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The Silent Echo

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There are many types of parent child relationships ranging from the most loving and supportive to the most troubled and conflicted. For the sake of this conversation, let’s start with the most loving relationship. Let’s say you have a son or daughter who couldn’t be more loving, understanding and supportive. They visit you, call and check on you regularly, they meet many of your needs, take you to your doctors’ appointments, make sure you eat, take your meds, take you on outings and see your grandchildren, family and friends, etc. They want to take extra special care of you because they don’t want any harm to come to you. They cannot even tolerate the thought of you dying on their watch.

However, when the caring behaviors go to the extreme, for some adult children, there is a role reversal when they become the overprotective “parent” to the surviving parent. They may feel the need to constantly check on your whereabouts, make sure you eat, sleep and be accountable for most if not all your actions. There are too many instances when the “child parent” is so dutifully attending to the surviving parent’s needs that they end up neglecting themselves.

This is all truly coming from a loving place, but it may feel constricting, overbearing and suffocating to some surviving parents. In many cases, the truth doesn’t get revealed for fear of hurting the other. The “child parent” can become overprotective to the extent that the surviving parent ends up feeling limited with a loss of some measure of freedom and independence. They can feel stifled, suffocated and diminished as a capable and active adult. Neither the adult child nor the parent may express their honest feelings directly for fear of hurting the other’s already delicate sensitivities. This begins the process where the echo loses its sound.

A difficult relationship between a parent and adult child is further compounded by the complications of the death of the other spouse/parent. It creates additional unwelcomed turbulence and unforeseen friction that can throw you into a tailspin of acute anxiety. You may be dealing with your own grief and feel attacked, ignored or dismissed — you may even attack back. It may be hard for you to separate your own feelings from those of your child who is grieving in their own way. While you may be mentally and emotionally going in one direction, your child may be moving in another. While your child may be going sideways or backwards, you may be zigging or zagging or sliding in any other direction but the one in which they’re going. The point is, the style in which your child grieves and the rate at which they process can be completely different than what you experience, no matter what the status of your relationship.

Your husband or wife was your life partner, your soulmate, your companion, your everything. To your child, the deceased mother or father might have been their hero or savior, their rock or anchor, their beacon of light in the darkness, their heart where they called home, their perfect parent who understood them. Who your deceased loved one was for each of you might be different things at different times. It would be presumptuous to expect that they would mean the same thing to each of you at the same time or at any given time. And you may have instantly become more precious, more important to safeguard and preserve. With the death of one parent, you have become priceless and that can be an overwhelmingly awesome responsibility on both sides. At the very least, it takes time to adapt, adjust and eventually accept the plethora of changes that comes with such a death.

Your child may be angry with you and not verbalize it. Such as: “You’re still alive while my other parent is dead.” “You’re not taking care of yourself the way you should.” “You’re being forgetful or not being conscientious.” Your child may be directing their anger toward you because their other parent abandoned them by dying and cannot be there to receive the brunt of that anger that’s meant for them. So, you’re it.

From your end, you may be upset that your child isn’t being more supportive, compassionate or attentive. You may expect that the previously strained dynamics between you would somehow disappear and you would seamlessly get closer. Your deceased spouse may have risen to the level of sainthood in your child’s estimation and you may perceive yourself as being inept and inadequate by comparison. You may be flooded by the “could’ve, would’ve, should’ves,” feeling terribly guilty and helpless that you might have done something more to save your beloved spouse’s life.

One thing we know for sure is that it is very difficult to move through the grieving process alone and not know how to do it. But in any parent-child relationship compounded by grief, both parent and child grieve independently and alone. There are two different ways or styles of grieving, two different speeds that can clash with each other at any given time due to unexpressed expectations of how the other “should” behave or respond in grief.

The death of your loved one is permanent, irreplaceable and irretrievable. It creates a vast emptiness, a vacuum that fills your universe with the silent echo. The silent echo can become the very place where all your hurt feelings go to die, trapping you in an emotional catacomb.

This is a time when you might consider seeking out professional guidance individually or by joining a grief group, for both of you to navigate through the tumultuous, complex emotions that accompany grief.

Suffering alone can often cause you to feel hopeless, helpless and powerless. It helps to have a sense of community while mourning, to have the language of grief at your fingertips, to have the understanding and camaraderie of others who are walking the same path as you. When you feel your heart pain, you begin to learn about grief. When you sit in the silence and can hear the echo, you begin to listen from the inside with a deeper knowing. When you permit your heart to break completely open, you ultimately surrender, making movement toward healing. Perhaps then can compassion and understanding erect a bridge connecting your child and you in a new way of being. Life is short; time is precious. No matter how great or troubled your relationship with your child, you have the power of love to nurture it together with your child.

Photo: Courtesy Jeremy Wong

By Sheila Newton, PhD., MFT