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Questions & Answers

This section features questions and answers by people who are bereaved, or are helping the bereaved. This is an informational service and should not be confused or construed to represent psychotherapy in any way or in any form. Please consult professionals in your area personally for direct counseling or therapy services.

Question #1: I lost my mother last year to cancer, and my father and I are going through a great deal of difficulty on the anniversary of her death. My father is refusing help, and is constantly crying over my mother. I have good days, but many bad ones also, in which I often remember her on her death bed. What can my father and I do to get our lives back to normal?

Answer: The first anniversary of the death of a parent and spouse is usually very difficult, even traumatic, as many painful memories naturally come back at this time.  Understanding that the first year anniversary is a time when your grief can be expected to increase after it may have begun to seem more manageable will help you to have the perspective you need to make it through this difficult time.

The first year anniversary highlights the experience of the loss, and makes it painfully clear that the dead person is permanently gone from daily life. This transitional point brings the challenge of further integrating your memories of your mother, the meaning of her life and death, and your role in the life cycle. In addition to these challenges, your father is faced with the need to determine how to meet his needs and whom to trust to help him in the future. Fear of illness in himself, of possible changes in where he will live, and significant loneliness will also be part of your father's experience.

Addressing your father's needs first, it will be important for you to assess whether your father's basic health needs (nutrition, daily self-care, etc.) are being compromised by his grieving and rejection of outside help. If this is the case it would be wise to insist that he see a professional for help with his grief and for evaluation for possible clinical depression.

If this is not a concern, it will be important for you to engage your father in some discussions about his grief and about your mother. It may be useful to do this while doing some activity that you both enjoy and can do together, or to work on a project which will honor your mother such as building a memorial for her.

You may find that the current situation presents the possibility of getting to know your father in a new way, or of becoming closer with your father. When engaging with your father about your mother's death, it will be helpful for him if you can listen to his anger, regret, and sadness without being judgmental. Recognizing that your mother's death will have different meanings for him than for you may help you to better understand his feelings. It can also help both of you to understand the kinds of life adjustments he may need to make. Involving any of your father's friends or relatives in his peer group will provide the peer support he may need. He may also benefit from attending a widow/widower group. If your or your father have a meaningful religious community to which you belong they may be an excellent source of support.

Turning to your grief, I would first like to address your recurrent memories of your mother on her death bed. These memories may be painful or unpleasant, startling, filled with sadness or all of the above. Discussing them in detail with a loved one or writing in detail about them will help you to process these memories and will eventually help to put them to rest. You may also want to look at pictures of your mother before she became ill, and focus your memories on happier times with her. Although this can evoke much sadness it is a step toward creating an integrated picture of your mother's life.

The anniversary is a good time to reflect on the qualities of your mother, good and bad, and to think about the meaning and impact her life has had for you and your family. You might want to create your own memorial for her, write about her, or just share memories with other family members. The loss of a parent is also a strong reminder of one's own mortality, and the loss of one's childhood.

Challenging questions about the meaning of your life and the future of your family may arise. Giving yourself time to think about these issues and discussing them with loved ones and friends may be helpful for you. Communicating with others who have gone through or are going through similar experiences is also very helpful. If your intense grief should continue after the anniversary and the holidays are past it would be advisable to seek professional help or the support of a grief group.

Death anniversaries are particularly difficult when they occur around the holidays, as holidays in and of themselves evoke feelings of intense longing for the lost family member. Giving your mother's memory a special place in your holiday preparations and activities and openly acknowledging the loss that you and your father feel will be very beneficial. Recognizing the challenges of the anniversary and working with your feelings will not make your father's and your lives the same again, but it may yield some valuable gifts that will help to pave the way for your new lives, and for less traumatic future anniversaries.

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Question # 2: I am having some difficulties with bereavement, and cannot afford professional treatment. My parents died in recent years, and the death of my mother, particularly, stirred long standing family rifts. Perhaps the ugliest moment came when my uncle refused to help carry her casket due to his disapproval of my spouse. Later my spouses' mother lost both of her elderly parents. At this point I have a conflict with my spouse who has little regard for my family due to their inability to honor my grief, and yet, himself, minimizes my grief in comparison to that of his mother. Any ideas?

