Difficulty Mourning a Loss Stirs up Undigested Losses from the Past

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Difficulty Mourning a loss when the customary rituals of joining and supporting grieving family and friends are absent during a lock-down makes that loss harder to process. Difficulty mourning a recent loss brings up waves of loss and grief from previous losses, making you view the experience through a different lens. So at a time when you are robbed of the use of rites and norms that mark the end of a life; previous losses layer on top – sometimes hitting you with a double whammy, but also offering you a chance to value your world and the people in it with a greater sense of meaning.


Difficulty Mourning a loss of a family-member activates mourning many other losses in the family

Several of my patients have experienced the death of  immediate and extended family during the lock-down and have found it challenging. The loss of a treasured paternal grandmother and advocate barely two months after the loss of her maternal grandmother hit one female patient with a shocking realization of her parents age and health that might take them away from her too. Other patient’s have lost in-laws, and the difficulty mourning their personal sense of loss in addition to that of their partner’s family during lock-down has been stressful. Other patient’s have had to shut down businesses due to being in risky professions – they too mourn a loss not just of income but of a sense of identity, not knowing if they can revive their practices and survive.

I’m going to focus on one person who had several losses within a short time, with threats of others that echoed past traumas that continued to ricochet as he was forced to deal with loss of loved ones.

Preston a 42-year-old real estate developer had a playful relationship with his father-in-law, enjoying talking about football. Even with his father-in-law in and out of hospital they had maintained a comfortable banter that buoyed Preston into feeling liked and part of the family in a way he had never felt with his own parents. He didn’t want to step on his wife’s sadness. She was entitled to be distant, depressed and weepy because it was more her loss than his. In order to be the rock for her he had to suffer the difficulty mourning a loss that touched him deeply. Difficulty mourning a loss meant doing it alone, without being able to share it with his in-laws, or with his children who needed to be kept calm and out of their grieving mother’s way.

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Difficulty mourning a loss brings up memories of other significant losses

Difficulty mourning his father-in-law in such a solitary way brought back memories of the death of Preston’s grandma when he was 5 years old. She was the only person in the world that made him feel special and seeing her dead body in a cold hospital ward was traumatizing. His family didn’t express their feelings. There was no explanation of the death or about loss and coping. In fact, he was expected to take care of everyone else’s feelings at the funeral, without speaking of it ever again. Now once again he was robbed of a parenting figure in his father-in-law who welcomed him into his life and made him feel worthwhile.

Another memory of being deprived of a good parenting figure came swirling into his dreams, and unsettled him. The loss of his adored step-father Martin in a car crash when Preston was 18 years old knocked him into a spiral of self-destruction- using alcohol and substances to numb himself.  After protecting his mother and himself from his father’s alcohol induced physical and emotional abuse, Martin was like a guardian angel. Not only did he take care of Preston’s mother so that Preston didn’t have that job anymore, but he was someone to look up to, get advice and support from as well as trust. The fear and rage that accompanied Martin’s death had made it difficult to mourn that loss in a healthy way. The same heaviness that had shrouded Preston for so long came roaring back, enveloping him in a sense of outrage that he was constantly having to lose people who cared for him – forever.

Difficulty mourning a loss of an abusive parent

Preston’s father died of dementia with diabetic complications just 3 years ago. At the time he had difficulty mourning a loss because he remembered the abuse his father inflicted on him and his mother. Then he’s be wracked with bitter sadness when he thought of the sweet and precious moments of going out for ice-cream; annual vacations and dad attending his baseball games. At the time his father died, Preston couldn’t let go of the anger – that would have meant condoning his abusiveness. But he couldn’t deny the ache he had for his father to say that he loved him – which didn’t come until he was dying. This dual experience made difficulty mourning a loss more pronounced.

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Difficulty mourning a loss of a friend who took their own life

Preston had never forgiven his friend Duncan for setting himself alight during a drinking binge. He felt it was the ultimate act of selfishness to do that and leave him to deal with the horror of that loss with no answers to the million questions became obsessive. Preston had refused to mourn this loss because he felt it was totally unnecessary and a deliberate act of abandonment. He had no sense of the deep despair that Duncan must have been going through, not wanting to burden his family and friends with his mental illness. To Preston Duncan was supposed to be there for him and he wasn’t! Another difficulty mourning a loss.

Difficulty mourning a loss that’s anticipated

Now, during lock-down he was faced with the loss of his father-in law; father, stepfather and grandmother. He couldn’t run away any longer.  Shelter in place orders provided him the chance to acknowledge the deep sense of betrayal he felt when the people who he needed in life to feel worthwhile had all left the earth. Fear of losing his sister who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer became the focus of his attention – if only he could be there for her and cure her, he’d save the day and not have to suffer yet another unbearable loss -and it would take his mind off the difficulty mourning a loss that’s fresh, pulling old ones along in its wake.

Difficulty Mourning a loss of contact with friends

Attempting to mourn the loss of his father-in-law and prevent his sister’s death as well as the hellish torment of past losses, made Preston long to be with his friends. Despite creating video chats and card games online, his sense of enforced deprivation was intense. Not being able to see his friends in the flesh during lock-down became another instance of difficulty mourning a loss of contact.

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Difficulty Mourning a loss – anticipating your mortality

Preston’s daily routines had changed due to the lock-down.  The shock of his father-in-law’s death, the fear of his sister dying and the deeply disturbing memories of past deaths, alerted him to his own mortality. He regretted all the years of his life he wasted on alcohol and substances, doing jobs he didn’t like and not finding a passion that provided a purpose in life. In his mid-forties he felt sad and ashamed. His difficulty mourning a loss that involved his personal life became the focus of his motivation to get in shape and stay in touch his mother, sister and friends even if they didn’t ever initiate contact.  Suddenly the contact meant more than who was picking up the phone. It was less about needing proof that he was important and more about honoring his need to feel connected and fill up the emptiness in his soul.

Difficulty mourning a loss is facilitated in a therapeutic relationship

Preston’s long-term individual therapy now served as a safe, trusted and supportive place to mourn all the losses that he wasn’t able to accept at the time. made it all the urgent for him to hold those loved ones inside him – not in idealistic ways, but as real people who had flaws and were mortal.

Getting stuck into the scary process of letting go of his sense of abandonment, deprivation, and being unlucky in life was a massive part of his mourning process. The therapeutic relationship gave Preston the solid feeling inside that he was worthwhile, special, important and above all tolerated whether or not he was performing as he expected of himself. Only then could he allow himself to feel all the contradictory feelings towards all who had passed – that they weren’t doing it to him – but having their own end of life experience.  Though he was immeasurably impacted, he had his own life to live and fill up on the care and love that was there if he chose to take it rather than insist that it had to come from parenting figures who owed him. Now he owed himself.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2020


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