Dear. Dr. Neimeyer,
Do you think that because I found my dad’s body a few hours after a normal visit that could be a reason I’m having such a difficult time now with his death? Today is five months and I can’t stop crying. I lost my dad on Father’s Day and it was so unexpected.
My mom passed away more than 20 years ago when she was 52, I was 28. My only sister passed away at the age of 40, I was 37. Now I’m 51 and my dad is gone. All three were unexpected. My dad is the only one I actually found dead.
Sometimes it seems like it’s so fresh and then I think it’s been five months and I don’t want time to pass. I feel all alone even though I have a great husband. Make any sense?
I’m sure people are sick of me being sad. How can I move past all these tragedies and stop being so sad?
Your sad experience illustrates two components of grief that can complicate our adaptation after a loved one dies: the difficulty of processing the “event story” of the loss itself, and of reorganizing our life story in its aftermath. As you imply, shocking encounters with the death, such as your unexpected discovery of your father’s body, can prompt intrusive, even traumatic imagery that comes to mind unbidden in quiet moments or at night, bringing with it an array of troubling feelings, from horror to helplessness. At the same time we are also struggling with the deep sense of separation that follows in the wake of the death, which certainly can be made worse by the history of other losses that precede or follow it, deepening our sense of aloneness in the world. Your story, sketched briefly in your question but lived out across many years, contains features of both these challenges: the trauma of the death scene, and the corrosive loneliness that followed.
What can you do, you ask, to “stop being so sad?” One response, ironically, is to allow the sadness, to embrace the reality that the grief you feel might be appropriate a mere four months after the loss of yet another member of your nuclear family. However, if this sadness truly seems to be invariant or even worsening across time, and you find yourself unable to take a “time out” from the grief in order to connect in hope with other relationships, then personal or professional grief therapy might be helpful.
Assuming that your grief is significant but not life-threatening, I might advocate that you specifically set aside times to journal about the loss, and about the special gifts that each of your family members gave you (in the form of shared experiences, a sense of being loved and lovable, a transmission of values, etc.). In this, your goal would be to acknowledge fully and deeply the truth of your grief, but also to leaven it with the enduring contributions each special person made to your life, which you will carry forward into a changed future. In this way despair can mellow into nostalgia and appreciation, and be borne less heavily.
Second, if the troubling memories of your discovery of your father’s body continue to haunt you in the months to come, consider going back to them, consciously and by choice, perhaps even returning to the place where you found his body, and imagine vividly what you wish you could have done if you were there with him, unable to save him, but able to provide comfort and companionship during his p assing. Perhaps you would have held him, expressed your love, and wished him well on his journey. The idea is to build up a healing image that competes with the horror and helplessness of the original one, in this way “staring it down,” and recovering a sense of loving connection.
In both cases, it is important to feel safe and supported by relevant others–perhaps your husband, a close friend, or others in a bereavement support group. But if either the reflective or active processing of the loss feels like too much to manage alone, look for a good therapist who is familiar with grief and trauma interventions, who can help you pace this work and address the feelings, thoughts and images that arise for you as you do so. With each step forward in these directions the path should become a little easier, allowing the grief to mellow to something more sustainable, while making room for you to reinvest in other living relationships.