NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Monday, September 9, 2013

Grief In Waiting After the Death of a Parent

As a psychotherapist in New York City, I see many adult clients who have unresolved grief from childhood.  Many of these therapy clients were young children when they lost one or both parents.

Grief in Waiting After the Death of a Parent

The death of a loved one is difficult no matter how old you are.  But this kind of loss often has a way of going emotionally underground, so to speak, especially if the child doesn't have nurturing adults to help him or her to grieve.

Let's take a look at the scenario below, which illustrates how grief in waiting can develop.  As always, this is a composite with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality:

Tom grew up as an only child.  His parents separated when Tom was seven after years of arguing and chaos in the household.

Tom's parents didn't tell him that his father was moving out. But when he saw his father packing up his things one day, Tom got upset.  His father told him that he was only going away for a few days and he would be back soon.  But days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months with no sign of his father.

Tom worried silently to himself.  He also felt very lonely.  At night, he would pray that, wherever his father was, he would come home.  Then, he would cry himself to sleep.

When Tom gathered his courage to ask his mother about his father, his mother brushed him off and told him to go out and play.

Tom could see that he had annoyed his mother, and he was fearful that if annoyed her any more, she might leave him too.  So, he kept his feelings and questions to himself.  As many children do, he blamed himself for his father leaving.

He thought he must have said or done something to make his father leave.  He would go over his last memories of his father, trying to think of what he might have done to anger his father.  But he couldn't come up with anything.

There were times when his aunt was over and Tom overheard his mother's conversation with her sister about his father.  Tom would sit at the top of the stairs and be as quiet as he could be so he could hear their conversation without their realizing that he was listening.

From the bits and pieces that he heard, Tom found out that his father moved out of state and he was living with another woman.  He also heard his mother say how much she hated his father and how he was "no good."

One day, Tom heard that his father and the other woman had a child.  Tom thought, sadly, now that his father had another child, his father probably forgot all about him.

This made Tom feel sad.  Having no one to talk to about his feelings, he kept them to himself.

When Tom was nine, his mother called him into the living room to talk to him.  His aunt was there too. Tom could tell as soon as he entered into the room that something was wrong.  Both his mother and aunt looked tense.

As Tom sat down on the edge of the couch across from his mother and aunt waiting anxiously, his mother told him in a matter of fact tone that his father had died the night before.  She said she received a call that morning, and she thought that Tom would want to know.  She told him that she felt he was too young to attend his father's funeral.  Then, she told Tom to go to his room.

Even at his young age, Tom knew from the stern look on his mother's face that she didn't want to talk about it further so he walked slowly back to his room and threw himself on his bed.  He took out a picture he had of his father that he hid in his top drawer and stared at it for a long time.  Then, feeling exhausted, he fell asleep and dreamt about his father.

From that day on, Tom lived his life on two levels.  One level was his everyday reality as life went on just as before his father died.  On another level, there was a part of him that believed that his father might still be alive somewhere.

Tom thought that, somehow, whoever called his mother to tell her that his father died must have made a mistake.  They were probably confusing his father with someone else.

Over the next several years, Tom continued to have dreams that his father was alive.  There were dreams where his father even told him that he was alive and well and would come to see him soon.  Whenever Tom woke up from one of these dreams, which seemed so real, he was even more convinced that his father was still alive.

By the time Tom was in his early 30s, he no longer had these dreams about his father.  He had matured and he had a better understanding, as compared to when he was a child, of the finality of death.  He tried to push any thoughts about his father out of his mind because they were too painful.

What he didn't realize is that, even though he tried not to think about his father, there was still a split in his consciousness about his father.

When he did have thoughts about his father on his father's birthday or the anniversary of his death, Tom would have the strange feeling that his father was never real--even though he knew this wasn't true.  His feelings and memories of his father took on a dreamlike, unreal quality.  These feelings frightened Tom because they were so strange, and he didn't understand them.

When he felt this way, Tom felt like he wanted to cry, but he couldn't.  He felt the weight of his grief in his chest, but no tears came, even when he tried to cry.  This made Tom feel deeply ashamed because after he heard that his father died, when he was a child, he never cried.  He thought to himself:  What kind of son am I that I never even shed a tear about my father's death?

Tom still didn't have anyone to talk to about his feelings because he tended to isolate.  He had a few friends from college, but he never confided in them.  He felt he didn't want to be a burden to them.  He dated a few women, but he stopped seeing each of them as soon as things seemed like they were starting to get serious.  The thought of being in a relationship frightened him.

Even though Tom continued to be very lonely as an adult, he was too fearful to allow people to get too close to him.

It wasn't until his mother died unexpectedly from a massive heart attack that Tom came to therapy.  Even though his mother was cold and distant, Tom loved her and called her every few days.  When he got the call from the hospital, he rushed over, but his mother was already dead.

Tom felt the weight of his sadness for his mother's death, but he couldn't cry.  At first, he thought that he was in shock.  But as the weeks passed and he was unable to cry, he realized that he needed help.

As Tom and I began to work together and talk about the loss of each of his parents, it was clear that Tom's grief was frozen in a state of waiting.  He had been so traumatized by the loss and subsequent death of his father, without anyone to help him.

For the first time in his life, Tom spoke about his fear, sadness and shock.  He would feel the emotions welling up in him, but he still couldn't cry.

Talking about his feelings was helpful, but it wasn't enough to help Tom to feel safe enough to experience his feelings of grief.

I provided Tom with information about early childhood trauma, and how many children experience the split in their consciousness that he experienced.  This dissociation is one of the signs of trauma.

Then, we used the mind-body therapy called Somatic Experiencing, a gentle approach that helps to heal trauma.

Over time, Tom brought in pictures of each of his parents and objects that belonged to each parent that had special meaning to him, and we talked about his memories.

At first, Tom was afraid that if he allowed himself to feel the full extent of his grief that it would be like falling into a bottomless pit.  So, we had to work together to help Tom to feel safe.

Having lost my father suddenly at a young age and experiencing grief in waiting myself, I had a sense of what Tom was going through.  Through my own therapy as an adult, I was able to integrate my the experience  so that I could finally mourn and heal from this major loss.

Gradually, Tom began to feel safe enough to allow himself to be vulnerable and to cry.

Tom mourned his father and, at the same time, he also internalized a greater sense of his father through his memories of his father.

With this internalization process, Tom began to feel more integrated emotionally.  He felt that a great burden had been lifted from him.  He sought out relatives and friends who knew his father to find out more about his father and to understand why his father left.

He talked to his aunt, whose feelings towards Tom's father had mellowed over the years.  From her, Tom learned that, even though Tom's parents didn't get along, his father was a good provider.  He also learned that his father tried to see him many times, but Tom's mother prevented it.  Tom's aunt was able to provide Tom with a fuller picture of his father.

At that point, Tom had to deal not only with the loss of each of his parents, but also his anger towards his father for not standing up to his mother and his mother preventing his father from having a relationship with him.   But he was still relieved to have a fuller picture of what happened.

The trauma work was slow, but Tom was motivated and came to his sessions regularly.  As we continued to work together and Tom grieved, he felt less emotionally vulnerable and he could think about the possibility of allowing himself to have a serious relationship.

Grief in Waiting Isn't an Unusual Experience
Many people, without even realizing it, are experiencing grief in waiting.  They can spend many years, even a lifetime in this state.

Many people say they experience a sense of unreality about their loss, especially if they had no one to help them through the loss.

Somatic Experiencing, Trauma and Grief
As I mentioned before, Somatic Experiencing is a form of trauma therapy which is gentle and effective.  This mind-body approach to therapy isn't just an intellectual process, as so many forms of psychotherapy are.

Somatic Experiencing therapists, who are licensed psychotherapists, can help clients to develop the necessary emotional resources to work on the trauma.  Using Somatic Experiencing, SE therapists also help clients to reconnect with the lost parts of themselves using the mind-body connection.

Getting Help in Therapy
If the composite scenario about Tom resonates with you, you could benefit from working with a licensed psychotherapist who uses Somatic Experiencing to help clients overcome trauma.

Rather than spending a lifetime emotionally frozen in trauma, you could work through your grief so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.