Are We There Yet? Making Peace with the Ebbs and Flows of Losing My Dad

Are We There Yet Making Peace with the Ebbs and Flows of Losing My Dad

My dad passed away when I was ten years old and when he was 37 years old. He died of a brain tumour. In late January this year it was 22 years since he died.

My grief around losing my dad has been complicated, deeply painful and at times, lonely. It’s a cliché, but like most people’s experience of grief, my process has been anything but linear.

It’s taken me most of my adult life to recognise how much I was affected by losing my dad. Partly because in my late teens and early twenties this truth was hidden beneath several layers of complex thoughts and feelings, that unknowingly blocked out my pain. Of course, it would be an oversimplification to say that all of my difficulties during this time were a consequence of my dad dying, but this experience certainly played a major role in me coping in the ways that I did.

Shame has also stopped me from acknowledging my grief for my dad. At different points I’ve felt weak and dramatic when I’ve acknowledged my sadness, to myself, or someone else. I have been scared that when I speak openly people might think that I “just want sympathy” or that I’m attention seeking (I’m even noticing both of these fears arise as I write this post). I have felt a strong external pressure to “move on” and “leave the past behind”. Eventually, that pressure also became internally driven. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t “get over” my dad dying.

What I’ve learned is that to let go of the past I first needed to surrender to it. I needed to give the past my full attention. This process has been a backwards and forwards one, and very slow. It’s happened, and is still happening, in the presence of trusted and supportive people.

For me, the most significant part of grieving my dad’s death has been allowing myself to feel all of the feelings that were buried down deep at the time of his illness and his passing. Allowing these emotions in as an adult has been debilitating at times. There have been moments when I have felt so drowned by sadness, fear, guilt, anger and shame that I have wondered if I would ever find a way out.

Finding a way through has been about developing compassion towards myself, and truly allowing the people who love me to support me.

Guilt is another emotion that has featured strongly in my grieving process. If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you may be familiar with the haunting, yet subtle sense of guilt that can accompany the grieving process.

I have vivid memories of myself as a little girl feeling guilty that I hadn’t said goodbye properly. That I hadn’t done enough to help my dad, and my mum. To save him. Soon after he died I felt guilty for not crying enough (and then guilty for crying too much). I felt terribly guilty for not missing him enough. For not thinking about him all the time. Up until recently, as an adult, a sneaking sense of guilt pervaded almost all of the happy moments in life. I felt guilty that I was young, healthy and alive.

Reflecting on and sometimes talking about all of these different types of guilt, why I felt them and what they meant, has helped me to move on from this insidious feeling. Now when I feel joy, love, peacefulness or gratitude, and guilt bubbles to the surface, I notice the feeling and try to expand around it. To allow it to be, rather than will it away. I hope that one day my guilt will fully dissolve, but who knows?

In the lead up to my dad’s anniversary this year I had the sense that my grief had somewhat lifted. My sadness remained, but it somehow felt quieter, more peaceful. For a few days prior, I even had a subtle (and somewhat strange) feeling of wanting to celebrate. Perhaps, I think, fuelled by the relief that came with no longer feeling weighed down and heavy with grief.

Then on the day of my dad’s anniversary, a whole bunch of other emotions came rolling in. Right on cue. I desperately wanted to hold onto the softer, lighter emotions that I had begun to feel, but no amount of trying could stop the anger, shock and sadness that I felt. It was an exhausting day. In part because I felt like the whole process was out of my control. Like some force outside of me was pulling the strings, so to speak.

I got through that day in the best way that I could though. It wasn’t perfect (and I guess that’s not the aim), but I felt grateful to wake the next day with a feeling that something had been “worked through” rather than pushed down, numbed out or denied.

Normally my family and I arrange native flowers for dad’s grave on the day of his anniversary, but this year a few days later, when I felt ready, I bought some flowers for my home instead. I’ve realised that the flowers belong here, with me.

