizing everything we've experienced before - I just recently had a total perspective shift on something that happened to me in first grade over 40 years ago - and that includes some real complicated reprocessing of parent-child relationships (whether the parent is dead or alive) as we age and learn and maybe understand the circumstances of our parents as humans in more depth.

So: normal on multiple axes.

Sometimes all you can do is pick more or less randomly something that feels symbolically useful to you as a place to focus this energy. That might be donating a quick $5 to your local animal shelter because he loved dogs or donating $5 to RAICES because he was kinda racist. It might mean deciding to spend the next 6 weeks meditating on and journaling through that thing that's nagging at you right now about the disapproval you can imagine would come from him, and then having a symbolic closure ritual on that conflict since it can never be hashed out for real, and you can't even know how he might have changed between the idea of him you have in your head and who he might be today, which is also a little bit of a thing you have to grieve.

I think that last bit, about creating a ritual or symbol of closure or release, is something we could all use more of. Some of these things you want to honor, you can do by saying it out loud into the air: I recognize the hardships in my father's life that formed his character for better or worse. It's not comprehensive: you may have to release a real hard or tenacious thing a few dozen times before you feel the weight of it leave you appreciably, but it's worthy and useful work.

This is helpful to practice with a therapist if you can, just to figure out what really works for you to keep these thoughts and feelings from becoming intrusive or disruptive. If not a therapist, possibly a support group, or exercises from a workbook on grief or loss.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:44 PM on August 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Isn't there a chance that connecting with your sibling over this would make you both feel better? Why not try, or at least ask them?
posted by amtho at 1:00 PM on August 14, 2019

Best answer: Suuuuper normal. I was coming here to give you a link to The ball and box analogy which I learned from originally from this tweet. And this is especially true, I find, when you were involved in the end of that parent's life. My dad died in 2011 and my mom in 2017. My dad's was sudden and unexpected and I was not there. My mom's was less sudden and more expected and my sister and I were more or less there. Both my parents had untreated mental health conditions, so I do go on sometimes with that "Awwww, my difficult parent must have also had a difficult time" maudlin thinking. My prents, however, were also very good at letting me know

- they were proud of me
- that it was okay that I was independent
- that they wanted me to live my life, more or less on my terms

That's given me a lot of confidence. I am also close to a sibling and we'll have short conversations about our parents that are sad conversations but not like... mired in sadness if that makes sense? Like we'll go over something terrible from our childhood and then acknowledge that our poor dumb parents (younger than I am now) were doing the best they could. And that's a better feeling, for me anyhow, sort of spending some time thinking about my parents as time when I am forgiving them. And being able to say out loud also that I miss them, even though they could make my life a living hell while they were around.

But most importantly, for me again, is thinking that while they live on in my mind and the lessons I've learned from them etc, my story with them is sort of closed, that it's mine for retelling and reevaluation and doing something different maybe. So my mom, who was a difficult woman, I sometimes enjoy trash talking with my sister (she was neglectful and mean often, and this is cathartic) but last year I decided I would try to be more charitable to her memory, to not live in the memories of maltreatment. So now when I talk about her, I don't pretend she was a great mom or anything but I'll try to find the good parts of her, tell stories that also highlight her good side and when she was feeling good, as well. This can be a good way to sort of harness grief and feel like you're being constructive with it, rebuilding something that was maybe hard or sad into something with more positive associations.

When my dad died, my mom (they were no longer together) was actually super sympathetic and sort of at her best. She talked about how he father, who had died in the 70s, was still "with her every day" even though he was no longer around IRL. I thought it was sort of weird at the time, but I've developed a deeper understanding of just what she meant. To the last part of your question, I stay in touch with some fmaily and friends which, if I am being honest, I might not if we didn't have the shared memory of my dad in common. Being with these people even if we're not actively talking about him, is away of keeping some of his energy alive and I've always liked that idea.
posted by jessamyn at 1:23 PM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's really sad that your dad had untreated depression. It's also really sad that, at this moment when you are experiencing grief, you are worried about being a burden to loved ones. Your dad's mistake was in not reaching out and asking for support. Please don't make the same mistake for yourself. One thing we can do is take the lessons from our parents' lives and try to avoid them. I'm not saying you have untreated depression, but the impulse to keep this all inside is perhaps the same thing he dealt with.

