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The Visitor Who Demands Attention

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When someone’s spouse or partner dies, people naturally reach out with unbridled sympathy. When someone’s parent dies, though, people can inadvertently couch their sympathy in ways that may not be helpful. Your mom died? That’s life!

There is one common denominator, though, to losing a spouse or a parent: your grief demands attention, now or later — your choice.

A man observing stars

Parent Loss.

When a parent of an adult dies, there is often a misunderstanding and an under estimation about the grief that occurs. We sometimes forget the depth of connection we had with our parent. It’s the loss of the first and most important connection, whatever the quality of  the relationship. Within society there is a misconception that you do not need to grieve a parent because we’re supposed to consider the death of a parent as just a natural part of life. We can understand intellectually that they will die someday. But understanding and anticipating does not prepare us for the grief we feel when as an adult we lose a parent.

As your life continues, all too often there is no time to grieve. You are busy. The weeks and months turn into years and then perhaps at some event, maybe a graduation or a wedding, you realize your mom, your dad, are not there to share this important moment. It’s then that you realize something very painful, and it’s your grief showing up like a wave coming over you. It has waited for you to give it some attention.

As a culture we are afraid of grief — it’s such a direct experience. There is, however, no way to bypass the pain. All too often when you are grieving you want some kind of cheat-sheet to prematurely be over it all. Grief is a normal and natural response to loss, and with a multitude of persistent markers of holidays and special dates the loss feels like it happens again and again.

With those markers come many faces to your grief, such as sadness, anger and even relief. Sometimes feeling any or all of those is too painful to bear. Let’s talk about anger for a moment as an example. if you had a parent who was angry all the time, you likely witnessed that anger all too often. You may fear your anger and suppress that anger for fear of being your parent. “I won’t be angry like my dad.” We can call that “Emotional Prohibition,” a term coined by Frank Ostaseski, a pioneer in the field of hospice care, and a well known, respected spiritual teacher. Your anger is part of your grief, and suppressing the anger, or any emotion, is also pushing away your grief, and not allowing your process and your present experience. The grief is still asking for attention.

Spousal and Parent Loss.

Grief demands attention, and that is true whether you’re grieving a spouse or a parent. Attention to grief? Really? “No! I don’t want to feel that pain.” “I don’t have time to feel that pain.” Actually, learning to pay attention differently helps healing. It’s a way to remember with less pain. You never will get over the loss of your spouse or your parent but you can learn to live with it. Being aware of where, when and how you pay attention is terribly important.

In regard to your parents, the present experience may include questioning the relationship you had or didn’t have with them. Such as, “What did I still want from my parent?” “What will my parent never get to see now?” Or even, “What did I want to say that I never got to say?”

In regard to your spouse or your parent, if your relationship was difficult there is still grief to confront — perhaps about the relationship you wanted and didn’t have. There are often more questions than answers. These questions are part of the grieving process and grief has no timetable.

Consider the acronym A.T.T.E.N.T.I.O.N.

Attend – Tune in – Time – Engage – Normal – Tend – Identify – Organic – Now

ATTEND: This is about attending to your emotional needs. Your emotions cry out for attention, so allow the tears if they come. Allow the feelings, whatever they are. Gently remind yourself that ignoring or avoiding the pain doesn’t work.

TUNE IN: Tune in to yourself and your present moment. Notice what’s happening. What do you feel in your body? Sadness? Anxiety? Anger? Without attention, these feelings get stuck in your body. What you notice and acknowledge allows the feeling its process.

TIME: Take Time to sit and be with your grief and notice what is changing about you, and about your grief. When you are grieving it can be difficult to think that it will ever be better. We can’t imagine that the suffering will go away, although we can imagine that at times we will once again be able to connect with others, experience compassion and even laugh.

ENGAGE: Be in the process. Be engaged and proactive with your healing. Join a spousal or parent loss grief group. You do not have to be alone on your journey. A grief group will help you know you are not alone. Take small steps toward small wins.

NORMAL: Remind yourself what you are feeling is normal. Trust that the path through is a reliable process.

TEND: Tend and befriend yourself, be kind to yourself. Talk to yourself in supportive, nurturing ways. Talk to yourself the way you want others to talk to you, and help them know what you need.

IDENTIFY: When you identify and name your emotions, they are less scary. For example: “I’m feeling sad right now. Mom is not here and I miss her.” Or, “I’m feeling really anxious about being alone.” You can actually calm yourself with some gentle words of comfort and acknowledging what you are feeling.

ORGANIC: Emotions are organic. They don’t ask you first if it’s okay to show up — they just do. Give yourself permission to allow them to pass through. Sometimes it can feel like a big wave came over you. Yet just as waves come, they also recede. Knowing and reminding yourself that the wave is going to recede is another supportive way to help yourself.

NOW: Now is the most important moment. Each moment is a step toward healing. Allow yourself to be in the moment — less in the past, and less in the future — and know that you are safe, you are okay and you are giving yourself some well needed and deserved attention.

Wishing you much Attention and Self-Compassion along your grief journey.

By Evelyn Pechter, Psy.D.