 


About the Author: Dr Jacqueline Baulch

Dr Jacqueline Baulch is a Clinical Psychologist and the founder of Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology. Jacqueline is passionate about shifting the “hush-hush” atmosphere surrounding mental illness, emotions and vulnerability. She believes honest and real conversations can spark hope and healing, and help us to feel less alone in this messy business of being human. Swing by Jacqueline’s website, Facebook and Instagram pages for practical, evidence-based tips and resources for improving your mental health, wellbeing and relationships. 

11 Comments

Lisa

Thank you for your story. I lost my husband unexpectedly and suddenly in Jan this year. He was 48 years and our two sons aged 8 years and 6 years have been left devastated. They did not get to say goodbye and struggle daily. Is there any advice you could give to help me help them through this horrid time.

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Karen Young

Lisa I’m so sorry to hear this has happened to your family. When your boys are ready, invite them to write a letter, or draw pictures of everything they want their dad to know. These will be all the things their dad would already know – how much they love him, how much they miss him – but for them it’s a way to bring closure to the unsaid things that are inside them. Then, invite them to either put the messages in a balloon and send it into the sky at home, or perhaps where his special place with them was. Another idea is to plant the box in a garden or with a tree, which can then be their special place to go when they want to feel close to their dad, or ‘talk to him’ about the things they want him to know as they move forward. You know your kids best, so adapt them to suit. The idea is to give them an opportunity to feel connected to him, and to feel a sense of closure around the sudden loss of him.

Acknowledge their feelings and know that you don’t need to fix anything. It’s something they need to work through. They’ll feel sadness, anger, confusion – and all of it will be okay. Let them know there are people looking after you, so that you can look after them and they can come to you whenever they want. Whenever you can, reach out to the people who love you – they want to be there for you. Other than that, it sounds trite and cliche, but it’s time. Not time to get over what’s happened, but time to adjust to a new normal. This will take time and tears and anger – know that it’s all normal and it’s all okay.

A great book for your boys is ‘The Invisible String’ by Patricia Karst. It’s a gorgeous book and talks about how we are all always connected to the people we love by an invisible string. I really think it would be a beautiful way for your boys to imagine and feel their connection to their dad. Loads of love to you and your boys x

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Nubia

This sounds exactly like my story. My father died when I was 9 1/2 of a brain tumor. I am currently 38 years old finding that I miss my father more now at 38. People are always shocked by that. They feel I should have always missed my father the exact same way. They have no idea how grief works, and I am barely figuring out how non linear grief truly is. After almost 30 years my mind is making sense of those 3 years of seeing my father deteriorate before me due to his cancer. My family sometimes is shocked by the idea that I am barely making sense of this and continue to grieve. I feel as if everyone grieved and has moved on and I am still going back and forth between 9 1/2 years old and 38 years old. I was so happy to read this article and see just how much you get this process. Do you have any work on grief like this?

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Jacqueline

Gosh Nubia, we do have so much overlap in our experiences, don’t we? As you can tell from reading my article, I can very much relate to the loneliness and confusion that can come with moving back and forth between the time when you lost your father and your life now. At times I am at peace with this process and at other times I find myself fighting it, wishing I could speed up the process of “letting things go”. A turning point for me has been cultivating self compassion. It’s helped me to be a little softer and kinder towards myself. I hope you can find ways to do that too – to remember that you’re doing the best you can. Thanks so much for sharing your experience Nubia.

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Elvira

Hello !