Answer: Your interesting question deserves attention. It is difficult to honor one's own grief when family members are unsupportive, and even hostile. The bereavement process can also become complicated by strong emotions stemming from the events surrounding the loss of loved ones. Nevertheless, you and only you can take care of your own grief. As you are lacking in support for this in your immediate family at this time, it may be helpful for you to think about doing one or all of the following ideas:

1. Find a free grief support group in your community. These are often offered by churches and hospitals.

2. On the internet you may want to correspond with a grief news group. This group offers friendly help and support to each other via the internet. It is quite supportive and friendly.

3. Consider keeping a grief journal in which you write your feelings about the loss of your parents, about grief, and in which you may want to keep poems and articles you find about grief.

4. Find a friend with whom you can talk about your grief.

5. Find a ritual or activity that will help you release your feelings and honor the ones you have lost. This may involve creating a special album or a special monument or dedicating a bench at a favorite park.

6. You may want to look for books in your local book store in the psychology and/or grief section. You may also wish to visit other grief/bereavement sites on the internet. Please see our resources list.

7. If it feels appropriate in your circumstances you may want to create time to talk with your spouse about your need for greater support for your own bereavement process.

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Question #3: My boyfriend lost his mother several months ago and has been recently diagnosed as having depression. Is there a way that I can help him through this mourning period?

Answer: >Yes. While you cannot take away his pain, there are some things that you can do that may be helpful to your boyfriend as he grieves for his mother. The most important thing is to let him know that you understand that this is a difficult time for him and that you want to help him. Be available to talk with him about his mother. In talking to him it will be important not to say that you know how he feels, or make statements that may unintentionally make it difficult for him to express his grief.

In a more active vein, you might want to discuss a plan for a memorial to his mother. He might want to read Tom Golden's article on men and grieving which suggests that for men the grief process is facilitated by activity.

Group support can be very useful. There might be a group in your community in which he could participate, or he might find an online support group.

Finally, have patience with this process. It can be difficult to be with someone who is depressed. Be sure to take care of your own emotional needs and avoid sharing in your boyfriend's depression. A book that you might find helpful is The Art of Condolence by Leonard Zunin and Hilary Stanton-Zunin.

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Question # 4: How do you grieve when you still have to live with the illness that killed the ones you loved? My father and a close friend both died several years ago when I was in my teens, from an illness that I also have. In the time between their deaths I underwent significant medical treatment for this illness, and although I am leading a normal life now, I know that the illness could come back at any time. I still cannot accept that my father and friend are gone.

Answer: This complex situation brings with it many conflicting feelings which would be difficult to sort out on one's own. Here I list some of the conflicts the situation might bring about. In order to explore which and to what extent these conflicts are effecting, you it would be helpful to seek individual counseling with a therapist or, if you are active in your religion, a trusted member of your religious institution.

First, while faced with the loss of these two important people in your life, you also were faced with your own mortality at an unusually young age. Accepting their death might bring you closer to your feelings about your own mortality. At the time of your medical treatment you may have needed to focus on life and to avoid experiencing deep grief in order to fully recover your own health.

Second, you may be experiencing what has been called 'survivor guilt' toward your loved ones, as they have died and you are living a full life at present. This common reaction to survival when loved ones have died of a shared condition or situation can make it difficult to fully release your sadness. Questions of "Why them and not me?" and feelings that the loved ones deserved life more than you can become major blocks to the acceptance of their death.

Third, you may be experiencing conflicted feelings toward your father if indeed, you inherited your condition from him. Exploring your feelings toward your father, how to make sense of your condition, its meaning for your life, and your feelings about life and death will help you to become less confused.

The fact that you are asking this question suggests that you are emotionally ready to begin to fully grieve the loss of your father and friend. Taking actions which will bring you into contact with your feelings about these two people can help you to experience your loss more directly and put you on the road to accepting their deaths. Some of these actions might be writing letters to them expressing your feelings, making a photo album with their pictures and your favorite memories of them, talking about them with family and friends, and revisiting their burial sites. Finding a bereavement support group in
your area, or going to grief discussion groups on line will provide you with opportunities to share your thoughts, feelings and questions with others struggling with similar issues.