It's totally normal that grieving is a longer term process that waxes and wanes. It's also totally okay to reach out to your sibling and to your friends. Why have you ruled them out? Because of their parents' illnesses? It might be helpful for them to talk to you now anyway. It would also be healthy to speak with a therapist. The timeline doesn't matter.

On the chance that you need to hear this: your dad was an adult who was responsible for his own health. He had some good choices in life and he made some bad choices. Part of adulthood is coming to terms with the fact that our parents are/were imperfect people who may have hurt us in ways they didn't mean. But they were adults and they made those choices. Also this...

I think I'd feel better if I could do something positive to process these feelings about him or feel like I was living in a way that honoured him. I'm trying to read the books he loved. I can't think of anything else I can do. I know Dad loved and was proud of me, but I also know he wouldn't necessarily approve of some of the choices I have made in life. I try not to think about that too much, because it makes me feel really bad.

You are also an adult. It's not your job to get his approval or only do what he would have wanted. The way you can honor him is by living your best life, regardless of what he would have thought of that life, not by living his life. You can honor him by treating yourself with love and compassion and by connecting with people now, in your sadness, in a way that he couldn't.

I think you've got a lot to unpack and it would be great to speak with a counselor who specializes in grief. In the meantime, maybe it would be helpful to listen to a podcast about grief?
posted by bluedaisy at 1:34 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This sounds very normal, yes. I hope you’re doing alright. I tend to write letters to myself or my dad. There is one nugget on grief I want to share which is that don’t worry about making the others sad. They carry him around all the time too. They probably WANT to talk about it. Seriously, we often feel better when it’s acknowledged yet society and anxiety conditions us to do the opposite. I recommend Option B a book on grief.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 2:10 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel you on this one. I'm coming up on five years since my father left this world suddenly at the age of 80. I had a complicated relationship with him, as I suppose many of us do. He could be pretty psychologically abusive when we were young, but then some things changed once we were all in college and the last 20 years we had were great. And I still miss him so. much. I don't know that those things ever change. We just get more used to living with them.
posted by slkinsey at 3:54 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm 38. My grandmother died when I was 18. I still get the urge to talk to her. I'll have something happen in life-- like, today, my dog had CCL surgery) and i have a brief 'twitch' of "better go tell Gramma the surgery went well!"

Sometimes it will make me smile, sometimes it will make me cry,
Sometimes it'll bring up a whole bunch of other shit because my family is complicated.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 3:57 PM on August 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Grief is so unpredictable. It’s different for everyone, but I take comfort sometimes in knowing my experience of grief isn’t alien to everyone around me. I’m 7 years out from a loss and while most of the time I get by just fine, several times a year I’m really hit with it as though it’s fresh.

For me and the other people closest to this death, we avoided talking to each other about it after a few months because no one wanted to burden anyone else. That was a mistake because then we each thought we were alone with it.

I saw a pretty bad therapist for a while for “complicated grief” but there are better therapists out there. And therapy isn’t always the answer anyway.
posted by OrangeVelour at 4:46 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is very, very normal. My dad died in December 2017, and sometimes the most random thing will really hit me hard and bring on the grief like it just happened.

Several of my friends' parents are celebrating their 50-year anniversaries this year. My parents would have been married 50 years this past June, and I feel a little stab in my heart whenever I see a post about someone else's parents' 50-year anniversary.

I just found this beautiful essay via Twitter this evening, and it really, really spoke to me. It may speak to you too.
posted by SisterHavana at 7:06 PM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: After someone has been dead for awhile you often get a new perspective on who they were. Sometimes this is the classic discovery that they meant more to you than you realised, and sometimes it is perspective about a conflict you had with them. Once they are not there to keep the conflict going, it's possible for your feelings to cool down and you can start seeing your behaviour from their viewpoint. And sometimes after someone passes away it becomes safe to look at the person and your relationship with them and admit to things that were taboo during their life. The taboo things you realise about them can be positive or negative - it may be that they were abusive, or weak, or gifted, or anything that during their lifetime is was not acceptable to perceive or discuss. Your realisation that your Dad was depressed is one of these things.

