NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 8, 2016

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

I've written several articles about mourning and grief, including: Coping With the Loss of a Loved One: Common ReactionsHolding Onto Grief as a Way to Stay Emotionally Connected to a Deceased Loved OneAllowing Room For Grief and Coping With Grief: It's Common For the Emotional Pain to Get Worse Before It Gets Better.  In this article, I want to discuss a different type of loss, the loss of an unknown father.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

There are many children today that are being raised by a single parent, usually a mother. Many of those children have never met their father.

Often, the unknown parent remains somewhat of a mystery.  Either the identity of the parent is shrouded in secrecy or the child might be curious about the other parent but senses that it would upset family members to bring it up, so s/he doesn't.

I've worked with clients who, after many years of having no contact with the other parent, find out that the parent has died.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

Having never known this parent, this kind of mourning is different from the loss of a parent with whom the child has developed a relationship.

This mourning involves the sadness, frustration and anger of what was missed and will never be--the relationship between the child and the deceased parent.

Many people who lose an unknown parent in this way feel deep sadness for never having sought out this parent or might feel anger that the parent never sought them out.

The following fictional vignette, based on many different cases, illustrates how an individual suffers with this loss and how therapy can be helpful to cope:

Bill grew up as an only child.  He was raised by his single mother, his maternal grandmother and maternal aunt, who all lived in the same household.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

When he was a young child, Bill tried to ask about his father, but whenever he asked his mother, aunt or grandmother, they told him to stop asking questions (see my article: Toxic Family Secrets).

Even though he wanted to know where his father was and why he wasn't around, Bill knew that his questions made his relatives, especially his mother, unhappy, so he stopped asking and kept his sadness and curiosity to himself.

His uncles and other male mentors tried to take the place of his missing father, but Bill always wondered about his father.

After college, he moved out, got married and had two children of his own.

Not having had a father, he made sure to spend time with his children and being a good husband and father was very important to him.

One day, shortly after Bill's 35th birthday, he received a call from his aunt, who told him that she received a call from his father's brother in Atlanta letting her know that Bill's father died.

As his aunt was telling him the funeral in Atlanta, Bill felt a sudden shock in his stomach.  No one had ever spoken to him about his father and now he was hearing that his father was dead.  It all seemed surreal.

Bil felt a welling up of sadness and anger.  He didn't want to lash out at his aunt, so he just went on "automatic pilot" and took down the information about the funeral.  When she asked him if he was alright, he choked back his tears and told her that he was fine.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known 

After he hung up the phone, Bill just stared at the information he had just written down on a piece of paper.  Then, he crumbled it up in anger and threw it in the trash.

When his wife, Edna, saw him, she knew immediately that something was wrong and she asked him about it.  Bill tried to say he was alright, but Edna knew him well enough to know that he wasn't telling her something, so she kept asking him to tell her what was bothering him.

Finally, Bill broke down in tears and showed Edna the crumbled piece of paper where he wrote down his father's name and the information for the funeral home in Atlanta.

He didn't need to explain anything to Edna.  She understood what it meant.  She put her arm around him and said softly, "I'll go with you."

Before talking to Edna, Bill felt too angry to go to his father's funeral, but she persuaded him that it could be a healing experience for him and he might regret not going.

Later that night, Bill heard from his mother.  He felt the old fear he used to feel when he was a child whenever he wanted to talk about his father.  He didn't want to upset his mother by talking about his father now.

His mother's voice sounded strained when she asked him if he was going to the funeral.  Bill could hear anger and sadness in her voice.

When he was a child, although he was never explicitly asked to choose between his mother and father, he felt that asking questions about his father hurt his mother, so he kept quiet.  Now, those same feelings were upon him, even though he was an adult.

Bill wasn't sure what to say to his mother, so he told her that he was thinking about it.  There was silence on the other end, and then his mother hung up.  Normally, when his mother got angry and hung up on him, Bill would call her back, but he didn't know what to say to her, so he remained silent.

All the way to the airport and on the flight, Bill felt emotionally numb.  He didn't know what to think or say.  Edna told him to take it one step at a time and not to think too much about what might happen or how he might feel.

So many thoughts were swirling around his head, "Why?" "Why have I never met my father before?"  "Why didn't he seek me out?"  "Why was my father kept a secret from me?" "Why didn't I seek him out once I became an adult?  Now it's too late.  He's dead.  Am I a terrible person?  Was he?"

They were met at the airport by Bill's uncle, who had a strong resemblance to Bill, "I'm your Uncle Joe, your father's younger brother."  Then, he gave Bill and Edna big hugs and greeted the children.

