ASK A GRIEF COACH
Question: What About When They Say They’re Fine?
Answer: Supporting grievers is often a casual act of love.
Ask a Grief Coach is an online column to address commonly received questions in private work with my clients. All names are kept anonymous, and the questions are shared with permission. As you read, keep the context of your own story in mind. No answers found here will apply directly to your circumstance because your grief is unique to you. However, the hope is that you will find tools and tips of support, whether you are the griever or the supporter.
I am writing because I’m a son with no idea what to do next. My brother and I are watching our dad struggle with balance after losing our mom a few years ago. He was the caregiver for her as she was sick, but was also caregiving for his own father and his brother-in-law at the time.
All this has boiled down into almost two years of him simply working nonstop and acting as though all is fine, when it’s clearly not. I don’t live locally to him, but my brother does and we’re both feeling underwater on how to support him. He won’t even admit that he’s grieving, which makes it that much harder to know what to do.
It’s obvious to us that he needs help, but we can’t figure out where to begin.
A Concerned Son
Good on you for asking these questions! Especially in light of how easy it is to pretend all is well when you live far away from the circumstance.
You may be right — your father working nonstop can be a coping mechanism. And from how you’ve described him, he sounds wildly capable and pretty comfortable handling things on his own. What a powerhouse — to hold that many caregiver roles without ceasing, knowing what each would lead to in the first place.
There was a lot of meaning in what he offered to others and gained in those caregiving relationships, too. Losing all of those relationships means he has to find meaning elsewhere (even if he doesn’t admit it). When we connect our sense of value to what we do (common but not helpful) it can be devastating when what we do has to change — and that’s on top of all the grief we feel.
Rather than point out the issues, I would get curious with him. Spend a few days a month calling and asking questions about his interests that you can speak to, such as, “I saw a documentary about woodworking; did you hear about it? It made me think of you. What projects are you thinking about for the shop this year?”
It sounds like no matter the topic, you’ll probably get some kind of a response that pushes back. “I’m fine, but too busy for that right now.” You don’t need to argue that it’s good for him. Free-time for hobbies means fewer focused thoughts for our pain to hide behind as well. He’s intelligent and probably already knows that.
But depression and grief can lie to us and make us believe that keeping your head down and knuckling through it is the only way to survive. Your follow up question can be as simplest. “Oh, why is that? It brings you such joy, and it brings me joy to think about you doing it as well.” Perhaps he needs a gentle reminder that his choices can shape his reality, even when it feels like he has no control.
You don’t need to make any value judgments on how he spends his time or what he’s doing to cope. Your job is to remind him that he has intrinsic value and to start conversations about the things that make him feel fully alive. When you’re grieving, it’s really hard to remember what makes you feel fully alive. I’m sure you know that too.
But moving through the loss of that much back to back means he has a lot of secondary losses on top of it — dreams that will never happen because she’s gone. Visions of the future that can’t exist anymore. Friends of your parents who stopped calling because they don’t know how to talk to him anymore.
He’s probably experiencing a lot more than the surface appearance of grief. So like you said, your role is as a son. Reach out as often as you can. It doesn’t have to be for long conversations. Just stay connected.
Grievers often feel abandoned (even when they haven’t been) but the truth as many of them are navigating it all alone. So good job not knowing what to say and being aware that you don’t know what to say. I’m always surprised how many people talk anyway and cause extra harm. So start sending cards, texts, memes, or call with jokes — all the things that make you two feel connected. Plan a trip down and take him to dinner. Treat him like someone recovering and don’t force him into anything YOU think is best. Ask him instead
With confidence in your compassion,
Do you have questions about grief? Send Mandy your questions via Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. All submissions are anonymous, with details occasionally changed to protected against identification.
You can also submit a question here: Ask A Grief Coach!
Mandy Capehart is an author, small business owner, editor, certified grief and life coach, and creator of The Restorative Grief Project. The Restorative Grief Project is an online community focusing on one another’s stories and new methodologies for grief, creating a safe environment for our souls to heal and our spirits to be revived. To learn more, visit MandyCapehart.com or follow her on Twitter. She thinks she is pretty funny. The jury is out.