Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My mother died over six years ago and I’m still waiting to grieve her death and not feel numb towards her passing. Both my father and I cared for her for a long time. I lived several hours away from my parents but the doctors would call me all hours of the night concerning my mother’s emergencies as my father was partially deaf and at the time at the beginning stages of dementia. While taking care of her for almost 15 years and working a full time job (which I hated) I slept maybe three hours a night and was myself very emotionally and physically sick and worn down by my mother’s indifference and outright nasty behavior towards me and my father. Those years I cried myself to sleep wondering how my life would go on as I would miss my mother so much and missed and wanted the person back that she used to be (we once were close). I myself was shocked that when she did die, as I just went through the motions of arranging the funeral without a single tear. I thought I must be in shock and once everything was taken care of, I would break down and cry. That has never happened. Those close to me tell me that I grieved my mother’s death while she was still alive. Is this so? How could this be since I was so afraid of losing her? Is it because she suffered so much and now I don’t have to be witness to not only her suffering, but also how badly she treated me and my Dad. My dad passed away three years ago and I miss him terribly …. my priest told me that they are both at peace and together and my comment to him was “I hope she’s not driving him crazy up there as she did down here”. As I am writing this I know I sound very angry towards her. And I am.
“Absent grief” following a significant death can mean many things. As you imply, it can reflect numbness and disbelief, especially when the death was shocking and sudden, as research indicates is more likely following violent loss. Alternatively, it can represent simple resilience, as when transitory sadness soon gives way to practical efforts to get on with life, especially when we find the death an easy one to accept because it seemed timely and perhaps even merciful. A third possibility is that absent grief could follow the loss of someone we feel we “should” be grieving, but in fact aren’t—especially when the relationship was less close than others might assume given the nature of the kinship connection. And finally, numbness and minimal grieving can stem from our tendency to mute feelings of all kinds, especially when some of these are difficult to acknowledge and are socially unacceptable. Although it is hard to say which of these explanations might fit best for you without the benefit of a more substantial conversation, your letter suggests that the second of these formulations is more plausible than the first, the third more likely than the second, and the fourth the most probable of all. That is, while your mother’s death might have brought relief, and your love for her might have dimmed across the years, your understandable anger at her and the long and difficult final years of your life as a family could have made it hard to acknowledge or express feelings of any sort after her death. Until now.
And so what now might be done about this anger, and the other possible emotions that could arise when it is explored or expressed? Here are a few ideas:
1. Go to where it hurts. If the most accessible emotion you have about Mom is anger—at her distancing from you, mistreating your father or demanding what you were unprepared to give in your own state of illness or depletion—then give that anger or resentment voice. Write her an AfterTalk letter in which you name and claim the feelings you likely suppressed when she was alive, and probably since. Then sit with this for a day or two and write back as if from her, restoring a potentially healing dialogue with your “inner mother.”
2. Hear from the mother you fear, and the mother you need. As part of this restored dialogue, try writing back from two different perspectives: first from the mother you knew in that demanding last chapter of her life, as she seemed self-absorbed in her own suffering, and then from a more compassionate and engaged mother, perhaps the one you knew in earlier times. Then ask yourself, “Which of these can I live with?” Choosing what we attend to in others gives us more freedom to sculpt our own realities now.
3. Listen for the feeling beneath the feeling. As you process the anger, it is likely to recede in its vividness, making way for subtler emotions, and perhaps more vulnerable feelings that it eclipsed or covered. Might there be sadness of grief lurking beneath the rage? If so, welcome it in, and seek a way to give it a place. Perhaps a special ritual of remembrance performed privately or with others who would understand would let you memorialize your mother’s constructive role in your life, as well as acknowledge the hard and disappointing parts. Life is rarely simple, and it can be helpful to find an audience—in therapy or in our natural support system—for the whole story.