Dear Therapist Writes to Herself in Her Grief

17.07.2021
Dear Therapist Writes to Herself in Her Grief
Bianca Bagnarelli

FAMILY

My father died, theres a pandemic, and Im overcome by my feeling of loss.

By Lori Gottlieb


Editors Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I know that everyone is going through loss during the coronavirus pandemic, but in the midst of all this, my beloved father died two weeks ago, and Im reeling.

He was 85 years old and in great pain from complications due to congestive heart failure. After years of invasive procedures and frequent hospitalizations, he decided to go into home hospice to live out the rest of his life surrounded by family. We didnt know whether it would be weeks or months, but we expected his death, and had prepared for it in the time leading up to it. We had the conversations we wanted to have, and the day he died, I was there to kiss his cheeks and massage his forehead, to hold his hand and say goodbye. I was at his bedside when he took his last breath.

And yet, nothing prepared me for this loss. Can you help me understand my grief?

Lori
Los Angeles, Calif.


Dear Readers,

This week, I decided to submit my own Dear Therapist letter following my fathers death. As a therapist, Im no stranger to grief, and Ive written about its varied manifestations in this column many times.

Even so, I wanted to write about the grief Im now experiencing personally, because I know this is something that affects everyone. You cant get through life without experiencing loss. The question is, how do we live with loss?

In the months before my father died, I asked him a version of that question: How will I live without you? If this sounds strangeasking a person you love to give you tips on how to grieve his deathlet me offer some context.

My dad was a phenomenal father, grandfather, husband, and loyal friend to many. He had a dry sense of humor, a hearty laugh, boundless compassion, an uncanny ability to fix anything around the house, and a deep knowledge of the world (he was my Siri before there was a Siri). Mostly, though, he was known for his emotional generosity. He cared deeply about others; when we returned to my moms house after his burial, we were greeted by a gigantic box of paper towels on her doorstep, ordered by my father the day before he died so that she wouldnt have to worry about going out during the pandemic.

His greatest act of emotional generosity, though, was talking me through my grief. He said many comforting things in recent monthshow Ill carry him inside me, how my memories of him will live forever, how he believes in my resilience. A few years earlier, he had taken me aside after one of my sons basketball games and said that hed just been to a friends funeral, told the friends adult daughter how proud her father had been of her, and was heartbroken when she said her father had never said that to her.

So, my father said outside the gym, I want to make sure that Ive told you how proud of you I am. I want to make sure you know. It was the first time wed had a conversation like that, and the subtext was clear: Im going to die sooner rather than later. We stood there, the two of us, hugging and crying as people passing by tried not to stare, because we both knew that this was the beginning of my fathers goodbye.

But of all the ways my father tried to prepare me for his loss, what has stayed with me most was when he talked about what he learned from grieving his own parents deaths: that grief was unavoidable, and that I would grieve this loss forever.

I cant make this less painful for you, he said one night when I started crying over the ideastill so theoretical to meof his death. But when you feel the pain, remember that it comes from a place of having loved and been loved deeply. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, Beyond thatyoure the therapist. Think about how youve helped other people with their grief.

So I have. Five days before he died, I developed a cough that would wake me from sleep. I didnt have the other symptoms of COVID-19fever, fatiguebut still, I thought: Id better not go near Dad. I spoke with him every day, as usual, except for Saturday, when time got away from me. I called the next daythe day when suddenly he could barely talk and all we could say was I love you to each other before he lost consciousness. He never said another word; our family sat vigil until he died the next afternoon.

Afterward, I was racked with guilt. While Id told myself that I hadnt seen him in his last days because of my cough, and that I hadnt called Saturday because of the upheaval of getting supplies for the lockdown, maybe I wasnt there and didnt call because I was in denialI couldnt tolerate the idea of him dying, so I found a way to avoid confronting it.

Soon this became all I thought abouthow I wished Id gone over with my cough and a mask; how I wished Id called on Saturday when he was still cogentuntil I remembered something I wrote in this column to a woman who felt guilty about the way she had treated her dying husband in his last week. One way to deal with intense grief is to focus the pain elsewhere, I had written then. It might be easier to distract yourself from the pain of missing your husband by turning the pain inward and beating yourself up over what you did or didnt do for him.

Like my father, her husband had suffered for a long time, and like her, I felt I had failed him in his final days.

I wrote to her:

Grief doesnt begin the day a person dies. We experience the loss while the person is alive, and because our energy is focused on doctor appointments and tests and treatmentsand because the person is still herewe might not be aware that weve already begun grieving the loss of someone we love So what happens to their feelings of helplessness, sadness, fear, or rage? Its not uncommon for people with a terminally ill partner to push their partner away in order to protect themselves from the pain of the loss theyre already experiencing and the bigger one theyre about to endure. They might pick fights with their partner They might avoid their partner, and busy themselves with other interests or people. They might not be as helpful as they had imagined they would be, not only because of the exhaustion that sets in during these situations, but also because of the resentment: How dare you show me so much love, even in your suffering, and then leave me.

Another Dear Therapist letter came to mind this week, this one from a man grieving the loss of his wife of 47 years. He wanted to know how long this would go on. I replied:

Many people dont know that Elisabeth Kübler-Rosss well-known stages of grievingdenial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptancewere conceived in the context of terminally ill patients coming to terms with their own deaths Its one thing to accept the end of your own life. But for those who keep on living, the idea that they should reach acceptance might make them feel worse (I should be past this by now; I dont know why I still cry at random times, all these years later) The grief psychologist William Worden looks at grieving in this light, replacing stages with tasks of mourning. In the fourth of his tasks, the goal is to integrate the loss into our lives and create an ongoing connection with the person who diedwhile also finding a way to continue living.

Just like my father suggested, these columns helped. And so did my own therapist, the person I called Wendell in my recent book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. He sat with me (from a coronavirus-safe distance, of course) as I tried to minimize my grieflook at all of these relatively young people dying from the coronavirus when my father got to live to 85; look at the all the people who werent lucky enough to have a father like mineand he reminded me that I always tell others that theres no hierarchy of pain, that pain is pain and not a contest.

And so I stopped apologizing for my pain and shared it with Wendell. I told him how, after my father died and we were waiting for his body to be taken to the mortuary, I kissed my fathers cheek, knowing that it would be the last time I would ever kiss him, and I noticed how soft and warm his cheek still was, and I tried to remember what he felt like, because I knew I would never feel my fathers skin again. I told Wendell how I stared at my fathers face and tried to memorize every detail, knowing it would be the last time Id ever see the face Id looked at my entire life. I told him how gutted I was by the physical markers that jolted me out of denial and made this goodbye so horribly realseeing my fathers lifeless body being wrapped in a sheet and placed in a van (Wait, where are you taking my dad? I silently screamed), carrying the casket to the hearse, shoveling dirt into his grave, watching the shiva candle melt for seven days until the flame was jarringly gone. Mostly, though, I cried, deep and guttural, the way my patients do when theyre in the throes of grief.

Since leaving Wendells office, I have cried and also laughed. Ive felt pain and joy; Ive felt numb and alive. Ive lost track of the days, and found purpose in helping people through our global pandemic. Ive hugged my son, also reeling from the loss of his grandfather, tighter than usual, and let him share his pain with me. Ive spent some days FaceTiming with friends and family, and other days choosing not to engage.

But the thing that has helped me the most is what my father did for me and also what Wendell did for me. They couldnt take away my pain, but they sat with me in my loss in a way that said: I see you, I hear you, Im with you. This is exactly what we need in grief, and what we can do for one anothernow more than ever.

                                                                               


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