A question sent in to my ‘Dear Karin’ advice column.
Recently my father died. He had made our lives hell. As the eldest child, I had taken it upon myself to protect my mother and siblings from him. My mother never left him. I cannot grieve for him. My mother misses him. My siblings don’t want to talk about it. I cannot accept that. I makes me angry. It feels like my father is spoiling it all from his grave. I want to be free of it all. But how?
Thanks for writing in and explaining a bit about what is happening for you.
I am sorry for your loss. But you may not look at it in that way. And I think that’s where the key to your predicament may lie:
Understanding the meaning of loss and dealing with it.
Here are some angles I have come up with. They may help to make things clearer and give you some assistance with what you may choose to do about it all.
1. When we cannot grieve for a person.
Grieving is an important part of finding closure. This can be difficult, if the person who has died brought pain, unfairness and such into our lives. We may even refuse to grieve.
I hear things were difficult. That will shape us (not necessary in “bad” ways), whether we like it or not, .
It might be worth considering:
Grief is not just an expression of love and longing for the one who has died. It is an important way of finding closure to a chapter that has come to an end. Whether it brought us happiness or not.
2. Death brings back memories.
Death and grief are not just about people.
Death makes us remember periods or episodes in our lives that we shared with the one who has died – the easy and the difficult. This can be emotional and exhausting. Whichever way, it can be painful, even if the memories are in honour and celebration of the other.
We grief for what has been – the good and the bad. And that is essential in finding closure with a chapter in our lives.
It sounds like life with your father was difficult. It sounds there might have been a lot of anxiety. It cannot have been easy to protect your mother, siblings and yourself. A child / teenager (you did not mention ages) should not have to do any of this.
It sounds like in some ways you may have felt alone then and you may feel left alone again now – having to sort it out by yourself. Who is by your side?
3. Death puts an end to what could have been.
Along with someone’s death, there is also an end to possibilities (whether we thought them realistic or not). Like the possibility of conversations, explanations, apologies, remorse, hugs, good or better times etc.
Death is definite. There is no going back. It can leave us with mixed feelings, because of what can no longer be said or done about the past.
Often we carry so many “Whys” – for good.
If there has been a difficult history, we may feel cheated. We realise we will never get what we wanted and what we deserved. That can cause a mighty sense of loss.
It sounds like your father and you never made up. Sometimes things are just too hard for that. Now that he is dead, he will never say what you may need him to say. And neither will you be able to tell him, what you may have wanted to say.
Where to put disappointment and anger?
4. When others grieve in ways we cannot understand.
The type of relationship we have had with the one who has died, will shape how we feel about their death and how we grieve. You seem to have very different feelings to your mother.
You don’t understand the choices your mother has made. How can she grieve for someone, who has hurt her and her children?
You feel angry about it. Perhaps you question her loyalty and feel let down. It might not even be a conscious thought.
This leaves you alone with the way you feel about things. And on top of that your siblings don’t want to talk about it.
It might feel like, even after death, your father has come between you and her.
I wonder whether you ever talked about this with your mother, and whether what you did has been recognised.
I can’t and won’t speculate about your mother’s feelings. But it is not unheard of, that people can miss someone (even badly) who hurt them (even badly) – for a number of reasons. Especially where people have lived together for a long time, death can open up a void. Because the structure and routine they had in their lives is gone.
What some may regard as potential liberation, can feel to others like a breakdown and crisis of identity.
They might miss the person and the role they had in that relationship. Some people can find it hard to redefine themselves. The loss of the person can result in a loss of identity and a way of life.
How can that be, when life was full of suffering? It can.
But as I say, whether this applies to your mother is not for me to say. I am just trying to explain how complex loss can be.
But this is about you. How you feel. And what you can do.
5. What can you do?
It may feel like your father is dead, yet what he did (or did not do) is still alive in you and the family relationships. It may feel like he still has the power “to cause hell.”
I would argue that it’s not the dead, but us who can continue to create hell for ourselves.
What benefit is there in us holding on to the old hell? All we do, is keep the flames going, instead of getting on with our lives.
We will never really forget what has happened. And we may never really let go of the anger, disappointment, sadness and pain. But actively reliving it in our minds and relationships – that is not helpful.
Firstly: You say you can’t grieve for your father. I don’t know what you expect grief to feel like – pain, sadness, relief? Perhaps it is not so much about grieving now, but about finding a way of dimming the fire of the past. As I said, it is not just your father who has died, but also possibilities. You need to think this through in your own good time and then find a way of gradually closing that door. From time to time it may open again. The pain and anger my show. That’s normal. But it should not become a permanent state of feeling and living.
You might even consider having a conversation with your father (out loud or in your mind) or write him a letter. Something that helps you get it all out of your system. I often recommend such activities, we can do with the intention of finding closure and letting go on our terms.
Secondly: Accept that your mother has as much a right as you to grieve in her way. You might not agree and you feel disappointed. But if you hold on to that, then you are putting even more of a burden on yourself. Let her, and anybody else for that matter, grieve in the way she wants to and needs to. Grief is individual and as such should be respected as individual. By questioning it, you are keeping these hellish flames going.
Try and distance yourself from her personal grief and focus on your life. Look ahead. And when you get pulled back in the past, then acknowledge that and try to get emotionally dragged back into it as little as possible. This might require some commitment and practice on your part.
I hope my thoughts are of some help to you. If you feel you want to explore this further, then consider getting in touch with a bereavement counselling service or a bereavement counsellor.
I wish you well!