Monday, May 24, 2021

In Grief: Learning Independence at 40, Bereaved Daughter Shares Her Progress

If you truly want to be respected by people you love, you must prove to them that you can survive without them.  ~ Michael Bassey Johnson

A reader writes: I am presently not doing as well as I did in the past, I think it is because I think about this time last year and I was still in my old house caring for my parents until they both died, and now I am in the new one, and I guess I am just missing the old one a little bit… I still miss mom and dad but I think a lot of it is because I am lonely and think of them as my family and now I feel I have no one. The reason I am writing to you is to ask if you could help me with a problem I have. I am scared to death to learn how to drive...

The idea of just sitting behind a wheel scares me to death... My family thinks that I am just being silly and has stopped driving me to any appointments I have... They did this so I would get frustrated and start to learn to drive... I have just given up my counselling sessions and my grief support group because of no way to get there... I just do not know what I am going to do.... I hope that you can help in some way...

My response: I'm sorry to learn that you're no longer seeing your grief counselor and no longer participating in your in-person support groups. For what it's worth, I think this is why you're feeling so isolated and alone right now.

I know from our previous correspondence that for the first forty years of your life your dad drove you wherever you needed to go. While this may have seemed like a workable solution in the beginning, it also had the effect of keeping you "little": under your dad's control and completely dependent upon him. After all, one of the primary motivating factors for kids learning to ride a two-wheeled bicycle and for teens wanting to get their drivers' licenses is that they want their independence and freedom to go where they choose. In short, they want to break away from their parents' control, if only for a little while ~ and that is a healthy and normal part of growing up. For whatever reason, whether you wanted them or not, you never had those important opportunities to really "break away" from your parents, and over several years' time you became accustomed to living that way. And by the way, you weren't the only one who benefited from this arrangement. The advantage for your parents was that you were always right there to take care of them as they grew older and became more dependent on you.

Now that your parents are no longer here, however, you are faced with making an independent life for yourself, and you don't yet have all the skills and tools you need to function independently. As an example, unless and until you learn to drive or find an alternative means of transportation, you will continue to be dependent upon your sister's family to take you where you want to go ~ on their terms, according to their schedule, not your own.

I think there is a part of you that wants very much to grow into the "new you" ~ at the same time, however, another part wants to stay where you are because it feels safer and more familiar to you there. This is completely understandable, given your background and experience.

This is precisely why I don't think this is the best time for you to be without the ongoing support and encouragement of your grief counselor and your support group! The very fact that you've felt so much worse since you stopped seeing them is all the evidence you need. You see, my dear, your entire world changed dramatically the day your father died, and it will never, ever be the same. Neither will you be the same. Your life is forever changed, and in order to function in this new and different life, in addition to new skills and new tools, you need and deserve all the support, guidance, patience, and determination you can find. Most of all, you need hope and belief in your own capacity to heal from your losses, to restore and renew yourself, and to grow through your grief into the beautiful person you are meant to be.

Being an active member of our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups is fine, but you still need the "in person" support and understanding of other caring and non-judgmental listeners. Think of this as an investment in yourself. Nothing, nothing is more important than your physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, and re-discovering meaning in your life is one of the best investments you'll ever make.

I’m so sorry that you’re having such a difficult time with this idea of learning to drive, and I wish I had an easy answer for you.  All I can do is give you some things to think about. 

One of the things you hear our GH Discussion Groups members saying over and over again is, “Take it one day at a time.” As I’m sure you’ve learned by now, taking our grief in smaller, manageable “doses” is what enables us to get through all those difficult moments that would otherwise be overwhelming and utterly paralyzing. We cannot possibly do all the work of grief all at once. Instead, we learn to do it one day ~ even one moment ~ at a time. Sometimes we even slide backwards or get stuck for a while ~ but at some point we grow weary of just sitting, and we pick ourselves up and find a way to keep moving forward in our journey, one small step at a time.  Eventually we look back and discover that we really have been making progress, however insignificant and small it may have seemed at the time.

Have you ever considered approaching this challenge of learning to drive the same way as you’ve learned to approach your grief? That is, can you find some way to break this great big goal down into little baby steps, so that “learning to drive” becomes for you a series of manageable steps toward reaching your ultimate goal of obtaining your own driver’s license?

You might begin, for example, by thinking about what information you’ll need to know first.  Do you know, for example, what the driver requirements for obtaining a driver’s license are in your particular state of residence?  Do you know what driver training and driver education programs are offered in your own community?  (Driver's education usually involves classroom time, and time spent behind the wheel is usually considered to be driver's training. Some schools now even use driving simulators to allow students more "driving" time, such as the one described at 

Since you have access to the Internet, without even leaving home you can begin by searching the Web, just to see what resources are available to you online. Try going to DMV.ORG. By clicking on your own state, you’ll find answers to all these questions and more. For example, if you wanted to get a sense of what is on the written driver’s test, you could download or order a copy of your own state’s driver handbook. All you have to do is use the DMV.ORG Guide for your state. (DMV.ORG has located driver handbooks nationwide, all of which can either be downloaded, ordered, or picked up at your local driver licensing office.)

