Grieving a parent is complex work
As infants, we rely upon our parental figures and caregivers for constant support. We seek them out for food, nourishment, love, and attention. As we grow older, we learn by exploring, expecting stability and availability from our caregivers, as we venture out in the world. Our caregivers are the pillars of our lives, providing safety and consistency in the face of a deeply unpredictable environment. So, what happens when our caregivers are unexpectedly unavailable? How do we begin navigating grief?
When I was twelve, my father was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Melanoma. In 2008, this was a fatal diagnosis with little to no treatment options except hospice care. I watched as my father fought desperately for his life in the hope of saving the structure of our family as we knew it. At the time, I couldn’t understand what the emotional journey I was on was called. As an adolescent, I couldn’t grasp that I was embarking on a journey in grieving.
What I did understand was that I felt afraid, confused, and lonely. I didn’t recognize the father that I always knew. No longer was he the father that would throw me into the air in the pool or make me Cream of Wheat every Sunday. He was exhausted, ill, and needed my support more and more each day. When he eventually passed in December of 2011, I had just turned 15. I was so overwhelmed by the idea of living in a world without my father in it. I couldn’t process my grief. I could not process the complex notion that he was no longer with me. How do we possibly cope with a loss like this? How can we begin to process that kind of grief?
Coping with Bereavement is a Dual Process
When we think about coping with grief, we often picture concrete stages with a clear beginning and end. Rather, bereavement is often a dynamic ebb and flow between grieving and preparing for life without our loved one. A theory developed by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut called The Dual Process Model of Coping With Bereavement looks at grief through two lenses: loss-oriented and restoration-oriented.
From this perspective, the journey through grief is one where we experience yearning for our loved one. We have feelings of despair. We know the intrusive nature of our bereavement into our everyday lives. Alongside these feelings of loss, as we process our grief, we begin confronting where and how to adjust to a world without our loved one. We can attend to life, gain distraction from our grief, and assume new roles and identities. Coping with bereavement includes a delicate oscillation between these dual orientations; loss and restoration. Eventually, we learn to cope better, restore and adjust our lives around our loss. Nevertheless, grief is persistent. Even when we have reached a stable place, feelings of loss will always accompany our new reality.
Out of The Darkness Comes Meaning
Author and expert on grief, David Kessler, notes that by transforming grief, we can change the bereavement process into a more peaceful, hopeful experience. Kessler writes in his book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief that,
“Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.”
Here is some of the meaning I have been able to find in my own experience of grief:
- Grief is a deeply isolating, misunderstood process for every individual.
- For every unique individual, there is an equally unique grieving process.
- Grief takes patience. There is no timeline for bereavement. We must be kind to our journey.
- Feelings of joy, grief, gratitude, and anger can exist alongside one another in a life that has been touched by loss.
- Grief acts as a teacher. We can learn to be a more joyous, present, and fuller version of ourselves through our experience with grief.
- Grief creates connections. Sharing our grief with others and being open to others’ experiences with grief is healing.
- Our loved ones can live on within us, and be present for us in a new way.
Resources for Grief
- Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief By David Kessler
- Resilient Grieving: How to Find Your Way Through a Devastating Loss by Lucy Hone
- A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children: Rebuilding Your Family After the Death of a Loved One by Phyllis R. Silverman and Madelyn Kelly
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
If you have experienced loss, reach out to one of our specialized counselors for individual care, or join a group and share the experience of suffering. Grieving is a difficult, isolating process. But you don’t have to do it alone.