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!


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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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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