Why I don’t want to forget the sadness of losing people.
One of my most challenging situations in therapy is grief and loss. It isn’t that I don’t know what to do. I feel more than competent. It is challenging because I watch clients in so much pain and often there is so little that can be done other than for them to feel it. I’ve felt that pain. I know how excruciating it can be.
About six year ago, I was working with a family. Shortly after we began, the father died. After a 30+ year marriage, my client was without a partner. Needless to say, it was an incredibly difficult time. I have been fortunate to have been able to continue working with the mother since that time.
Recently, we were discussing the state of her life. She said that she had assumed she’d be in a better place six years after his death. I was surprised by that statement. After a period of grieving she had been making changes in her life.
Her son had graduated high school and was successfully living in another city. She had strengthened old friendships and made new ones. She is enjoying new activities and social groups. She’s even doing some casual dating.
I pointed those things out and asked her how she thought she should be doing “better.” She said, “I still miss him every day.” That statement made my heart hurt. I told her that of course she does. They were together for over 30 years. She’ll miss him the rest of her life. I told her she should want that.
What she doesn’t want is for that sadness to overwhelm her. She doesn’t want it to prevent her from living the rest of her life. And in that, she’s done well. In the beginning, rightfully so, it was overwhelming. But now, while she still misses him every day, she has found new joys and pleasures.
Her sense of loss and her sadness have changed in relation to the rest of her life. They’ve been put into new perspective and that will continue to change as time goes on. They won’t overwhelm her in the same way. They will continue to have less intensity on a daily basis. Except when she chooses otherwise.
Given our therapeutic relationship, I chose to share something about myself. I’m 54 years old. I lost my father when I was 21 and my mother when I was 26. At this point in my life, I’ve been without them longer than I was with them. And I still miss them terribly.
At first it was overwhelming. The period immediately after each of their deaths is kind of a blur to me. I was just doing what I needed to do to get by. But slowly it got better. There were days I felt I could actually breathe again, even though I still felt that sorrow.
One of my favorite quotes about dealing with sorrow is from a TV show. I don’t even remember the name of it. One of the characters asked another something like, “When does it get better?” The other character said, “It goes on like this until one day you wake up and it’s not the first thing you think about.”
That’s basically what happened to me. Over time, it became less intense. I had the ability to not think about it for an hour, a day, and then longer. I realized that it hadn’t gone away. It was just that enough energy had gone from it that I could choose to not have to think about it for periods of time.
That’s not the same as boxing up your emotions and never acknowledging them. It is the decision to say, hey, I don’t want you to go away but my attention is going to be over here for a bit. I’ll be back.
Now, 30 years later, I still miss them. Some days I don’t overtly think about them. Other days, I have a wisp of melancholy. There are even days when something happens to unexpectedly trigger those thoughts and then I feel incredible loss. Only it doesn’t consume me. I can feel it profoundly and yet, I can still walk away from it when I’m ready.
Finally, there are the days I actively choose to feel the loss and sorrow. I loved my parents. I want to remember them.
Sure, I want to remember the fun, happy moments. I also want to feel the intensity of the emotions around losing them. The intensity is directly correlated to how much I loved them and how important they were in my life. I don’t ever want to forget that. It’s why I don’t ever want to stop missing my parents or lose those emotions. In my heart, I still miss them every day.
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