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Question #5: We lost our teenage son a year and a half ago in a tragic automobile accident. We have an older son who just graduated high school, and we are seemingly getting "on" with our lives, but often, it just feels more like we are "running." We stay busy, on-the-go day and night. It's as if we are terrified that if we slow down for one minute, that cold, hard, and oh-so-familiar reality will set in. We know our son is gone. Our faith tells us that we will be reunited with him. We aren't without hope, but I need to know if this constant "running" in order to avoid feeling the pain of our loss is healthy or unhealthy for us?

Answer: As is often the case, your question includes at least part of your answer. It is very normal to keep running in order to avoid difficult painful feelings, and people do this in all sorts of situations. Keeping busy and on the go is a protective mechanism that allows your family to avoid being overwhelmed by the emotions of grief. This way of coping may be most useful in the early phases of mourning.

Many things need to be taken care of at the time of a family member's death, and in the first year there is a real need to keep the family functioning in as normal a manner as possible. Oftentimes, the fear of re-experiencing the initial shock and trauma of an untimely death can also lead to the development of protective mechanisms which may serve to allow functioning while diminishing emotional pain.

What may have been useful early on in the grief process, however, may not be as useful at this time. Your question suggests that perhaps you are ready to slow down, and make some time to feel the painful sadness which you so aptly describe as the "cold, hard reality" of your son's real absence from your daily life. The process of acknowledging a child's death is a long and difficult one. Rather than worry about what is healthy and unhealthy, it is often useful to ask what it is that you feel would be most helpful to you at this time.

You may want to discuss with your family members how they are currently experiencing their grief, and share your feelings and concerns with them. Your family may have several ideas about what would be helpful to the family as a whole, as well as to individual family members.

Choosing an activity which helps you as a family to experience your grief without becoming overwhelmed may also be useful at this time. Some ideas include creating a memorial, writing about your son, or sharing your experience with others. These kind of activities often provide people with a greater sense of being grounded and centered.

Attending a support group, or revisiting one that you may have attended closer to the time of your son's death can be another way of safely connecting with your grief, and making time to evaluate your current understanding of your life, and your family's recent tragedy.

If you continue to feel that your family is not able to relax and slow the pace, or if other problems develop in your family which you feel may be a result of avoided grief, it is a good idea to seek the services of a family therapist or a counselor who can guide your family in sorting out their feelings and needs at this time.

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Question #6: My father died when I was a teenager. Whenever I cried or talked about missing my father, my mother told me to "Shut up!" She would say that she did not want to hear all that again. I have discovered recently, that since my father's death, regardless of what upsetting event has happened, (death, loss, or something else) I skip right over the grief process to some form of acceptance, even though I know the grief is still there. I am currently working with a therapist to resolve this problem. Any information you could give would be a help. And to know I may not be alone, and someone else has come through it, would probably be the best help.

Answer: Rest assured that you are not alone. For many different reasons people choose or are forced to avoid grief. The interesting thing is that grief is patient, and it will wait until the time is ripe for it's release.

By contacting people through the grief News group site, visiting other grief sites, or finding a local grief group you may find some individuals in your situation. However, talking to anyone who is actively grieving, whether in a timely or delayed fashion, may be useful to you for several reasons. First, you will have the comfort of knowing that you are not alone with these difficult emotions. Second, you will have someone to talk to who understands what grief feels like, and is able to talk about it. Third, you will meet people with varying experiences of grief which may help you to better identify and release your own feelings.

You are wise to work on this issue with a therapist, as being able to mourn is an important psychological capacity. As you point out, there are many daily and life, small and large, experiences other than death, which are deserving of appropriate periods of mourning--for example, the loss of a favorite object, a move, a change at work. In order to make room for new experience it is necessary to find a place for the old, and to do this one must be able to grieve. It is only after the sad, but cleansing experience of mourning, that acceptance will have a lasting meaning.

A book that you might find helpful in terms of the loss of your parent is, No Voice is Ever Wholly Lost by Louise J. Kaplan.

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