My father died but I'm not grieving

Is something wrong with me? I don't seem to feel anything.

By Cary Tennis
Published October 26, 2004 8:41PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I want your advice. My father died a little over a year ago. His death was unexpected; he was in fairly good health, 68 years old. My problem is that I am not sure I am really grieving for him. I never cried (and I tend to be easily moved to tears). I don't feel loss.

My father was a learned, kind and jolly man but also moody, stubborn, temperamental and argumentative. As I grew into adulthood I came to build a much more quiet, peaceful and intimate space for myself, and opted to keep visits to my parents brief and infrequent. During the last few years however, my sister and I found out that our parents were in a poor financial situation, which had been in the making for years. We tried to advise my father to learn from his past financial mistakes and accept that he had to start living within his means. He was irrational, defensive and obstinate. I remember being bitterly angry about the possibility that if he kept blowing his money I would end up spending a large portion of mine on taking care of him (and my mother, and my disabled brother) instead of my own family. I felt some guilt about those feelings, as they show, well, a lack of compassion.

Since his death, my mother has done well; she is educating herself about financial planning, making reasonable decisions, and getting organized. I'm proud of her. I think the bottom line is that I'm relieved that things have worked out this way. But I also think that Dad taught me things of great value, and he could be a lot of fun, and he loved me, and, in his way, he was there for us, a constant in his armchair with a book in his hand. Much of what I am comes from him, maybe more than I know. I want to find a way to pay tribute to him, and I want to grieve, but I don't know how.

Off the Hook

Dear Off the Hook,

We talk often of what it means to grieve. Rarely do we talk of what it means not to grieve. To grieve is to recognize death but in recognizing it we affirm our distance from it. By stumbling madly in the rain crying hot tears among wet leaves and weeping trees, we let the absence reverberate against our presence, and we grow all too keenly aware that we, at least, are alive.

What does the absence of grieving mean? It's hard to think about absence. Perhaps this "not grieving" is your grieving. Let us imagine that absence of feeling is your grief. If so, it would be a terrible grief indeed; it would be, in fact, a kind of sympathetic dying, an equivalent loss, a literal inner death; it would be in fact a grief more terrible than the howling, stumbling-in-the-rain kind.

You have experienced loss. But you say you don't feel loss. What then do you feel? I would start there. I would try to strip away what you think you are supposed to feel and begin to simply inquire what you do feel. How would you describe this not feeling loss? How would you describe not feeling? It seems as difficult as death.

You are under no obligation to have great feelings. You are not onstage, performing a skit about the death of your father. Your father actually died. You do not have to have great feelings about it. You only need to answer the question: What does this lack of feeling feel like?

Your father died unexpectedly. Were you then surprised? In that surprise was there feeling? Give that your attention. That, too, is a component of your grieving: your surprise at the news, whatever you thought as you got the news, your numbness, perhaps, or confusion, or the way you went sort of wooden and automatic. You may feel guilty about your anger at your father before he died; you may regret not making peace with him. All that is your grieving as it is.

You may believe that you are supposed to make a weeping spectacle or there is something wrong with you. But saying "I do not seem to be grieving" is your grieving -- for now, at least. The tears may come. But it is best, when they come, that they come because it's their time, not because you're at a funeral and everyone is opening umbrellas and handkerchiefs. It is the truth, and not the display, that you want to get to.

In the same way, not knowing how to pay tribute is the beginning of your tribute. This letter is a tribute. Knowing what you got from him is tribute. Wanting to grieve is tribute.

If you feel the need for a ritual, by all means perform a ritual. It needn't be poetic. It could be as simple as a visit to his grave. You needn't light a bonfire on the beach or bury his favorite slippers on a hill with his basset hound. It's easy to slip into cliché when we are uneasy at not grieving correctly. But cliché insults the dead. You need not embarrass his spirit with insincere displays. Simply come to your own knowledge about what this lack of feeling feels like, and observe his memory with outward respect.

This is your loss to mourn as you alone must mourn it.

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