THINGS I WISH I KNEW BEFORE MY MOM DIED: COPING WITH LOSS

     

I don’t want khổng lồ burden her when she’s going through such a difficult time, but I need khổng lồ talk khổng lồ her about my grief.

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Editor’s Note: On the last Monday of each month, Lori Gottlieb answers a reader’s question about a problem, big or small. Have a question? email her at dear.therapist
Dear Therapist,

I’m writing about a struggle I’m having with my mother. My father passed away at the over of May after a long battle with prostate cancer. He và my mother had been married for 53 years.

We all had very positive relationships with him, and this loss has affected our family greatly. My mother is mourning while also having khổng lồ learn a lot of new skills, such as managing the finances, which my father had always taken care of. I am very proud of her for all that she has done.

However, my sister & I both struggle when we talk to lớn her, because she never asks how we are doing with the death of our father. She does talk about how she feels, and I want her to talk lớn me about that. But there doesn’t seem lớn be a space for me to lớn receive emotional tư vấn from her. I am always the one to lớn call, and although I over each phone hotline with “Feel không lấy phí to call me anytime,” she never initiates. Even when I call her and she’s busy và says she’ll call me back, she doesn’t.

I’ve told her it would be nice for her to điện thoại tư vấn me sometimes, and she kind of apologizes, but then doesn’t follow through. I haven’t brought up my more general feeling of a lack of emotional support because I don’t want lớn hurt her when she’s going through such a difficult time. She will often apologize for talking about her sadness, & I respond by telling her the words I want to lớn hear—that it’s important to talk about our loss, & that we need lớn talk about how it is affecting us.

I find myself calling her less frequently và then feeling bad about that. I just don’t know if it’s appropriate to lớn bring up my feelings, because his death has affected her 100 times worse than it has affected me. But at the same time, I don’t want to lớn be silently resentful.

I feel lượt thích I’m on a seesaw between wanting to lớn advocate for myself but also wanting to lớn be conscientious of her grieving, and I don’t know what khổng lồ do.

Erin Boston, Mass.

Dear Erin,

I’m sorry that you haven’t been able to giới thiệu your grief with your mother at a time when you’re both reeling from this tremendous loss. It makes sense that you’re seeking emotional support, because losing a parent is a significant event in a person’s life, và that doesn’t change just because you’re an adult.

I’m pointing this out because when young children thua a parent, people around them typically try khổng lồ provide them with space to process their grief—family members might encourage them khổng lồ talk about what they’re feeling, or mix up family or individual sessions with a therapist, or send them to lớn a grief group for children. Adult children, on the other hand, might find that after the initial condolences, people assume that they’re okay and then don’t bring up the loss again. (This misconception about loss also happens with adult children whose parents divorce.)

Moreover, some people also assume—as you seem to, with your view that your mother’s experience is “100 times worse”—that there’s a hierarchy of grieving, và that pain can be ranked based on a person’s role in the deceased’s life, such as being the surviving spouse versus the surviving child. But the problem with these rankings is that they deny the reality that death is sad & loss is painful. Full stop.

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I’d encourage you lớn think about your mother’s loss not as worse but as different. She has lost her partner, the person she slept next to for half a century và to whom she told the details of her day; she lost the person with whom she raised children, weathered life’s challenges, shared emotional and physical intimacy, navigated a household and its logistics, and held quality memories & experiences that she alone is left with.

But you have also experienced a massive loss—different, yes, but not lesser. You have lost one of the two people who raised you since birth, and in addition to lớn the irreplaceable connection you & your father had—the shared lifelong experiences, rituals, inside jokes, stories—you also likely lost a buffer between you and your mortality. The death of a parent can make an adult child view the prospect of her own death as real for the very first time, và force her to contemplate what life will be like with no living parents. It’s common, too, for adult children to lớn grieve the loss of what that parent will miss in their lives in the future—seeing a professional accomplishment come lớn fruition, watching any grandchildren grow up, being part of still-to-come meaningful events & milestones. You might also experience yourself as unusually vulnerable, having lost a layer of security or protection, like the safety net of being able to hotline your dad for advice or knowing you have a place to land if anything were to happen.

In the midst of all these complicated feelings, you might feel abandoned, not just by your father, but also by your mother, whose attention is focused on her own grief. You want her lớn parent you in this moment, lớn comfort you in ways no one else can. What you are experiencing isn’t just loss but the start of a new era of your family, with new dynamics & new roles. If you handle this moment of transition with honesty and kindness, you’ll be able to lớn find your way in this new family system.

While you and your mom might be struggling in your own ways, the paradox of grieving is that it’s both a solitary experience and hard lớn sit with alone. Your mom seems unable khổng lồ provide the kind of support you need right now, và the only way to find out why is to replace your indirect attempts khổng lồ engage her (hinting that you’d like her to call you; telling her it’s important that she chia sẻ her feelings in the hope that she’ll ask about yours) with a direct conversation.

You might start with something lượt thích this: “Mom, I’m so proud of everything you’ve done since Dad’s death. I know that on đứng đầu of taking on new responsibilities, you’re also missing him so much and having khổng lồ adjust to life without him. It’s all so hard. I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve also been having a hard time, & I’ve wanted to nói qua that with you, but I’ve been afraid khổng lồ burden you. Maybe it would help both of us to lớn talk about Dad’s absence in our lives as we go through this, but I also understand if that’s too much for you. How vì chưng you feel about that?”

When she responds, listen not just to lớn her words, but also to lớn her tone. There’s a big difference between an encouraging I hadn’t realized you were struggling; I’m so glad you brought that up và a hesitant Sure … um … I guess that would be okay.

Even if you don’t get the response you want, you might learn something about your mother that helps you understand her behavior in a way that feels less hurtful. She might say, for instance, that she never calls you because she doesn’t want to overwhelm you with her grief. Maybe she’ll explain that she doesn’t ask about your struggles because your grief would be overwhelming for her while she’s living so deeply in hers. She might tell you that she’s been very depressed, và you might consider that depressed people don’t tend lớn initiate phone calls or remember to điện thoại tư vấn people back.

This information will be helpful, because the death of the first parent often leads khổng lồ a reorganization of the family structure. You might start to lớn see your mom more as a separate individual, distinct from the pair of “Mom & Dad.” If your mom was the one to tư vấn you in the past, your family dynamics might be shifting so that you will now start to lớn be there for her more. But that doesn’t mean you should grieve alone. It simply means that you should find another way to lớn get the support you need. You can talk khổng lồ other family members and share memories of your dad, reach out khổng lồ friends who have lost a parent and can better understand the nuances of your pain, create a memorial or put together a scrapbook of you và your dad, join a grief tư vấn group, or see a therapist who can help you process the many feelings that are coming up—not just about your dad, but also about your mom and the inevitable changes a parent’s death brings about in a family’s dynamic.

Finally, you can create a balance between being there for your mom and making space for yourself so that you aren’t talking only about her grief, & you might even gently suggest to her that many people who have lost a loved one find therapy lớn be very useful, và then help her find a therapist of her own.

The result is that you’ll get tư vấn navigating not just your dad’s death, but also the many changes that come with it. By moving into this new role both with your mom & in your own life, you’ll also be practicing for what lies ahead: holding your dad’s love inside you & moving forward at the same time.

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Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, & is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing lớn let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.