Monday, December 1, 2014

Delayed Grief Goes Unresolved, Negatively Impacts Marriage

[Reviewed and updated May 31, 2022]

We can endure much more than we think we can; all human experience testifies to that. All we need to do is learn not to be afraid of pain. Grit your teeth and let it hurt. Don't deny it, don't be overwhelmed by it. It will not last forever. One day, the pain will be gone and you will still be there. ~ Harold Kushner

A reader writes:
I lost my father in 2002. It was an unexpected death. I mourned some at the time, but mostly I pushed it down - diving into whatever distractions mom, details, arrangements, whatever I could. He was my rock and main branch of support in a lot of ways....we were always very close.
          After a while, I still felt the same as the day it happened. I was numb, became unable to trust, had a diminished sense of self, felt empty, etc. And I shouldn't use past tense - I'm still there.
          My husband begged me for years to go to counseling...told me I wasn't emotionally "in" the marriage, didn't communicate with him, etc. He was the primary object of my mistrust in others and I had no reason not to trust him. For years, he was loving, supportive, etc. About 5 years ago I could tell he was getting fed up with my distance, but I couldn't force myself to change one thing. And then a little over a year ago, I found out he had been having an affair. And although I absolutely do not accept blame for his decision, I know I have to own my contribution to the deterioration of the marriage - especially with his having been there begging for something, anything from me for so long.
          We have been trying to work things out since, and he has done I think everything he could to re-commit to me, but I am still to this day unable to shake my avoidance and trust and numbness issues that started so much longer ago. The recent problems were his end of the rope and my wake-up call.
          I know I need to let this go for myself so I can be happy in this marriage or not (ideally and hopefully, though, I do want the marriage to work). I need some guidance...I did go to counseling for a few months but got little from it. I want to live in and focus on NOW - not 10 years ago.
          I really need to know specifically what I can do to bring myself out of this pit and become capable again of joy and hope. Any ideas for tangible, do-able things for me to do? Something that will show some (any) results quickly. I don't want my decade old loss to have driven me to another (divorce) and I want to be happy in general.

My response: My friend, you say you need to know “specifically what I can do to being myself out of this pit and become capable again of joy and hope . . . tangible, do-able things for me to do . . . that will show some (any) results quickly. I don't want my decade old loss to have driven me to another (divorce) and I want to be happy in general.” Given your complicated situation, that’s a pretty tall order for me, or for anyone reading your message ~ no matter how wise, experienced and caring as we may be.

I don’t know what if any support you found in the wake of your father’s unexpected death a decade ago, but since you say “I mourned some at the time, but mostly I pushed it down” I assume that means you’ve never really dealt effectively with your grief. As you probably know by now, unresolved grief doesn’t go anywhere ~ it simply lies in wait until you pay it the attention it demands and deserves. But it is never too late to do the work of mourning, especially if you have some professional guidance to assist you.

I understand that you “did go to counseling for a few months but got little from it. I want to live in and focus on NOW – not 10 years ago.” Still, if it was your father’s death that triggered all the subsequent problems you’ve been experiencing in your marriage and in your life over the last decade, then I don’t see how you can avoid going back to that event to examine in detail what happened, how you reacted at the time and why. That doesn’t mean you have to stay mired in the past ~ but it may require that you revisit that time in your life, with the guidance and support of a professional counselor or therapist.

I don’t know anything about the type of counseling or therapy you sought at the time, but I’m struck by the fact that, since this obviously was not a good match for you, you gave up entirely on seeking help elsewhere. If you had a broken leg, were unable to walk and were not satisfied with the medical care you received, would you just decide that there is nothing further to be done ~ even if it meant that your leg would never heal properly and you could be crippled for life? No, I suspect you’d find another doctor! Yet here you are with a broken heart and you don’t think it might be wise to find another therapist?

As I’ve stated elsewhere, anyone reading the posts in the online Grief Healing Discussion Groups I moderate will quickly discover that severe symptoms that persist for many months (and even years) do not necessarily indicate complicated or pathological grief. Since there is no simple formula for determining when grief becomes complicated (that is, how severe is too severe; how long is too long; and how dysfunctional is too dysfunctional), when in doubt it is always wise to seek an assessment by a qualified mental health practitioner who is familiar with complications of grief and psychiatric disorders.

Seeking the compassionate companionship of the wonderful people in an online grief discussion group is fine, and I hope you’ll feel welcome on the site we offer ~ but given your complicated situation, I think you already know that you need something in addition to what we can offer you there. So I’m going to refer you to some additional resources, and I strongly encourage you to explore each one carefully:

What Is Complicated Grief?

Voices of Experience: Delayed Grief

Are You Reluctant to Seek Counseling for Grief?

Seeing a Specialist in Grief Counseling: Does It Matter?

Grief Support Group Didn’t Help – Now What?

Finding Grief Support That Is Right for You

Bereavement: Doing the Work of Grief

And given the difficulties you’re experiencing in your marriage, it goes without saying that marriage counseling is indicated, since you've been unable to resolve your marital issues by yourselves. I also invite you to read some of the articles I’ve listed on the Death of a Relationship page of my Grief Healing website.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSign up here

© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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