Dr. Leary is a psychologist and certified grief therapisst who consults with LifeNet Health. Her responses reflect her professional opinion to general questions. Individuals struggling with complicated grief are encouraged to seek the care of a professional.
Losing A Child
My husband and I lost our youngest child one year ago. I am really concerned about my husband. He rarely talks about our daughter’s death. At home, he mopes around his workshop and works in the garden, but he refuses to even consider the local support group I attend. What can I do to help him?
Your heart and intentions are in the right place. You want to help your husband through this long and painful adjustment to the death of your child. You may even be fearful that if he does not grieve “properly” it may affect his health or relationships with yourself and your other children.
Just as your grief and grief work is unique to you, your husband’s feelings of loss, his journey through this “dark night of the soul”, and the meaning that he attaches to your child’s death is uniquely his own. You can best help him by acknowledging that he is different than you; by affirming that he has feelings and his own experience of this loss; and by allowing and encouraging him to find his own expressions of grief. Your husband is indeed expressing his feelings, but in his actions and work in his workshop and garden. The display of your grief may be more obvious and understood in our culture, more easily recognized through words and tears. Your husband may sweat his tears in physically exhausting work or sports. Both expressions are valid, appropriate, direct, and helpful means of moving the energy of sadness, despair, confusion, anger, guilt, anxiety, and loneliness.
You can help your husband by giving him time and space to explore his new environment without your child. Support him by brainstorming opportunities for him to create or build something that honors your child. Many men find it helpful to put their grief into action, while women find it easier to put their feelings into words. Perhaps you could partner in a project that would require him to build (a playground or bench) and you to write the words for the words for the dedication ceremony.
The greatest help with our grief comes through validation. You strengthen his connection with your child and substantiate his experiences of loss when you honor his way, his timing, his intensity, his pacing, and his unique ways of expression. You will be sharing a compassion for his journey that gives him permission to express his feelings and remain in character, cope on his own terms, without judgment.
Grief is work, but the expression and completion of this grief work may be internal and invisible to others. It is so important to be respectful of people’s different ways of grieving, and not to push mourners to express grief in limited ways. The way a person expresses their grief has little to do with the magnitude of their loss.
Losing A Child
Dear Dr. Leary,
My daughter died four months ago and my world is still reeling. I feel out of control and out of touch. Friends keep asking me what they can do for me, and I don’t know what to tell them. Can you help me put what I need into words for them?
– A Mother without Words
There is comfort in the compassion and good intentions of others but when we are exhausted by grief, we have little capacity to think for others or advocate for ourselves. We can find what we need when we identify our feelings. You may have never had such a loss before. You may be feeling numb, exhausted, and unable to think. You may be at a loss for words and unsure if anything would help. These are normal and acceptable responses to the unexpected and sudden death of your daughter.
Friends want to help but may not know what is helpful. Many are uncomfortable and unprepared for grief, and either stay away, say and do things that don’t help, or act in ways that are not helpful to the people they care about. The following support in the form of requests has helped others:
- “Please be with me, even when there is nothing to do, or when I have nothing to say. Sometimes I just need to be with someone in silence.”
- “Please listen to me. Let me tell my story as many times as I need without interrupting or reminding me that I’ve told it before.”
- “Please remember my loved one by name and with specific stories.”
- “Please allow me all my feelings, whether they are comfortable or understandable to you.”
- “Please ask me what I need instead of assuming.”
- “Please do what you say you will do for me.”
- “Please give me time to grieve in my own way, and at my own pace.”
- “Please stay with me and my grief on holidays, anniversaries, and when my grief surprises me years later.”
Any one of these acts of kindness can make a difference. Please use these as conversation starters, or as a response, when friends ask you what they can do for you. Very few of us know what the death of a loved one means to us, and what we need, until it happens to us. You can help them to understand and to give you what you need.
Losing A Child
My daughter died almost six years ago. It doesn’t happen much now but every so often I see, hear or think of something which makes me remember her. It could be a favorite cereal in a commercial, someone who resembles her, or even hearing someone laugh like she did. When this happens I get this wave of desperation; I might start crying wherever I am. Isn’t this unusual after so long a time?
You will love and miss your daughter for the rest of your life. In her own way, despite death, she will have a place in your life. In that way, it makes perfect sense that you would remember her and experience her in many ways throughout your life, whether through seeing someone that reminds you of her, recalling the special way she laughed, or wanting to share a special event with her.
To remember her is to bring her back into the present and to give your sorrow expression. Each time you grieve you are also acknowledging the reality of her death and learning how to live without her. This process is the work of a lifetime and it is unrealistic, not helpful, and unhealthy to live as though we can “get over” such a profound loss quickly. Please give yourself the permission and the compassion to move through this painful journey at your own pace, in your own way, and with people who support you.
