How do I start grieving?

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

It’s been 11 years since I buried my mom and dad and I’ve never been able to accept or deal with their deaths; and then in February I lost my final grandma, so there’s been some issues with family since, and I have left and never looked back; but I still haven’t dealt with or even accepted the passing of my mom and my gram. How do I start grieving? I can’t even talk about them in counseling. I’m at a loss of what to do.

Robin

Dear Robin,

It sounds like you have lost not one but three anchor points for your life, and with them three caring relationships that could have provided a special kind of security in a larger family system that feels much more conflicted.  Sorting through what all three meant to you, and perhaps your mother and grandmother especially, would therefore seem to be a priority.  However, your comment that you “can’t even talk about them in counseling” suggests the value of a few “conversation starters” to open the door.  Here are a few ideas along those lines.

1. Introduce your loved ones.  Tell your counselor a bit about each of them, something of an appreciative kind.  Perhaps you could bring in a cherished memento of each to stimulate your comments.  What kind of people were they?  What were their special qualities?  Their idiosyncrasies?  Their signature strengths?  What was special about how each related to you?  What did they see in you, and want for you?  Just like we might introduce living loved ones in conversation to someone who was interested to meet them, so too we can introduce those who have died, but who are still part of our lives in emotionally relevant ways.  This often strengthens us to look for ways to draw on our relationship with the deceased to adapt to our lives now, as well as to identify particular feelings or issues that require more attention in therapy.

2.  Open the family album.  If a spontaneous introduction seems too daunting, bring in some family pictures, and use them to describe the people and relationships to your counselor.  Do you remember your loved one at the age depicted in the photo?  How did he or she change across time?  As you look at the person’s face or eyes, what do you see there?  What would those eyes or that mouth say if that person could see you looking back on them with love and grief so many years later?  Going deeply into the relationship with this person–especially when the photo captures the two of you or the broader family together–can strongly concentrate the emotions, which can help your counselor identify a “growing edge” that can be acknowledged, validated, explored, and ultimately transformed in healing directions.

3.  Share a memory.  Whether with the counselor or someone else, speak your loved one’s name, and tell a story about them that means something to you.  This need not be long… though it could be.  The key is to challenge the regime of silence that seems to have descended on all three relationships, which not only blocks you from processing your loss, but that also dishonors them by banishing them from acknowledgement in the world of the living.  Reclaim the relationships, and make them part of your present and future, as well as your past.

4.  Explore the loss, and discover the gain.  Ironically, when we avoid discussion of the dead to avoid the short term pain of doing so, we suffer a kind of double loss–losing the other to death, and then suffering the death of their story as well, including how it remains inter-braided with ours.  Articulating and exploring the unique dimensions of each life and loss, in contrast, allows us to realize what we also have retained, in the form of the many gifts they gave us, whether of our interests, our culture, our values, or our basic sense of self.  Discovering just how much of us was shaped in each relationship can make it clear that we carry them forward in our lives–lives that they helped shape and sustain.  And this is how it is, generation after generation, as we are touched and transformed by our parents, grandparents, mentors and friends, and then pass it on to others.  Opening to speaking of such things is the first step to accessing them in a vital, living way, one that takes grief as a transition toward changed connection.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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