In advance i want to say sorry about my bad English, i am from the Netherlands
A little introduction. I lost my sister when I was 13. 22 years later my grief turned up but in a weird way; as anxiety and sort of OCD related.
I got a therapist who introduced me to EMDR. Later I found out it didn’t work with her because I was too distracted by her presence and too unexperienced.
Also the insurance company only compensated about 11 sessions and that was not enough for me anyway since stuff had piled up in all those years.
After therapy I did some butterfly EMDR techniques that I found on the internet for other smaller trauma’s.
A year later my grief was still making me very anxious with periods. (Escpecially at special aniversarys and holidays I got nervous and OCD thoughts)
Than I remembered the butterfly EMDR that I did that year before in the shower, and that it had actually worked; I never felt bad about those smaller trauma’s again! I didn’t think about them at all!
I thought I would give EMDR for grief a second chance but this time by also doing it myself.
I wrote down all the traumatic images I still didn’t want to think about, because they made me so nervous, concerning my sisters death.
From the first signs of illness until the moment we came home from the funeral.
Ik broke down the big pile of these anxious child memories into about 12 seperate events and began working through them.
From that moment on my grief feelings started to change rapidly and i started to feel much more in control. I was so thankfull after 2 years of struggeling with anniversary setbacks!
Here I want to write down some of the stuff that i’ve discovered during this journey;
-With EMDR there are no more major setbacks just smaller ones which means i am able to better handle my work, household and mom- duties during triggery times.
-Able to handle death at work (i work in a hospital so there can be many ‘death’ triggers)
-Although the therapist EMDR didnt work it DID teach me the basics. So I would ALWAYS advice people to learn it from a therapist first!! You also need some back up network because it can be a domino effect (i’ll explain this later)
-The best way to do EMDR for me is laying down as relaxed as possible with my eyes closed. Then giving a number from 0-10 as in how distressfull the memory is. Then moving my eyes from left to right for about 20 -40 seconds but with my eyes STILL CLOSED, just as in the REM sleep at night!
Do this with brakes between the 20-40 seconds until the anxiety level goes to at least 3. Then build up with a positive thought until at least 7. But always try to go for 0 because that is best.
-Feeling awfull can change very quickly to happiness and excitement. It is the weirdest thing i have ever experienced in my life!
-The end of the session is often accompanied by a smile on my face or an automatic deep long sigh of relaxation.
-I rather do many short sessions from aproximately 15 min- 30 min then one long session but that might be personal
-I am able to watch scary movies again (less adrenaline) where as before they made me nervous
-Numbering is very important tool so don’t forget to give a number before you start and don’t lie to yourself; don’t tell yourself a lower number if you dont feel like that!
-Its astonishing how many thoughts come up that you would NEVER have had without the eye movement! Logical rational calming thoughts!
-on scans they can see that the amygdala activity diminishes with EMDR and that is exactly what you feel after a good session.
-This is an absolut savior around aniversary days. Afther a session i can enjoy a special day without the restless feelings I felt in the past when facing those days
-I feel more confident because i now know how to handle aniversary reactions with emdr as well as possible future grief
-Good sleep! Even with trigger events or days. No more sleeping pills.
-I am now able to draw for hours, invite friends, feel good in crowd etc, due to more energy and feeling calm inside.
-I also took the advantadge to solve small old traumas like bullying and a failed study but also my highway fear. Because; why not. ;-)
-My sense of humor has improved (I like to think ;-))
-My music taste changed from serious to very happy! Very very weird to notice after all these years
-When feeling weird and unstable and not knowing WHY, with EMDR I have direct access to my hidden emotions and thoughts instead of guessing and feeling restless. As soon as i close my eyes and begin moving them from left to right and so on I immediately ‘see’ whats bothering me.
-I don’t do EMDR when i feel good. It doesnt work for me. Maybe that is also why it didnt work with a therapist. I first have to wait for a ‘grieve wave’ or other aniversary reaction. Then its the right moment to resolve and calm down.
-Practice makes perfect. As I said I went from butterfly technique to looking at two points at my ceiling or wall and now just laying down with both eyes closed which works the best for me.
-Also, in the beginning it made me so tired and it was pretty hard. After practising I can now even do it sitting behind my husband on our scooter (LOL)
-But is does take time to conquer the snowball. Dont rush! Be patient. In my case all the small events became a huge snowball in the end and breaking it down into pieces and working through does take some time and effort but you will get there. Notice the small changes.
-It also had a positive effect on our son. His grades got higher and his teacher said he got much more confident. I do think this is due to my grown confidence? children do pick up a lot right.
-Afther EMDR talking about the subject is suddenly so easy! I am astonished when I hear myself talk so easy about the most sad details of her disease.
-Everytime I begin with a number 9 end with 0 smiling is a surprise and an amazing feeling! Sometimes 3 is good enough. Some things are the way they are. But definitely much better than a 9!
-So Emdr doesnt take away grief or sadness but takes away the anxiety and overwhelming feeling that is caused by grief, so you feel you can handle it!
-So better sleeping and eating, more focussing and concentrating. More joy.
-Emdr sessions bring other memories back as well so don’t be surprised. It can be like a domino effect and sometimes you HAVE to go on the next day because new triggers were provoked… Dont be scared this is normal.
-But periods of sadness are shortened and despair diminishes quickly
-when i didnt know what to do with my grief feelings i used to push them away with working to hard and stuff like that. With EMDR there is no need for that anymore. So the risk of overworking or other addictions is gone.
-also; find a ‘save place’ in your head where you can go when feeling anxious during or afther EMDR. That is an image of a person or activity that you really really like and feel good with. You go there in your mind to relax!
-Thinking about how much I improved in 3 months makes me thank God for this. I asked Him to understand my brain because i felt that my feelings where in a ‘looping’ and help me feel calm again and He did.
I pray He also helps you.
Im not there yet. I am going towards the end of ‘year 3’ but I feel so much better now since I started this self-EMDR 3 months ago, and I know I will get there: to the point where my grief is just a soft and calm space inside, as someone told me…
But i really wished I had found this out sooner (like from the start!) and that is why i decided to write this all down.
I pray whoever reads this and feels helpless will learn these techniques and feel calm too!
FIRST LEARN IT FROM A SPECIALIZED THERAPIST AND THEN LEARN IT YOURSELF
Hang in there!