Grief therapists refer to what you are experiencing as a “STUG”, or a Subsequent Temporary Upsurge of Grief. These are common and expected reactions to the death of a loved, even years after the death. In order to be helpful we must expect, allow for, appreciate, and encourage the expression of them. These healthy and understandable STUG reactions should not be misdiagnosed as “over reactions” or a pathological response to death. You may continue to experience these reactions on anniversary dates such as your daughter’s birthday; during a particular season that she loved most; as memory-based reactions when a place reminds you of her; or from a music-elicited reaction when the words or melody elicit feelings about your daughter.
Your mourning will become less intense and frequent over time. But mourning is never truly over because of new life situations. For example, a different experience of your grief may arise as your friend plan for a daughter’s wedding and you grieve for an event that you will not be able to share with your daughter. Grief and mourning fluctuate over time as your issues, concerns, and reactions change throughout your lifetime.
Rather than think of your grief as unusual, perhaps you can acknowledge your feelings as an opportunity to visit with the memory of your daughter. You continue to love her, think of her, and carry her with you in your heart. Use these “waves of desperation” as an invitation to yourself to create a ritual that will allow you to spend time thinking of her: writing in a special journal, creating art or music that reminds you of her, or passing to others the lessons you have learned may turn these difficult times into meaningful passage.
Dealing with Unexpected Deaths
Dear Dr. Leary:
My son Erik died suddenly in his bed after an accidental overdose. Someone gave him a fentanyl patch and told him to suck on it. He was 22. My question is I dream constantly about trying to find him. I run thru my dreams looking for him and trying to get help. Thinking he is lost and hurt and we cannot find him. It’s very upsetting. I know how he died and he died at home. Why do I keep dreaming this?
You dream this because you are his mother. As a mother, you have assumed responsibility for his care and safe keeping, no matter how old he is. Your dream is expressing the questions and emotions you need to work through, and may be your desire to have more control over an uncontrollable event. It is a common and a normal response to seek more control when we feel out of control; to accept responsibility and want more power when we feel powerless; and to want to re-write an ending that feels unacceptable.
Your conscious, waking mind knows and accepts the reality that he died, at home, from an accident. Perhaps your unconscious, seeking mind is still looking for answers to “why?”, “how?” and “what does it mean?” It is common that this search for meaning and the pursuit for peace that comes from accepting life’s unpredictability will take a very long time. Acceptance, understanding, and reconciliation often comes in spurts and after long spells of disquiet.
Another way to work with dreams is to see the primary subject as an extension of one self. In this way, we would see the dreamer as looking for herself rather than her son; trying to discover herself and help for herself; afraid that she has been hurt. When we look at the dream from this perspective, we can see this as helpful: in grief, we often report that we don’t know who we are or how we are going to get through life without our loved one. We feel that we need help or guidance but we don’t know what to ask for or how to find the help we need. We are hurt, torn apart by our grief. Your dream is reflecting this.
Your dreams are an engine that power you deeper through your grief work, even when you do not believe you have any energy left. Your dreams may offer you a glimpse into corners left unexplored in daily life, or another perspective that comes when our normal way of looking at challenges is “asleep”. Dreams provide us to continue the work without the chatter, distractions, defenses, and prejudices of our every-day mind.
My recommendation is that you observe and record your dreams without judging, analyzing, or dismissing them. I trust that dreams come to serve and strengthen us, offering gifts and insights that only the dreamer can affirm. Even though it feels upsetting, these dreams are companioning you in your grief. But you do not have to be along with the dreams or the confusion. Working with a therapist who has special training and a background in dream work may be helpful to offer support as you explore your dreams, your feeling and needs, and this long journey through grief.
Your dreams can be the gift that move you toward an understanding and acceptance of strong emotions, and a deeper clarity of your strength. It may be speaking of a deeper truth through symbolic language. My hope is that you will gain peace and understanding through these messages.
Losing a Spouse
I have lost by beloved childhood sweetheart. We were going to get married young, our lives took different directions. After 40 years, we reunited and have been married 4 charmed years. This is so hard. I am in shock. Jack died April 8th, 2006. It is raw and every day I cry. My question is, Jack had 3 children now grown. How do I answer them when they start telling me what things of their dad’s they want and what family times with them I should attend when I don’t feel like it. I don’t feel like living right now. Thanking you in advance.
You are grieving many, many losses and that compounds your mourning. You are grieving the loss of your childhood dreams and the time that was lost when you and Jack did not marry in your youth; those lost years must feel like a lifetime and you can never get them back. But you and Jack found each other again and lived four short years of your dream, only to find yourself without him once again. You grieve the death of your beloved husband, the loss of your youth, and the end of your future dreams. Of course you are in shock, and each day is raw and flooded with tears. Grief is a long journey and you feel each step, each day, each tear. I hope that you can find or build a support network who will listen to your story of love and grief as often as you need to tell it; reminisce with you with laughter and tears; help you celebrate anniversaries and rituals; and companion you throughout this heartbreaking challenge of learning to live without Jack.
