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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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