Question from a reader: I tearfully happened upon your website by chance this morning. My dearest friend, my mom, died in my arms this past month. I had brought her here to live with me after her colon cancer returned. From the moment of diagnosis, I watched her hurt and endure so much treatment, never giving up, always smiling, always gentle, humble. Mom lasted 7 months. My precious friend is no longer with me. Since she died, I’ve received very little support from my husband or anyone else. I joined an online grief group, but I do not feel as if I belong there. My friends have faded away. You would be surprised how people fade away when someone is thrust into care giving. Even our church turned their backs—no calls, no words of comfort, no nothing. My husband confronted them on this, but still no contact. I do not understand. What am I doing wrong? My heart is breaking—where do I turn? I want to know it is okay to cry and that I will still be loved. I want to know that I can be distant in my sorrow and I will still be loved—not rejected. Can you help me to understand?
Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC, responds: Please accept my deepest sympathy for the loss of your beloved mother. I’m so sorry that you feel so isolated and alone. I know that with an overwhelming sense of missing your mother comes the crushing awareness of all you’ve lost. You’d give anything to be together again, if only long enough to be relieved of your loneliness, and to be reassured that your mother is still a part of your life.
You say that you’ve received little if any support from your spouse and others. In the wake of loss it is not unusual to feel isolated, different and apart from everyone else, convinced that no one understands and you must grieve alone. This is partly because our culture isn’t comfortable with the subject of death, and few of us know how to cope with the pain of loss and grief. We don’t permit or encourage the free expression of sorrow. Instead we learn to control our feelings and hide our pain so we won’t disturb other people.
You may be reluctant to turn to others, either because you haven’t learned to accept or ask for help, or because you’re afraid others won’t know what to do with your feelings. If they’re unfamiliar with the intensity and duration of grief or uncomfortable with the expression of strong emotions, they may offer only meaningless platitudes or clichés, change the subject or avoid you altogether. Some people you know may be done with your grieving long before you are, expecting you to be “over it by now” or worrying that you’re somehow “hanging on” to your grief.
Your disappointment in your church reminds me of something I once heard at a conference, from a colleague who’s provided bereavement consultation and training to thousands of counselors and therapists the world over. He told of a case he was struggling with because his grieving client felt completely alienated from her religious faith (she was a Roman Catholic).
Because the therapist was Jewish, he felt compelled to refer this woman to a colleague who happened to be a Catholic nun, as well as a fellow grief counselor at the hospice where they both worked at the time. When the nun met with his client, she told the woman that if she never set foot in another church for the rest of her life, she was still a child of God and God still loved her. That statement, coming from a nun, was exactly what the woman needed to hear, broke the log-jam and served to help her move along in her grieving process.
I share this with you because I want to normalize the alienation you are feeling, especially in the face of the rejection and neglect you felt from your church community. I want to gently suggest to you that the rejection you felt came from the human beings in your church, not from God. I also want you to know that it is normal and healthy to question your own basic spiritual beliefs when you lose someone you love to death—please see, for example, my article, Spiritual Reactions to Loss.
I don’t know anything about the online grief group you joined, but I encourage you to visit the one that I moderate for Hospice of the Valley. Our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups contains a forum for Loss of a Parent or Grandparent, and there you will find some of the most caring, compassionate and understanding people you could ever hope to meet. Not all online grief groups are the same, not all are moderated by certified hospice bereavement counselors, and so I urge you to try one that is better suited to your needs. You are most welcome to join us.
I’d also like to offer some suggestions for coping with the loneliness and isolation you are feeling:
- Think about who is supportive to you in your environment and what gives your life purpose and direction (family members, pets, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, colleagues, clubs, athletic activities, groups, church groups, support groups, bereavement counselor). With whom are you most comfortable, and who is the most comfortable ( accepting and caring) with your grief? Look for those who will listen without judging you, or for those who have suffered a similar loss.
- Find time with others to talk, to touch, to receive support. Be honest with others about what you’re feeling. Allow yourself to express your sadness rather than masking it.
- Don’t expect your husband (or others) to guess what you need. When you want to be touched, held, hugged, listened to or pampered, say so.
- If all you want from others is help with simple errands, tasks, and repairs, say so.
- Let others (especially children) know if and when you need to be alone, so they won’t feel rejected.
- Go somewhere and have a good, long cry— and do it as often as you wish. You have every right to miss the person who has died. Accept your feelings as normal.
- Find time alone to process what’s happened: to remember, to dream, and to think.
- Identify your loneliest times, and think of how you can alter your routines and environment (for example, rearrange the furniture in a room; plan your weekends ahead of time; use your microwave for quick, easy meals).
- While some folks really are thoughtless and don’t think before they speak, bear in mind that many well meaning individuals have yet to experience a significant loss, so they really don’t know what grief feels like, or how to respond, or what to say. They aren’t deliberately trying to hurt you. You can choose to bear with such people, you can enlighten them about what you know of grief, or you can look to others who are more understanding to find the support you need.
- Realize that no one can totally understand the relationship you had with your mother.
- Ask people to remember, talk about and share stories about your mother with you.
You’re not doing anything “wrong,” my dear—you simply haven’t yet found the information, comfort and support that you need and deserve. There is plenty of good help “out there”—you just need a little guidance in how to find it. See, for example, Finding Grief Support That Is Right for You.
Make a commitment to yourself to learn all you can about the normal grief process so you’ll have a better understanding of why you’re feeling as you do, and you’ll discover how to better manage your reactions. See, for example, the books and articles I’ve listed on the Articles ~ Columns ~ Books page of my Grief Healing Web site. Check out my site’s Death of a Parent page and visit some of the resources listed there. Consider taking an online e-mail course on grief—read more about the one I’ve written at The First Year of Grief: Help for the Journey.
I hope this information proves helpful to you, my dear. Please know that you are not as alone as you might think. I, for one, am thinking of you this moment, and holding you in my heart.
© 2010 by Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC