Monday, June 12, 2017

In Grief: Death of a Possibility

[Reviewed and updated March 8, 2022]

Nothing is more sad than the death of an illusion.  ~ Arthur Koestler

A reader writes: My dad has been deceased for two years, and I am just coming to grips with the fact that he is really gone. It seems like only yesterday I got the phone call that changed my life forever.

My dad and I were never really close. His traumatic childhood had left him in a 24/7 dream world, and my parents divorced when I was about 4 years of age. My dad was a very sick man with schizophrenia and alcoholism. My mom left him when he became physically abusive, and throughout my childhood I met with him maybe five times. I have since forgiven him for what he did in the past to my mom and me, as he was sick and could not control his actions or words.

Just before my dad was taken from me, I was going through some really hard times emotionally and I wanted to rekindle our relationship. Although I hadn’t spoken to him for about 5 years, I got his phone number and called him. He was so surprised to hear my voice! He told me he was doing much better, taking less medication, not drinking as much, feeling really good. He was so interested in talking with me, when before because of his illness I couldn’t even hold a ten-minute conversation with him.

I told him where I was living and working and he told me to be careful driving to work on that road, especially in the winter, as "that's the dead man's curve." This was the only parental guidance/warning/anything my dad has ever given me, and I will remember that for the rest of my life. He then gave me his address and asked me to visit him sometime soon as he really needed to talk to me about something. I asked him to tell me on the phone as I hate when someone puts me in suspense. He said he couldn’t tell me, he had to see me: “Come by yourself. I really need to see you and talk." I said “Sure, Dad, I'll come over.” I called him about three times after we spoke and no one ever answered, so I never went as I didn’t want to drive there and find no one home.

A few days later, on what would be the worst day of my life, I felt really strange—something was just wrong. I remember driving to work that morning and calling my mom, my fiancé, my sister just to be sure everyone was alright. Everyone was fine. When I got home from work that afternoon, my sister called to tell me that I needed to get to the hospital right away—that it was Dad, it wasn’t good and to hurry up and get there. When I got to the hospital he was already gone. Cause of death: bad fall. He was drunk, he had fallen and that was the end of his pain forever—instant neurological death.

One positive thing that has come from all of this is that my sister and I wanted to donate his organs, and I can proudly say that my dad saved someone’s life at the expense of his own. Four different people's lives changed forever because of our choice. An angel received his heart to beat more strong. An angel received his lungs to breath once again. An angel received his liver to have clean blood. An angel received his corneas to have sight once more. I am so proud of him!

I am however so confused about my emotions. It is only within the last six months that I’ve just come to grips that he is really gone. I wonder so deeply and I search within my soul so deep and nothing. I need to know what he wanted to tell me. I feel so heartbroken and lost. I was just about to have a chance to have a normal relationship for the first time in my life and it is all taken away again.

Sometimes I feel so mad and angry at him, other times I feel so sad for his pain, other times I do not know what I feel but pure confusion.

Is it normal to feel this way after two years? I feel like I am just starting to mourn for his death now and because he passed so long ago I feel as if maybe my feelings are not valid. Sometimes I think of times that we did have together or the shape of his hand and it floods me with tears. I feel like I am choking and cannot swallow or breathe. And other days I do not even think at all.

I feel so left out and hurt. I need some answers I need to rest my heart and the pain seeping out of my soul.

No one understands my pain. Anyone that I have personally confided in has told me, "But you did not even really know him.” What they do not realize is this hurts even more because I will never know him now and they are just putting salt in my wounds. Please help me.

My response: I am deeply sorry for your loss. As I read your story, I am once again reminded of the powerful passage I found some time ago and placed on the Comfort for Grieving Hearts page of my Grief Healing website:
When love ends, be it the first mad romance of adolescence, the love that will not sustain a marriage, or the love of a failed friendship, it is the same. A death. Likewise in the event of a miscarriage or an abortion: a possibility is dead. And there is no public or even private funeral. Sometimes only regret and nostalgia mark the passage. And the last rites are held in the solitude of one’s most secret self—a service of mourning in the tabernacle of the soul.  
~ Robert Fulghum, in From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives
What you are mourning, my friend, is not only the death of your dad, but also the death of a possibility, the death of a dream. You are experiencing the death of the relationship you never had with your dad in the past, and now can never hope to have in the future, either. That is a significant loss, and it is certainly worthy of your grief, regardless of how long ago this death happened. There is no time frame for grief, and your feelings are valid and real no matter how long you’ve felt this way. Grief doesn’t “go” anywhere, after all. It just lies there, waiting for us to take care of it, and sometimes it can lie there for years if we do not address it and work through it. If after two years your feelings are still raw and demanding your attention, you are wise to take a closer look at them. It is never too late to do the work of mourning.

