Personal / therapy

Grief In Repeat

{Upland, California}

Upon driving into my garage coming home from work this evening, I suddenly burst into tears as the garage door slowly closed behind me.  I haven’t felt like myself at all this past week.  I tried my hardest to discern the reason for my melancholic mood and pinpointed a series of events that occurred after the subject of death was brought up during my therapy session this past weekend.  The subject of terminal illness and inevitable death is never an easy one, even as a physician who had to pronounce deaths in the hospital wards and was educated on how to talk to patients about advance directives (Do Not Resuscitate/DNR), hospice, etc.  We all have triggers that may occur randomly during our day that may unleash suppressed feelings that go deeper beyond whatever triggered us in that present moment.  A patient once told me that hamburgers made her sad because her deceased father cooked them all the time at family gatherings.  For others, something as simple as a hamburger triggering profound emotions may sound ridiculous, but we must be empathetic to each individual because none of us know of the history, context, or meaning that a symbol (such as hamburgers) provided in a person’s life.

My initial trigger was watching the movie Furious 7 last week.  Now, I know that millions of devoted Paul Walker fans (including myself) were profoundly impacted by his tragic death, but the uncontrollable amount of tears that I shed was far too disproportionate to the mild attachment I had for the actor.  Since everyone I knew who watched the movie admitted to shedding tears, I didn’t think much of my emotional response at the time.  But, during my group therapy session, I was extremely angered about an unrelated topic, and again, I couldn’t figure out the reason why.  Leaving my therapy session in a pissed off mood, I contemplated quitting group because I didn’t want to be a part of anything that made me feel angry and unsupported.  I looked at my phone and started scrolling Instagram to distract myself from my emotions, and stopped incessantly scrolling once I came across the picture below, which my sister posted for National Siblings Day with the following caption:

It was always the four of us. Although we’re all grown up with separate lives, we will always have the same love for each other, and share the same values that our Lola and Lolo (Grandma & Grandpa) taught us. My latepost In honor of ‪‎siblings Day 4/10 and my lolo’s birthday 4/7. I love you all. I miss you Lolo & Lola.

Last week was my grandfather’s birthday.  The theme of losing such a devoted and integral part of a family is the theme that resonated most with me about the movie.  And watching the ending somehow re-opened the wound in my heart that I experienced when I first received news that my grandfather passed away from cancer thirteen years ago.  I continue to re-experience feelings of grief each year around his birthday and this year is no exception.  I wrote about my grandfather’s influence and my difficulties coping with losing him in previous blogposts (here, here & here).  Last week, a few of my patients discussed their own grief, which is always a hard subject to process.  I always do my best to provide them with as much support as possible because I know what it’s like to feel isolated, angered, and confused by a complex mixture of emotions.

I used to want to believe that “time heals all wounds,” but one of my inspiring readers modified my perspective of the statement to make it more accurate: time may help make the grief a bit more tolerable.  Grief never goes away, but rather is re-experienced in different, sometimes confusing ways.  But, just like the goal of the movie, I try to shift my focus from sadness to embracing my grandfather’s strength and legacy.  I can already feel the wound close a tiny bit as it starts to repair itself yet again.

16 thoughts on “Grief In Repeat

  1. I appreciate the way you are trying to put your finger on your responses. I do the same thing and it is encouraging to hear I’m not the only one who sometimes can’t figure out the root causes initially. When it comes to grieving. for me the word picture is one of waves…the further removed from the loss, the less frequent the “waves”…(I had a wave a grief wash over me 15 years after the fact, triggered by a picture..In the past I would have been in that group, now I’m on the outside looking in..made me sad/ mad all over again) Also the closer in relationship I was to the person I’ve lost, the more intense the grief. they leave a hole no one will ever be able to fill. As CS Lewis put it, in his journal (A grief Observed)..I’d highly recommend it btw) the pain we feel later is part of the package… I also appreciate your being vulnerable and transparent. DM

    • Hi DM, thank u for sharing your own personal experience with grief. I like the metaphor of the waves in relation to grief (you give great metaphors just like the circuit breaker). We seem to be alike in our analyzing root causes. It usually doesn’t take me so long to pinpoint, but i guess that’s the complexities of grief

      • You are welcome. Understanding the why behind certain reactions helps to take the sting out of it for me..it’s like lancing a boil, the pain is still there, but the wound can start to drain. I had a situation several years ago that left me with a complex set of painful emotions..grief, anger, confusion, my life purpose goals dashed,etc. It took months to untangle the why. Do you care if I use one more word picture? 😉 It was like the inside of a golf ball..Have you ever seen what they look like on the inside? I densely packed ball of rubber bands all knotted together. Well, that was EXACTLY what my inner mess looked like..multiple strands of interwoven pain, that I could not understand, let alone articulate. Boy am I glad that season of my life has passed… Thanks for listening! 🙂 DM

  2. Thank you for such a heartfelt and poignant post.

    After losing my beloved Granny and my Dad, I know grief. I love the photo of your family that you shared with us. I believe your Grandfather’s spirit “goes on”, and he must be enormously proud of you!

