Familiar Strangers: Grief of the Living

Grieving woman's hands

Certain songs make us remember our mothers or those who cared for us as small children. We may eventually sing the lullabies to our children as part of passing down our traditions as a gift to always remember us. My mother was never the typical mom, and my lullaby was Wayfaring Stranger when I was a baby. Later in life, my mother admitted to me that this was a sad song, so she changed the words a bit to have a family separated and reuniting in Jordan. I would not hear the original version until I was an adult.

This song that mother sang was my favorite song. I remember imagining a father and daughter embracing in the desert. When I listen to it now, I think of the loss and the grief of family separation. My mother wasn’t on speaking terms with her parents for a long time, and I imagine that this must have been a song that touched her deeply as well.

It’s one thing to grieve someone who has passed another to grieve someone still alive. My mother and my grandparents would reunite, I believe when I was a middle schooler, and from then on, there was always a bit of fear when going to my grandparents’ house that we may do something wrong to offend them and never speak to them again. My mother would prep on how to behave around my parents and what I could wear. When I saw my cousins at my grandparents’ house, they did not have this fear, and they could wear whatever they wanted, including tank tops. My mother was the only daughter of my grandfather, and the rules have always been different for her compared to my uncles. I suppose this also passed down the rules that restricted my cousins and me. But I can go on forever about that.

Our Longest Relationships

This February (Yes, I know this article is late.) I wanted to write about romantic relationships as the theme of Valentine’s Day. Yet, my heart pulls me towards a different relationship filled with as much love and pain as those with lovers. The relationships with our families are what we will talk about today.

No one teaches us the grief that comes with not talking to a family member or the complex decision-making that made us cut off that relationship. I stopped speaking to my father when I was 24 and had minimal contact with him until he died in July of 2020. My father continued to be in my thoughts every day as I still do today. But I never talked about it to anyone. I met my uncle for the first time when I was 26, and I never told him that I had stopped talking to his brother. I believe I said it to my cousin after I left, and she relayed the news.

When a family member dies, you are allowed to grieve publicly. When you have to choose yourself over a family by ending communication or having long periods with no contact, it’s something that remains in the shadows. I have had to sit through others say that to stop talking to your parents is a sin or that a person must not be family-oriented or they’re turning their back on their culture to do such a thing. I have had to console clients who have had to deal with facing this same shame.

By no means am I advocating for someone to end their family members, and this article is not about the reasons to or not to do so. This article is about the grief we go through losing people and the image of what we always wanted of them.

As I learned more about my father’s past from my family and understood him as a man, I felt for the little boy that lost his childhood and security due to an adult’s ego. I was also frustrated because my father passed with so many people who cared about him, and so many people would have supported him if he simply allowed them to. He never did it. And it wouldn’t have mattered if I was in his life every day because that was just who my father was. I continued to process my father and lost hope of having the father that I needed.

The process of Grief

It is much easier to lose someone to death because no one questions the goodness of either person (living or dead) when someone dies. It becomes hard to process your relationship when you cannot speak about it publicly with ease. I have had to go to therapy myself to process that relationship, but I don’t have regrets. This was what I needed to do to survive and be in the place I am now.

I usually give actionable tips that one can take, but this is an ongoing process. The grief I have for my father won’t just stop. I loved him. And you might be in the same place as well. To say that you get over it and move on with your life loss of anyone is unrealistic. But here are some things that I have done to help cope with the loss.

Letter writing:

I often give homework to clients to write closure letters containing all the things they wanted to say but never felt that they would be heard. This homework activity is a journaling exercise, and it’s not meant to be sent to the addressee. This exercise can help you express your feelings in a supportive way when you feel like others cannot give us that listening ear that you need.

This activity may not be a one-and-done exercise, and that’s ok. As we go through life, our feelings about that relationship can come up again. We may need to revisit this exercise. Whether by reading our past letter or by writing a new one that fits our current experience.

Anniversary Mental Health Days:

Birthdays, Weddings. Divorces. Parents’ Day. Holidays. These may be days that can trigger you. If overly tired, numb, or more emotional than usual on these days, that’s ok. Give yourself the space to feel these, and remember to love yourself a little extra on these days. We plan for the fun days, so we also need to prepare for the more emotional days. That means if you need to use your PTO at work to give yourself a mental health day, do it. If you cannot respond to emails, pings, and text messages on that day, permit yourself that flexibility.

And remember to do something nice for yourself.

Therapy:

I am a strong advocate for therapy since I am a therapist. However, I haven’t always been a therapist. Therapy has been an excellent place for me to process my life experiences and express how I am feeling.

Suppose you don’t feel that you have the emotional support to talk to anyone about these past relationships. In that case, a qualified mental health professional can be beneficial when processing these sensitive subjects in our lives.

Know This:

You are not the only one who has had to cut ties to someone you love. This does not make you a horrible person for doing this. You have your reasons, and it’s not for anyone else to judge you.

And For Those of You Who Don’t Know Me

My name is Tara. I am a therapist who provides online mental health therapy services in the state of Illinois. This article is not a replacement for therapy, and it should not be used as a substitute for therapy. If you would like to talk more, you can schedule a free 15-minute consultation. Click here!

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