While I can certainly understand your need to know whatever it is your dad had wanted to tell you when he saw you, the sad fact is that you will never know for sure, and eventually you must come to terms with that. But given where you were with your dad at that point, having just re-established contact with him and knowing he was so glad to hear from you, it seems reasonable to assume that it was something positive and good, and my prayer for you is that one day you will find some comfort in that assumption, hold onto it and let it be enough. You might even try writing yourself a letter from your dad. Try writing as if the writer was your dad, and see what words come through to you. This can be a very powerful exercise.

I can also understand your feeling heartbroken that “I was just about to have a normal relationship for the first time in my life and it was all taken away again.” But since your dad suffered from a serious mental illness, had a long history of alcohol abuse and barely one month later was drinking heavily enough to sustain a fall that later proved to be fatal, it does not seem to me that he was capable of developing and maintaining a “normal relationship” with you or anyone else.

You say that you have forgiven your father for what he did to you and your mother in the past, because you knew he was sick and could not control his actions or his words, and I want to commend you for that—but what about what your dad did to you in the more recent past? Perhaps there is more there that needs to be forgiven. Remember too that forgiveness is not a single act; it is a process that takes place over time. Read the insightful words of Kay Talbot, psychotherapist and bereaved parent, writing about forgiveness:
Today, in my work with grieving people. I often find that forgiveness is misunderstood. What does forgiveness mean? Let's look first at what it doesn't mean. Forgiveness does not mean condoning or pardoning insensitive or abusive behavior or acting like everything is okay when we feel it isn't. It does not mean forgetting what has happened or naively trusting others who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy.
[In her book Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart] Robin Casarjian helps to clarify this: 'What we are forgiving is not the act, not the abuse or the insensitivity. What we are forgiving is the people, the people who could not manage to honor and cherish themselves, us, their families, their spouses, their children or others. What we are forgiving is their confusion and ignorance and desperation and whatever it happens to be. It's not about what you do. It's about how you perceive the person and the situation. So you can forgive somebody and set boundaries and still take action. You can forgive somebody and litigate against them.'
Forgiveness is a conscious decision to stop hating both ourselves and others. It is an act of self-interest - something we do for ourselves to find greater freedom and peace. Even when we have suffered outrageous trauma, we can work through our appropriate anger and choose forgiveness as a powerful way to cast off the role of victim . . .
When we choose forgiveness, we consciously recognize that we cannot change others, but we can change ourselves - gradually, over time, and with much difficult, emotional work . . .
Forgiving becomes a process we embrace over and over. Memorials and rituals are tools we use to continue the process. Forgiveness is not a one-time event that absolves us of all future feelings of anger or guilt. Actually, guilt, like anger, can be a useful emotion. Appropriate guilt stirs up our consciences and makes us realize we need to ask for forgiveness. But inappropriate guilt keeps us from feeling forgiven and from creating a healthy future.
In my evolving grief process, I have learned to identify, express and release anger and inappropriate guilt, to forgive, to seek and receive forgiveness. The person I am becoming in this process is a gift from my daughter. Not one I would have chosen, but one I choose to cherish nevertheless. My hope is that all who grieve will find such gifts within the legacy of their own lives.
~ Kay Talbot, The Gift of Forgiveness, in Bereavement Magazine, March / April 1999
You say you're not getting much support or understanding from others, who don't seem to appreciate how cheated you feel at never having experienced a special relationship with your dad, or how difficult it must be for you now to cope with the realization that you will never have it in the future. Unfortunately, that is not uncommon. Those who have not experienced a similar loss can be terribly insensitive in what they say to us, even when they don’t intend to be. (See, for example, Sibling Loss: When Grief Goes Unacknowledged.) It is also true that people tend to be finished with our grief a lot sooner than we are done with our own need to talk about it. But there are many sources of help for grieving people out there—you just need to take the time to find them.

You might begin by reading a little about what normal grief looks like, so you'll have a better understanding of what you're going through and what you have in common with others—it also may reassure you that what you're experiencing is quite normal under the circumstances. See, for example, some of the links to titles listed on my Marty’s Articles page.

Participating in an on-line discussion group is another positive step, because it enables you to give your grief a voice. Here you can share your story of loss and find emotional support and even inspiration from others whose experiences may be similar to your own. And it's available to you at no cost, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Grief is very hard work, but you don’t have to do it all alone. Here you’ll find some of the comfort and support you need and deserve, and you will hear from others who also may be mourning the loss of a relationship that will never be.

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