Your question about his children speaks to the difference in the relationships with Jack. Each of his children had a different relationship with their father as you had a different relationship with your husband, with different meanings to the roles and different intensities to those connections. Is it possible to have respectful conversations between the four of you to fully discuss and understand what Jack’s possessions MEANS to each of you? It will be easier for each of you to understand why you desire to have certain objects if you can connect the value to the meaning of and the stories behind each object. Is it possible that many of their father’s items have stories behind them that link their father to a certain child or a certain time?
I want to assume the best of Jack’s children, and hope that when they are telling you what family events you “should” attend that they mean to include you as an important part of their family. Unfortunately, they may be confusing an invitation with an obligation and that never feels good. Can you explain to them that you need time and space to follow the surges of your grief?…that some events are helpful and other gatherings are just too difficult at this time? Your self-care and honest assessment of your grief is your most important work right now, and they need to understand that your respect for your needs does not minimize their grief. I encourage you to find the support that will help you move through one day at a time and honor your love.
I am so very sorry for your loss,
Facing the First Anniversary
I am approaching the first anniversary of my husband’s death. I know I am probably more sensitive to this date than my friends and many of my own family. The day will be really difficult for me. Do you have any suggestions for how to get through it?
Until we go through our own personal loss it is difficult to be prepared or truly appreciate the intensity of grief and how long it affects us. Grief is a process that extends over time. In most cases, grief has a lifelong impact on who we are and how we see ourselves in the world. It is your grief and only you know its personal meaning in your life. That means you are living it day-in and day-out in a way that others cannot know.
The first anniversary of the death of a loved one is especially difficult. Others can hurt, help, or heal during this time and you can help yourself by educating others about what you need.
Those of us going through a first anniversary have reported some suggestions for support. Most important is acknowledging the loss and referencing the loved one. Grieving is about remembering, so friends and family should help remember the deceased with stories, photos, or personal connections. It helps to have “permission” not to be okay, to show the pain and hurt or to be withdrawn if that is how you are feeling. We need people who will listen without personalizing or trying to take the pain away. We need to be able to share exactly what we are feeling without feeling judged or evaluated. In a word, we need someone who will be present with us.
Remembrances can be in the form of a ritual or ceremony, which is setting aside a time and place with the purpose of acknowledging our relationship with the deceased and the change in our life because of the loss.
There is a “bereavement overload” when our grief, our loved one, or the death is not acknowledged or when there is not a private or public dialogue of the loss.
I encourage you to spend time thinking about what you will need on or around this anniversary day. Reach out and carefully choose those friends and family that can give you what you need, and ask directly for specific acts of patience and kindness. Design a ceremony or ritual that will have meaning for you and set aside the time to make it happen. The ceremony may include a meaningful place, music, food, or activity that held a special memory for you and your husband.
In Celebration & Remembrance Ceremonies
Dear Dr. Leary: Why do we find meaning in attending the In Celebration & Remembrance ceremonies year after year? Friends may say this is really sad that we have not “gotten over” the death of our daughter, but for us, we have a chance to once again feel her memory and be with people who understand this journey. Why do we keep returning? Is there something wrong with this? – a LifeNet Health family
Dear LifeNet Health family: It takes great courage to grieve, because it asks you to be open and vulnerable to your deepest wound. Your grief exposes you and can make you feel out of control. It takes courage to feel your pain and share it with others. It takes courage to learn how to live in a new world, in a new way, without your loved one.
But in our culture, the bereaved most often report that they feel alone with their grief. You may have felt abandoned just weeks after the funeral. You may have felt as though you were on your own, trying to navigate this unknown territory by yourself. Or people often say that they feel ashamed that their grief has not abated to other’s timetables. That is, until we find a community of others who know our experience of death and grief; who share our common language; who also know what we need and what helps.
You return to rituals and ceremonies that honor your loved one because you find meaning and solace in a shared experience with love and loss. You are in community with each other, and the connection is what makes your loss more bearable. In this community of the bereaved you have created a safe space. You are a family and you are as different as you are similar. While each of your losses is unique, each one of you is the expert for your grief alone, but you all grieve and are in community. You share the human condition of being vulnerable and that is what connects all of us.
Each of your heartaches is unique and none of it is common…but you have much in common. You grieve because you have loved. You come together again to remember and honor that love, and you come to these remembrance celebrations because it is here that you are given permission, time, safety, and validation to grieve.
Together, during these remembrance celebrations, you do not need to be afraid that you will forget or that your loved ones will be forgotten. You can speak their name; you can tell their stories; you carry on their legacy; you share your loved one with others. Just having a caring environment in which you can express your feelings and be heard is profoundly healing.
All grief needs to be blessed, and in order to be blessed, it must be heard. Someone must be present to your expression of grief, someone who is willing to hold it by listening without judgment or comparison. When you wail or tell your story of loss, it is based in your need that your loss not go unnoticed-the death of your loved one will not be overlooked, and your loved one’s place in the world will be marked. Grief is an expression that validates your loved one’s existence in the world and acknowledges that love for a person does not die just because she or he did.