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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Superficially well, but still grieving. . . part 2

October 2009 

The colder weather and darker days accentuate my sense of grief. My father died in July and it feels as though Summer-time never came. The time spent visiting him in hospitals, searching prostate cancer on every website before the inevitable loss has consumed nearly all of this year. For too long I was waiting for something to happen which I did not want but could not prevent. Once the worst had happened – when my father died, the bereavement process took its own course and I accepted all its demands. Now I am further into mourning I can explain the changes, challenges and intense feelings that may continue for some time yet. 

I thought that I would cry heavily and for long periods even after the initial days and weeks. But the tears feel as though they are blocked. Six weeks after my dad’s death I had one burst of uncontrollable sobbing and shaking - scared of what force had hit me. It was reassuring to later hear from my community psychiatric nurse that this was a grief reaction and not a sign that I was losing my sanity. Often a single tear rolls down my cheek as I experience how much I miss my dad and I accept that this is the way I grieve. More free-flowing tears may be triggered again and I won’t hold back as I know that crying releases deep emotions.  

It is important to respect that how I feel is how I feel. This can change each day, some days I curl up in a ball under a duvet, on others I come across as able to relate to people. I worry that I drift into ‘self pity’ but I can accept this isn’t wrong. A few people try to jolly me along or change the subject and even suggest I needn’t use the local cancer centre which is offering me support, in case it reinforces my experience of dad’s illness. When one person said my dad’s death was a ‘happy release’ I replied in strong terms that this was not the case. None of these responses offer consolation or insight. ‘It’s only early days’ loses its meaning with overuse. I wonder when will it cease to be ‘early days’ and can I expect the same understanding when this happens? It makes me afraid that my loss will not be seen as valid later on so I should pack all my grief in now. I want a real conversation minus clichés. Better still would be a listening ear, someone to empathise and validate my feelings – to say they realise what an ordeal it is for me. It feels as though many people stop asking how you are only a few short weeks after losing a parent and you are expected to get on with life. I appreciate those who do still ask first and are interested in how life is going.  

The three month mark has been perhaps the hardest time. I expected to be coping better but could feel a sense of hopelessness. Other losses resurface of years gone, regrets, chances lost through ill health and life events. My sharpened awareness of the fact I have only a small family, one third of whom I lost with my dad, has also been shattering. But I still have the option to reinvent myself and form relationships as life continues. I understand that this depressed phase is temporary as with the other grief transitions.  

Dreams can bring up my dad, especially when I was in the earliest stages of grief. I would dream that he was not paralysed by his cancer and we were able to take walks together. I dreamed that there would be treatment that could buy us time. The ‘What if?’s occur within dreams and conscious thought.  I wish he had lived longer or had been able to stay in the hospice for more weeks, though I can accept there is no way of changing the past order of events. I can feel grateful for the good coincidences that led to opportunities and closeness. While I don’t feel disturbed by the dreams, I find it helpful to talk to my CPN about their content. I now accept the dreams as my mind’s way of working through this ultimate loss.  

Grieving can be tiring though sometimes I have bursts of energy. At other times the only way I can fuel movement is through chaotic eating. It helps to find time to relax and try to think of something I would like doing as a respite. However, finding interest or pleasure from anything is much harder. I am getting over a heavy cold, something fairly common when run down during bereavement.  

When I go out I sometimes see male strangers who look like my dad. At times I find it hard to talk to anyone around my dad’s age as I want so much for it to be him and to be able to discuss the things we should be sharing together. I wonder am I taking on his personality if I am disorganised or too much into his favourite music. I see aspects of him in myself, such as gestures and personality.  

My sense of guilt has shifted from the sense I could have done more to assist my dad to now reflecting on the past. For a time I blamed myself for my long illness, remembering hospital stays beginning as a teenager that separated us and caused him alarm. I have since stopped this train of thought as it is only punishing myself without reason, I remember instead his sense of pride at the woman I am now. 

The ongoing emotional impact is complicated by the practical problems that need to be resolved. My dad’s house had to be cleared in part, which was far more demanding given he had problems with compulsive hoarding, a trait of obsessive compulsive disorder. A lifetime’s possessions, most of them without significance to anybody but himself, needed to be cleared to create some space again. A professional cleaning company was used in this respect. However, I think every bereaved person would need to find their own solution to this process. It is important to do any sorting of belongings with support - because it brings home the overwhelming loss. The task should not be hurried, as time and consideration are needed and these are more available further into bereavement. I kept my dad’s pullover and a small sample of his music collections. Looking at old photos can give a warm feeling though it’s sometimes surprising to learn new aspects to a character you thought you already understood.  

My consultant psychiatrist made clear that grief in bereavement is healthy and different from clinical depression. The cause of grief is understandable and it needn’t result in an acute phase of illness even for those of us with longstanding mental health problems. I have been advised by my CPN to not rush the grieving process or it will store up problems for later on as a delayed response. Frantic deflection activities need to be avoided, though some meaningful activity helps, in my case this is voluntary work. It has also felt part of my healing to write the story of my dad’s illness for several national cancer charities. I keep a private, honest daily journal I use in my sessions of talking therapy. Now I practise acceptance of feelings and circumstances. I am finding my feet in a tentative way knowing I don’t have to be anything but true to myself.  

Alex

Alex is a service user. Her father died from prostate cancer three months ago

Nov 2009

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In this section of the website we publish personal contributions that focus on peoples' experience of being unwell or on their recovery. The views expressed in these articles are personal. They do not necessarily reflect the vews of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

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