I'm sorry that your family has stopped driving you to your counseling appointments, but this might be their way of trying to motivate you. Is there any room for negotiation here? Maybe by taking some first steps, you could convince your family that you are serious in your willingness to begin the process of learning to drive, and you could persuade them to continue driving you to your counseling sessions in the meantime. On the other hand, this is the ultimate reward that you can use to motivate yourself to learn to drive and to get that driver's license sooner rather than later: the freedom to go where you want, when you want.

Finally, a word about courage. Courage is one of the greatest assets we can possess for facing the challenges of life and death. It is not something we are born with, as even the most uncourageous of us can learn courage. Anytime we are willing to take a risk is a step toward courage. Whenever we face anything difficult without running away, we are acting with courage. Think back to how you felt when you first were faced with surviving the death of your parents, and having to leave your parents’ home. Consider all the changes that have happened to you since, and how you’ve managed to adjust to each of them. You see, my dear, you’ve already demonstrated your ability to face some overwhelming challenges, and you already have within you all the courage you need to meet this challenge of learning to drive. We tend to think of courage as something big and dramatic and rare, but it isn’t like that at all. Courage is being terrified of doing something you don’t want to do and doing it anyway, because it needs to be done. As Mignon McLaughlin once said, “The only courage that matters is the kind that gets you from one moment to the next.” What you need is not the courage to learn to drive, but the courage to begin.  Why not decide right now what will be your very first step, and (as they say in the Nike commercial) just do it?

One month later . . .

Well, Here I am again and it has been a year today since I moved here... I have been taking a monthly scrapbooking class and loving it.... I have talked to my sister and her husband and they will be home in time for me to see my grief counsellor once a month... I will start reading my driving manual and take the first test in the spring... We are planning a trip and it will be the first time we have gone away as a family... I am also checking out the local fitness club to see if I can join a class of some sort... I will be going twice a month to see my brother and his wife... I have started to learn to cook and do dinners for the family at least twice a week now.... The lady who teaches the scrapbooking class is also the coordinator of the local hospice bereavement group...It was great I actually talked with my sister for two whole hours yesterday... We now know how we are both doing with the things that have happened in the past year...

My response: I am so proud of you I could burst! Your message is filled with specific, concrete, measurable goals that begin with the words, "I have been taking," "I have talked," "I will start," "We are planning," "I am also checking," "I will be going," and "I actually talked with . . ." 

This tells me that you are taking positive action, that you are doing something, that you are moving forward. A wise person once said that a value isn't worth a damn unless it is a verb. What he meant was that we can sit around all day long and say (or write) what we think or what we believe (or what we plan to do), but it is only when we take action, when we act upon our thoughts and beliefs, that anything really changes ~ for us or for anyone else. Taking your scrapbooking class, finding a way to keep seeing your counselor once a month, reading your driver's manual, making plans to take your first test in the spring, checking out the fitness club, scheduling regular visits with your brother, learning to cook and preparing meals twice a week, talking with your sister and keeping those lines of communication open ~ all of these are simply wonderful examples of taking action and moving forward! Doing all these things will give you a sense of accomplishment, will help you feel good about yourself, and will help you to feel like a capable, responsible, grown-up woman who can take care of herself as well as others. 

Another saying I love is that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. All too often we look at the grief journey as so big and so long that we are afraid to put our feet on the path at all ~ yet deep down we know that the only way to get through it is to begin, by putting one foot in front of the other. The same is true in your journey to learn new things, to grow up and out, to become the beautiful person you are meant to be, independent from your parents and your family. You have to take those first steps, even if they are baby steps, in order to start moving forward. It's the only way to get from here to there!

Hooray for you, dear one! You have begun! You are not just being, you are doing, and I am very, very proud of you!

Do keep me posted on your progress, and know that I am right there with you in spirit.

8 years later . . .

As it comes up to the ninth anniversary of my mom's death I have grown and I think she would be proud of me... I have moved back to my home town where I lived with my parents and I have made lots of new friends who I  love so dear... I work at a Montessori school with 2-year-olds and love it so much, I have gone back to church and love it too... I am in an upcoming play with the church ... I was baptised on Mother's Day last year... At one time I wanted to end it all but now I realize with God's help and a wonderful new therapist that God loves me no matter what my past was... I was able to forgive all my family for the past ... I have even reached out and made amends with most of them... Thanks for all you have done for me and I dream one day that I would meet you face to face...

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay
© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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