During a person's lifetime we may accept a different reality to protect them or to protect ourselves from them, or to protect ourselves from anxiety. And of course when we learn more about a subject we turn that perspective on our memories of the person and can realise that we made assumptions that were wrong.

Grief is only simple when the relationship is perfect. If you are too close to the person that complicates grief, if you have conflicted emotions that complicates grief, if you are working on your identity that complicates grief. And very often these things are delayed. You may only get perspective on someone when you reach the same age they were. Grief has its peaks and troughs, times when it can leave you numb or times when it can torment you and times when you can feel glad the person is gone and times when you feel indifferent. The timing of those peaks and troughs will have to do with your own life and what you are doing. Often there is initial grief where you mourn the day to day changes that were caused by your loss, and then rather later there is a different kind of grief when you mourn the long time changes, such as when you realise that you can never ask them about things in their past or from your own early life, and all that time is gone. Sometimes you defer grief. That deferral can be merely a few hours long, or until you have gotten the funeral or the estate dealt with. Other people defer their grief until unrelated responsibilities are taken care of, such as finishing the semester at school. And many people defer their grief - and sometimes their rage and hurt - until it is safe to feel it.

Of course there are also biological rhythms and triggers for grief. "At the setting of the sun we will remember them..." Many people get a mood dip at tea time or at sunset. When the mood dip hits you you will either think about something that makes you sad, or feel sad about something that at another hour or time wouldn't make you feel sad. You might feel sad at Christmas, or when you see a nice old man, or when you hear a strain of the music he listened to, or when you are coming down with the flu and your immune system is at a low point. It's different for everyone. But the more complex the relationship and the more unresolved issues the more you will get hit by successive episodes of grief.

Usually the intensity fades and the number of episodes of grief decreases. There's no right or wrong time table for this of course. However if the grief starts ramping up and doesn't seem to be just a passing thing, it's probably smart to get some emotional help. It's not always the grief that is triggering the recurring sadness. If you are going into a depression you might end up thinking about your lost father a lot and think that is why you are sad, whereas with depression it can be the other way around, the sadness is making you think about your father. If it's depression you need to treat it differently than you would if it's just grief. They can look very similar. Depression frequently masquerades as grief. It's said that the depressed live in the past, the anxious live in the future and the happy live in the present.

You mentioned, I know Dad loved and was proud of me, but I also know he wouldn't necessarily approve of some of the choices I have made in life. As an adult, you don't need your father's approval. If your values align with his, it's good to know that you would have had approval from him. If they don't align it's okay. You may want to look at the things that you feel he would not approve of and decide why his approval matters to you about those things. If you live to honour his memory then there's some failure to differentiate going on. It's not healthy to live for someone else. It's a type of enmeshment. You can be happy that your dad would be proud of you, but unless your values align perfectly you shouldn't be ashamed of not meeting his aspirations. In fact, you should only be ashamed if you are not meeting your own ethical standards. It's not because your dad would disapprove, it should be because you yourself and other sensible and kind people disapprove of what you have chosen.

Watch out if the grief becomes intractable, or if there is guilt or some other extreme emotion that won't life. If the grief is debilitating that's a problem that needs looking after.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:42 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for the answers. You are all very kind and wise.

I found reading your answers very good for the soul... thank you.
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:26 AM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: That is great, I also loved these answers. Be well.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:59 AM on August 15, 2019

Best answer: I was raised by my grandmother, who died when I was 37. For years I would wake up and think “I should call Gram and say hi” and then I’d be sad. She lived to 101 and outlived a lot of people: all her siblings, her parents, her husband, two children, and more friends than you could imagine. The thing she most seemed to draw happiness from were children—the little ones, especially. I don’t know if that is helpful in your life situation, but I thought I’d mention it in case it suggests anything. I hope your grief diminishes eventually.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:35 AM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My mother passed when I was 15 -- thirty-eight years ago -- and I still have days when the melancholy and sense of loss are overwhelming. I can't help with how to deal with that though as I usually just wait it out... alone. My wife is very supportive, but this is something that I prefer to deal with on my own.
posted by terrapin at 9:02 AM on August 15, 2019

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