Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I was not permitted to grieve for my Dad when he passed over five years ago because of his wife. I asked her if I could pick the casket out with her and be involved in the planning of his funeral. She said no and went ahead with it. Dad and I were always close (also with my sisters) This woman he married did not like Dad’s love for us. So she did everything she could to keep him away from us for the three decades they were married. I have a lot of anger toward her. I still feel I need to grieve. Dad’s will did not go through probate; that was planned by her so that we couldn’t read it. We had to ask her lawyer. My lawyer did find a way. This woman told me after Dad passed that she got everything….I didn’t ask her that. My sisters and I are in Dad’s will, but we know nothing will become of that which isn’t the important part….the fact that she lied was. We do not speak to her since Dad passed not she to us. How do I grieve for Dad? I have thought about this a lot. Then I thought that I didn’t need to, because I have Dad in my memory. I can’t get over feeling like I want her to pay for this. This story of what she did is a long one, but I think I am making my point. Please help me.
Grief can be complicated, and more so when the relationships we lost and the ones with which we are left are complicated as well. As you describe it, it is almost as if you lost your father twice–once to a marriage that inserted distance between a father and his daughters, and again at the point of his death over five years ago. And compounding these relational losses are others, such as loss of representation in his will and the tangible validation of his love for you that that would have provided. I can well imagine that leaves you with a great deal to sort through.
In such cases, many people find it helpful to identify what is grief, and what is not grief, in the sense that the emotional tumult in which we are left can represent a mixture of different feelings that jumble together, and even block the resolution of each. It can be helpful, then, to ask first, “What is my most vivid feeling?” From the sound of your question, it sounds as if the answer would be anger–especially directed at the woman who seems to have taken your father away from you in life, and now again in death. Acknowledging this, you might then ask, “What else is there? Is there a feeling beneath the feeling? What would be there if the anger weren’t?” What might come through would be a more pure, perhaps even little-girl like grief, for a father you lost too soon and too finally. Just sitting with that sadness, that yearning, might begin to clarify the muddle of emotion: the primary emotion of grief and yearning, and the secondary emotion of anger. Each may carry with it distinct associated needs. In the first case, you might need to find ways to honor your father’s contribution to your life, or communicate with him about your disappointment and perhaps even your sense of abandonment, as through an AfterTalk letter. In the latter case, you might need to find productive ways of acknowledging your anger and safeguarding your boundaries in relation to his wife, without letting that feeling lay claim on even more years of your life. If this work is hard to do alone, a capable therapist can assist with both steps. You deserve to access the best of your past memories with your father without having those sallied by the anger, and to reclaim a future beyond its resentment-filled grip.