Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I had a significant bereavement over two years ago when I lost my father to cancer and Alzheimers, and am still unable to talk about it or face it in any way. I have emotionaly disconnected from my grief. It overwhelms me at times but this is so unbearable that I shift back into my comfortable place of denial. I would like to understand how I am able to stay in the left side of my brain (with regards to this trauma) for over 2 years now! Is this a normal part of the grief process to avoid anything that triggers the associated emotion? I cannot talk about it, look at photos or listen to music. From the standpoint of my work life and my parenting, I look like I’m functional, but I feel constantly keyed up and anxious, and am especially short and annoyed with my mother, who sometimes mentions my father, leading me to snap at her.
I do not understand this. My father was always the key person in my life, always gentle and loving and wise. So it makes sense that I would grieve him. But I am concerned that I hardly feel my grief, just a kind of tension, and it does not seem healthy to continue in this state. Can you help me understand myself and what is happening?
As I read your words, I conjure an image of someone whose stoic avoidance of grief-related emotions and perhaps circumstantial “triggers” gives way at times to a great welling up of pain, which itself makes processing and integration of the loss of your father nearly impossible. It as if the surge of grief that rises up when you are reminded of him trips a kind of “circuit breaker” to prevent system overload. This works—after a fashion—but just as you sense, it doesn’t address the basic problem, which is the need to find some safe way to revisit the time of his illness, and make sense of what must have been a confusing and anguishing series of losses, as you gradually lost your father both psychologically and physically. As you do so, and manage to take in the reality of his death more fully without going into a state of high alarm, you likely will also be able to access more of those loving memories of your father, and carry him with you in the ways you can now—as a kind of inner mentor, perhaps, or a secure base who reminds you that you have unique value and worth.
But how might you do this? Perhaps the best way would be by working alongside an experienced grief therapist, one who is informed about both trauma and attachment. Working from this perspective, he or she would likely seek safe ways for you to introduce your father by sharing some stories that convey his special place in your life, and then gradually begin to introduce the story of his illness and passing, doing the latter in a kind of slow motion detail. Here the goal would be to confront the painful reality of his dying, and to receive support for managing any difficult emotions this entailed. Working together, you would probably also systematically begin to approach, rather than avoid, the photos, music, and even conversations with your mother that open the door to the grief, if only, initially, for several minutes at a time. Like physical exercise, where one builds strength step by step in weight training, running, etc., you would likely find that your adaptive range and comfort increases as you do so.
From your act of reaching out to me it seems clear that you are nearly ready to undertake this work, and begin to process a loss and the associated grief that has been tensely held at bay for so long. It would be a privilege to be the therapist who works alongside you to find ways of moderating that pain, and working with the meaning of this heavy loss, which for too long has left you in limbo.