Reply
GrannieKT

Thankyou for writing so honestly for us.
Like history and science, mechanisms and strategies for managing grief and stress should be subjects which are carefully built into every school curriculum….
they can be stowed in our
“life skills ” tool bag which we can access when needed.
Healthy grieving is a vital part of healthy living.

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Jacqueline

Yes, I couldn’t agree more GrannieKT – healthy grieving is a vital part of living. We all face grief at various points in our lives, and knowing how to take care of ourselves during these times isn’t always easy. How wonderful it would be if our school curriculums equipped people with a “life skills” tool bag. The world would be a different place! Thank you for commenting.

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Hazel

My goodness that could’ve been me writing that. My experience has been virtually identical. I have felt, and still often feel, all of the same emotions. Like you I’m getting somewhere closer to looking back with happiness. Thank you for your bravery in sharing this and I hope you continue to heal xx

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Jacqueline

Thanks for your lovely words, Hazel. I’m glad to hear that you feel like things are gradually shifting for you too. Wishing you all the best in healing from your experience as well, Hazel.

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Pam

Maybe the next anniversary will be a bit easier. I’m so sorry to hear how hard you are still grieving after all these years but I sure understand. I lost my Mom and my brother within six months of each other about six years ago, and to me, it was yesterday. And the guilt is part of it as well. What helps me is that I know they are still with me in spirit and that they loved me. I know neither one of them would like to know I carry guilt around, and for them I try to forgive myself and just enjoy remembering the times that were good. Parents have a way of loving us no matter what, and I’m sure your dad feels that way about you too. Thanks for sharing your story, it couldn’t have been easy for you.

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Jacqueline

Thanks for your kind words, Pam. I’m so sorry to hear that you lost your Mom and brother. That must have been so tough, having them both pass away so close together. I agree, it’s comforting to remember the good times and how much they loved us (and how much we loved them too). Wishing you all the best.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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