Experiencing grief is a complicated and ongoing process. So we asked Vivien Weiss, LMHC, a psychotherapist with more than 30 years of experience counseling the bereaved, to answer some reader questions.
Q: I lost my father unexpectedly in October of 2013. I was raised an extreme fundamentalist Christian, and I was very sincere about most aspects of that belief system until he died. Then, everything crashed for me. My father was everything to me. Not perfect, by any means, but always my rock.
It took some time, but I have changed, and I am now what he would have referred to as a "raging feminist," as well as a burgeoning humanist and I'm sure many other labels that could come with where my mind is at now. And I'm very proud of who I am. I KNOW he would not approve of my beliefs now, but he's not here to determine that anymore, as harsh as that sounds, even to myself.
However, my entire family is still involved in the faith that I grew up in. They have made it clear that they think he would be so disappointed with me now if he were here. My relationship with my father was amazing, and I know I was the apple of his eye. I gain so much from that relationship even now. I am becoming more isolated from my family because of my beliefs, or lack thereof, but I'm also finding myself breaking away from them because it hurts to hear that my dad wouldn't love me the way I am now.
How does one keep family ties in a situation like this?
A: The legacy of your father's death sounds very complex. It's like there are two parallel relationships going on, the one your family claims you have with your father as the "disappointing daughter" and the one that you remember and treasure. I think the latter one needs to be cultivated, and the other one needs to be extinguished. After someone dies, there's a process that takes place where you slowly but surely begin to internalize the beloved family member.
No one can rob you of what you had in your relationship with your father, and just because your family doesn't share your current values doesn't mean you didn't share that precious connection with him. In fact, it may be that your family is using the death of your dad to impose their values on you.
Also, it seems as though there are two kinds of grief going on here. First, there is the loss of your father, and then there is the death of the family system as you once knew it. My hope is that you can use that loving connection to your father to help you navigate the struggle with the family. Families are always changing and reconfiguring. I hope yours can recognize what a caring and thoughtful daughter you are.
No one can rob you of what you had in your relationship with your father, and just because your family doesn't share your current values doesn't mean you didn't share that precious connection with him.
Q: My New Year started with an ultrasound that confirmed my fifth early pregnancy loss. Emotionally, I feel like each loss is a bit easier to deal with, but I am always left with a long, lingering feeling of sadness and failure. My body, although perfectly healthy and able to easily conceive, for some medically unknown (though thoroughly tested) reason, cannot sustain a pregnancy past eight and a half weeks.
I have a very fulfilling life aside from this one issue and an amazingly supportive partner. I can see a great future without children and am ready to retire my dysfunctional uterus. Grief is a funny thing, though, and a rational mind cannot always conquer the sometimes self-deprecating feelings it leaves in its path.
Any advice would be appreciated for this almost 33-year-old embracing a childless life in a child-centric world.
A: Recovering from deep disappointment is so complicated. With infertility, there is such a feeling of being betrayed by the body. There is also the tyranny of feeling like you should be able to do just what everyone around you is doing. When that doesn't happen, the grief sets in, and then the sense of failure follows. With each new loss comes more of a sense of being disconnected from the body you know so well.
But you seem to be transitioning into acceptance around not being a parent in a way that seems very positive. I think the body and heart aren't always in sync. Given that even the medical community can't explain the reason for all these losses, it makes sense that you are having trouble more with the physical loss than the emotional one. I wonder if you can perhaps work on moving from a sense of failure to a kind of compassionate curiosity about this unexplained series of events. Are there any words you can substitute for failure? And might you and your partner create a ritual together that acknowledges the losses but also honors this healthy body of yours?
Q: How to deal with a traumatic death?
In my case, it was my fifteen-and-a-half-year-old dog. I picked her up, and she stiffened and died in my arms. It took fifteen seconds.
How can one heal from the shock and trauma of that, in addition to the grief? I feel like I have too many things now, too many feels of guilt (did I kill her by picking her up?), shock (of her literally dying in my arms), trauma (the memory), and of course grief.
Thank you for considering an answer, as I know this situation also happens to human loved ones.
A: How terrible for you that you lost your dog so suddenly! Sudden death can really be such a terrifying thing. There is such a sense of urgency about it, and it's so shocking to just watch the life drain out of something or someone you love when life was there only a moment before.
But there is so much mystery around death. Given that your dog was so very old and had probably lived a long and good life, I wonder if she died in your arms because she felt safe. Since our animals can't talk to us, there is so much we can't know, but you seem to have loved her so much. Maybe she knew that and maybe that allowed her death to be swift and peaceful. Many people feel guilty when they have witnessed a death. Seeing death up close is something most of us experience very rarely. It's also difficult to have sweet memories following this kind of death because at first the only memory you have is of how the loved one has died.
There is a particular therapy technique called EMDR — Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a psychotherapeutic technique that specifically addresses people coping with distressing memories and post-traumatic stress disorder. But even if you don't use this therapy, eventually the trauma will start to mix with one or two pleasant memories, and then more memories of your dog's life will follow until the memory of her death recedes into the background.
Questions have been edited for length and clarity.
Vivien Weiss is a psychotherapist practicing in Western Massachusetts and consulting in New York City.