  3. Tidbit for the day: I can never reach, enter, or depart from Kuebler Ross’s “acceptance stage” rather I acknowledge the grief for my child as it changes. For me your post defines the difference. 

  4. I can relate to your strong attachment to your grandfather. Mine was special to me, too. There’s a lot in your post to learn from, particularly about the staying power of grief.

    The second time I read it, though, I wondered if you had considered that you got in touch with this memory to share it with us, your blog readers, after your therapy session. Is there any significance to that? Would there be some reason for avoiding this deeply meaningful memory in therapy? You certainly expressed a lot of anger at your group (thinking of quitting sounds pretty intense to me). Is that anger realistic, or resistant? Understand, this is all me speculating. It may have a basis or not.

    • Hi Tom, that’s a great question. The group I’m in empasizes more of a psychodynamic model, which often lowers the defenses I subconsciously utilize to protect myself & cope with difficult emotions. I usually intellectualize everything, but during group I felt so lost in my anger that I couldn’t identify the reason I was so upset & definitely triggered strong emotions. It wasn’t until after the session that I discovered grief was the underlying cause of my anger. People often feel anger during therapy because we try so hard to avoid vulnerability & want to quit when they feel exposed or uncomfortable, so one of my goals was to normalize that therapeutic experience. I hated how i felt in the moment, but learned from it in the long run. I hope that makes sense…if not, I welcome more questions!

      • I had a very interesting thread on face book at the beginning of the week. Since my son died, I’ve become more focused on relationships than religion. My theology has boiled down to: When we are born we have a relationship with our parents, and when we die all we have to take with us is the relationships we made while we were alive. Its the taking of the relationship that is the cause of the grief. There is a story on a mother whose son committed suicide by firearm, and in her past her father had also committed suicide by firearm. I had posted this story to my page. The jest of the story was the mixing of the emotions for the woman as a parent and child and the relationship she had to firearms. A long time friend from my Navy days really started slamming me about it (he‘s not a very sophisticated or educated but he is brutally honest and loyal) and he felt that I wasn’t giving the firearm a fair shake and not giving the victims enough accountability for their actions. I was aghast though I was able to put up a defense (as well as a number of other parents that had lost children by suicide or accident) and maneuver his anger though the use of his relationships. Come to find out his father had ended his own life and he was viewing that loss through the eyes of a child (even though he’s fifty years old). I was able to get him to look through his grandparents eyes and what they felt at the loss of the relationship with their son, and if my friend’s child decided to end their own life (which I hope never happens to anyone) would he think / feel like the woman in the article. I never heard of a psychodynamic model before tonight, though I believe I just experienced one. I looked it up and it pointed out the relationship between parent and child as a example or dynamic. Like Tom asks is the anger realistic or resistant? Yes it is!

        • hi bob…very interesting analysis. a lot of psychodynamic theory is based on our earliest attachments (mostly our parental figures). are you referring to your psychodynamic experience as the whole experience with the man who commented? i think your ability to pick up on him viewing the loss through the eyes of a child (having lost his father to suicide) is quite amazing!

          • Hi Vania,I was looking at it as the whole experience . Tom’s observation / question of the attributes of anger, “realistic and resilient” really played out in the FB thread. My friend is in the resilient attribute. That mountain is going to be there no matter how long you mine, dig at it, move it blow it up, …..It’s still going to bounce back and be that mountain (that anger). On the other side is the realistic attribute, there is the mountain, somehow it has to be overcome, contained, changed (seemed to be common of the parents that have lost a child on my FB thread). It’s all in the relationship with a little birth order thrown in. The woman in the article had a mix of both angers even though the article was her relationship to firearms. What’s more telling to me though is the mix of anger that my surviving children (2 sons and a daughter) have / are experiencing, both resilient and realistic, and how they cope with the anger (the ratio of the attributes is constantly changing for each them). It’s a re-experiencing way of experiencing the grief, if that makes any sense? So I guess I was looking at it as the whole experience plus. My friend is very consistent by his comments and platitudes, so it is pretty easy to see through his eyes, it’s the ever shifting attributes of anger that I’ll leave to the pros. 🙂

            • Hey Bob, it honestly took me awhile to reply to your comment because trying to tease out the difference between realistic and resilient anger seemed to be stewing in my mind with no resolve…though i think my confusion is reflective of how complex emotions related to grief can be, esp the anger. i think your explanation of your surviving children’s response (heartbreaking to hear, by the way) compared to your friend’s response made the distinction a bit more clear.

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