Slipping back into Grief for a Great Father

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I’ve been in a strange place recently, and wanted your help in understanding what is going on. My father died suddenly four years ago when I was in college, and because he had always been the “perfect dad,” an outdoorsman, civic leader, friend and role model to my brother, my sister and myself, we all missed him terribly, and sought support from one another and in my case, a very helpful grief counselor. For me, the counseling was so helpful in encouraging me to write to my dad to express my feelings for him and about the loss, and to affirm through my interest in art and photography what he meant to me in my life. I think the fact that I was in college, far away from other family and the community that knew my dad made this especially helpful. I then went on and completed college, and started in my career in my own small office. I have a picture of all of us as a family on my wall in my new space, and even used some of my dad’s tools in building the shelves in the office, using skills he once taught me.

The strange thing is that I’ve been crying a lot lately, even though I thought I had been doing well for the past two years. I find myself thinking about how my dad didn’t get a chance to see me graduate or blossom in my work, as he is also missing my brother’s recent marriage and my sister’s pregnancy and expected birth of a baby boy who will share his name. It’s like I’m slipping back into grief, but I haven’t been able to see my grief counselor to discuss it because he has since moved out of town. So my question is, is this normal, or do you think I should seek therapy with someone else?

Mara

Dear Mara,

Nothing you describe impresses me as unusual, for a sensitive young woman who deeply valued a loving father, and who understandably misses him grievously as you encounter the inevitable “marker events” that complete one life stage, or are the harbinger of another. What could be more natural than looking for his proud smile at such points of transition, as you must have seen it on countless other times? And its absence as a physical expression of his validation of you as a growing woman and professional must be wounding, making each step over a new life threshold feel just a bit more hollow. Grief is an appropriate response on such occasions, not a sign of incomplete “grief work” or regression.

And yet steps forward need not represent steps away from your dad. Even in the hammer and drill you hold as you build your shelves, you literally are using tools he passed on to you. And I have no doubt that in that photo on your office wall he is smiling down on a daughter whose achievements validate his dreams for you… even if he cannot acknowledge that in words. Indeed, it is our common (but not inevitable) destiny as fathers to die before our children realize their full potential, and to have the sense that they will survive us in a way that affirms our hopes and values is as much as any of us can ask. So my counsel would be to honor your father with your tears of love from time to time, as well as with your actions and accomplishments. Of course, grief therapy remains an option if your sadness and separation distress prove persistent or progressive across a period of months. But grief alone is not the problem, only losing oneself or one’s direction when it becomes unremitting. As you and your family continue to provide support for one another through parallel life passages, you may discover that you have now become the witnesses to your ongoing emergence into adulthood, and that process may be made sweeter by conjuring the image of your father’s pride as you do.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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