“He was a bastard … but no one understood me the way he did,” she said. She started down this path a moment earlier with the statement, “You know, the anniversary of my father’s death is coming up.” Her tone of studied casualness and broaching of the topic almost at the end of our session, tipped me off that there was more to this topic than met the eye. When she said about her abusive alcoholic father, “He was a bastard …” her head was tilted upwards at an angle and she shook it from side to side. Her eyes looked up and her tone was world-weary-wise like that of a head nurse who’s seen it all. She then paused, shifted her gaze into the middle distance in front of her, and in a different tone said, “… but no one understood me the way he did.” Her face was now slack but I imagined the furious activity going on within her. Two-three seconds later she burst into tears and seemed to cry for a long time. At this point in my career as a psychiatrist I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. I did nothing to interrupt her through voice or deed. I continued to look at her with what I imagined was a gentle accepting gaze.
Perhaps the hardest relationships with the deceased to come to terms with are the ones that were – or rather I should say, “are”- a complex tangle of the good and the bad. Grieving is inherently a complex process with many moving parts; grieving the death of a person who was both a bastard and a support is more complex still and one more likely to lead to complicated or delayed grief. After all, in such a relationship there is more pain to face and, thus, greater incentive in running from it.
But what lies buried doesn’t cease to exist. If it did, slowly and surely dissolving from the mind, then avoidance indeed would be a good approach. But the consequences of that relationship don’t go away and avoidance doesn’t achieve what the griever hopes for. And I’m here to argue that this stubbornness of unrequited grief is a good thing.
Coming to terms with grief is not a peripheral but rather a central task to achieve a happier life, and one wiser, richer and more resilient in its outlook. To put the grieving process on hold means putting one’s own life on hold. It’s like having a serious medical illness and focusing on remodeling the bathroom. Coming to understand the strands of a complex relationship with the deceased person is inseparable from coming to understanding oneself and how one got to where one is. Coming to terms with the meaning and consequences of that relationship is the central task for unraveling the sources of continued anguish and, often, of constrained or poor choices.
Take my grieving patient I described above. She was a woman in her early forties. Smart, successful, well-off, but also single, childless, lonely, and jaded from many bad relationships with men. Her father was now dead for seven years. But like the undead, he continued to exert his power over her decisions and behaviors. Even when she realized that she was choosing men that, despite differences in their outward appearances, all mirrored her relationship with her father, she couldn’t help herself. She chose men who were bombastic, adventurous, flawed and abusive, and had a flair for arousing her – and other women’s – desire for excitement, connection, and understanding. Many of her relationships with these men had indeed ended when the man became unfaithful to her.
To avoid looking at the relationship with the deceased means ignoring one’s central task of coming to terms with oneself. Grief means accepting regrets (as all of life is filled with them), offering forgiveness (to the deceased and to one’s self), finishing or even starting conversations with them, admitting to the love and hate and disappointment one feels towards them, screaming out “How could you!” when thinking of their betrayals, and “How could I” when thinking of one’s own. Such a fearless gaze causes pain and implicates oneself in the continuation of the drama.
Facing grief can lead to a greater re-evaluation, one much broader than just focused on one relationship with a deceased other. Grief initially also can mean giving up unexamined but comforting thoughts. In opening oneself to grief one may be compelled to go all the way down to reconsider one’s view of the life of humans on earth, and our relationship with a silent universe and, perhaps, even a silent God. It may mean facing disenchantment, that is, the loss of the spiritual, animating, purpose-giving aspects of life. In grief one can come face to face with the soulless machinery behind the colorful façade of everyday life. Facing the fragility of the human body and mind, the suffering that is often endured, and the dead meat of a lifeless corpse can shake one’s “assumptive world.” For some, the hardest realization to accept is admitting that life is often unfair that justice will never be achieved.
So, why allow oneself to grieve fully? Because a new life will come. After the period of reorganization that characterizes the grieving process, life can be reanimated and reenchanted. The scary part is that the course and the outcome are unknown before one reaches it. It is only realized in hindsight.
How does a mental health professional guide someone through the grieving process? I think through patience and periods of silence, and through expanding that person’s understanding of the grieving process, both the pain and the promise of it.
I shared with my patient that her relationship with her father continues after his death. In fact, it will continue for the rest of her life. She can continue to say to him what she must, through her thoughts, written words, or spoken words. Since he is not present to speak for himself, she – the living member of the dyad – needs to give him – the internalized deceased member – space to speak through her. This process takes time and is imperfect. After all, we can’t know with certainty what the dead person would like to say. But if the living give space to the dead, the dead can at times surprise the living by sharing something that until that moment was unexpected and opens the door to greater understanding. The dead member can help the living achieve closure and movement beyond the present constrained, inflexible, endlessly repeating cycles to a life of new understanding, enchantment, compassion, wholeness and acceptance. And that is the parting gift of the dead.
Until next time,
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
– Cormac McCarthy, The Road