It has been two years since her husband, Trent, died. But to Amy it feels like yesterday.
“Why am I grieving?” she lamented. “I thought I was over it.”
I answered her simply: “We’re never over love, Amy.”
After his fatal car accident, she told herself she must be strong for the children. So she stuffed her feelings—locked them up in a steel vault deep within. The truth is, such attempts fail miserably. Denied or submerged feelings slowly creep into our everyday consciousness, so eventually we’re forced to face them. This is what happened to Amy, prompting her to seek help.
In our counseling session, I explained that when tragedy strikes, numbness is a natural response—an automatic defense mechanism—that cushions us from experiencing horrendous and often incapacitating pain. But such numbing is a temporary fix—it doesn’t heal the wound. Healing must occur before we can move forward, before we can be intact as a complete person, and before we can engage in our life wholeheartedly again.
On the emotional level, Amy needs to experience and talk about every aspect of the loss associated with Trent’s death, including the loss of his presence, his companionship and the loss of their dreams.
She needs to let herself miss the sound of his voice, his smiling eyes, his laughter, his scent.
He’s no longer there as a father figure for their children. That’s a loss.
Yes, he had flaws and idiosyncrasies. But she’s surprised at how insignificant they all seem now.
“It’s what made him unique,” she said fondly.
I suggested she set aside time to quietly reflect on Trent, letting her heart call forth countless warming memories.
“And if you feel moved to write, don’t resist doing so. Most likely, your instinctive wisdom is nudging you in the direction of healing,” I said.
To keep it simple, some people write down single trigger words associated with special memories.
“Maybe you’re moved to visit certain places, like favorite vacation spots. Go there again,” I insisted.
“Above all,” I said, “let yourself cry.”
I advised her to take her time—to be patient with the process.
Grief can neither be hurried nor directed. At best, we can only surrender to it.
I asked Amy about her childhood, how her parents dealt with negative emotions.
“Emotions weren’t dealt with,” she replied. “They were ignored—never discussed.”
As a result, when Amy’s dog died, or when she wasn’t invited to the prom, or when her best friend moved away, she felt isolated and alone in her suffering.
“So, do you think your children feel alone in their suffering—even two years later?” I asked.
Amy handled her husband’s death in the only way she knew how. And she believed she was doing the right thing for her children—by being strong.
“Your children need for you to be strong in a different way,” I said.
“Strength isn’t demonstrated by being emotionless, but by one’s willingness to face emotions head-on.”
Healthy coping isn’t exemplified by ignoring or hiding unpleasant emotions, but by going through them. It takes courage to grieve, and children benefit when they witness their parents embracing the process and coming out fully intact on the other side.
In contrast, emotional numbing may force a family to pretend the deceased family member never existed. This was true in Amy’s household. After Trent’s death, he wasn’t mentioned at all. Such silence and avoidance is akin to erasing him from every picture in the family album.
“That doubles the grief, Amy.” I said.
Not only did she lose him, she lost the memory of him as well.
“How can he touch your life—yet today—if his memory is eradicated?”
I went on to explain that a cloud of gloom persists because she’s looking at what went wrong instead of what went right. He showed up in her life. He added a strand to the fabric of her existence that would not have occurred otherwise. He not only enriched her life but he also enriched the lives of his children. That fact should be celebrated.
I suggested she break the silence and get everyone talking about Trent. She should expect tears and laughter. Both are good. They will express and acknowledge Trent’s powerful impact on their lives.
Amy followed my advice, and now that she is bravely sharing her emotions with her children, things should soon be much better in their world.
An emotional wound is finally being allowed to breathe, and I think Amy will be surprised at how much healing can occur when emotions are allowed to see the light of day instead of being buried in a vault of silence.
(c) Salee Reese 2018