On the car ride, Bill thought it was so strange that, even though he had never met his Uncle Joe before, he felt like he had known him all his life.

As Joe drove them to his house, he filled Bill in on the Bill Sr's final days in the hospital after he made a massive heart attack.  He told Bill that his father never forgot him and always wanted to connect with him, but Bill's mother wouldn't allow it.  She sent back all of the letters that he sent to Bill unopened.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

Uncle Joe told him that his father didn't know how to reach Bill when Bill was an adult.  He told him that he hoped to see Bill before he died, but he knew that Bill's mother would never tell Bill that he called, and then the end came too quickly.

Uncle Joe was the relative who called Bill's maternal aunt to let her know that Bill Sr. died.  Joe was surprised that Bill's aunt told him about the call, but he was glad that she did.

Bill felt such a mixture of emotions, but he tried to stay calm.

When they got to the house, Joe took Bill aside and handed Bill a stack of letters that were returned to Bill Sr. unopened.  Bill stuffed the letters in his luggage without even looking at them.

Throughout the course of the next few days, Bill met his father's side of the family--many uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews.  He also met two younger half-brothers.  Everyone embraced him warmly and Bill was very moved by it all.  He had no idea that he had so many relatives on his father's side.

When Bill and Edna went to the funeral home with the other family members, Bill was stunned to see how much he looked like his father.  It was like looking at a picture of what he would look like in 25 years.

Waves of deep sadness went through him as he looked at this man, who was his father.

Before he left, his relatives promised to stay in touch.  They also made him promise to come to the next family reunion in the summer.

When he got back to New York, Bill felt overwhelmed by his emotions, alternating between sadness, anger, confusion and frustration.

While he was in Atlanta, he heard many stories about his father, some of them were sad and others were funny.  He found out that his parents were together until he was one years old and then they split up after his mother found out that Bill Sr. cheated on her.  He moved back to live with his family in Atlanta after that, but he longed to see the son he left behind in New York.

Now that Bill was back home in New York, all of these stories were whirling around in his head and he didn't know what to make of them.  He wished he had known these stories when he was a young boy.

After Bill had many sleepless nights, his wife suggested that he go to therapy.

After Bill developed a rapport with his therapist, he brought the unopened letters to their sessions.  He read one letter at a time in each session because it felt too overwhelming to read more.

From those letters, Bill could feel his father's anguish at being separated from him and his longing to reconnect.

Over time, Bill began to mourn the loss of his father, a man he felt he was just getting to know from his father's letters and from contact with his paternal family.  He also mourned for his younger self from childhood, who carried the weight of the loss without being able to talk to anyone about it.

Working through his grief included forgiving his mother for not allowing his father to have contact with him.  Bill came to see that she was very hurt about the infidelity and she thought she was protecting Bill from his father.

Eventually, Bill and his mother were able to have a heart-to-heart talk.  She was no longer angry that he went to his father's funeral, and she apologized for keeping his father away from him.  Bill could see that, even after all of these years, she was still hurt about the pain that Bill Sr. caused her.

After a while, his mother told him more stories about his father.  Some were sad, but many stories were positive and funny. He noticed that much of her anger towards Bill Sr. was starting to dissipate as she recalled their good memories together.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

Bill continued to attend his therapy sessions to process his feelings and this change in his relationship with his mother.

Gradually, the raw pain of his grief began to subside.  He was left with the feeling, now more than ever, that he wanted to be a good husband and father, and that time with his family was precious.

Mourning for a parent who was never known is a different experience than mourning for a parent that you have a relationship with all of your life.

Many people, who haven't had this experience, find it difficult to understand why anyone would be sad for the loss of a parent that you have never known.

But this loss goes much deeper than can be seen on the surface.  It's the loss of what was often longed for and never known and, after the death, the loss of what never will be.

In many families, this type of loss involves a family secret, and even young children can sense that it's a taboo topic.

In order to spare the feelings of the other parent, a child will often clam up and bear his or her feelings alone.  This is a very lonely, sad and overwhelming endeavor for any child.

Getting Help in Therapy
Trying to avoid the pain and stuffing your feelings can result in compromising your health and mental health as well as your close relationships.

Psychotherapy can help you to cope with this loss and come through the cycle of mourning with a deeper understanding of yourself, your lost parent and your family.

Therapy can also help you to work through the grief so you can live a more emotionally authentic life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist wh 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.

Also see my article: Deciding Whether or Not to Reconcile With Your Father.