My Reluctant Foray Into Grief Therapy
Because I’m doing just fine, thank you very much.
The day after my Dad dies is when the burning starts. It burns from the back of my tongue to my belly button. My throat is red when I wake up each morning. I take copious amounts of prescription antacids and combine them with over the counter Gaviscon tablets and they barely keep the flames at bay.
In March, I develop a soreness on my skin that quickly develops into this oddly-shaped cluster of spots, and it’s not long before these spots are blisters. I’m thirty years old, and my body is experiencing shingles for the very first time, which is (in my case) induced by stress. Because I am borderline obsessive about any small changes in my body, I pick up the oddities in the rash and see a doctor within the perfect window of time to get prescribed antivirals and slow down the progression of the virus.
Around the same time, as I am an avid jaw-clencher, the onset of tension headaches begins. The pressure and inflammation imparted by (or maybe just causing) these headaches also impacts my Eustachian tubes and often blocks my ears. Sometimes I get a little dizzy, too.
I do an upper GI where they make me drink a liquid I can only describe as “chalk juice” and place me on a machine-table that moves me in different directions while they photograph the inside of my belly. I get blood work that screens for the bacteria that causes ulcers and checks the health of my digestive organs. I get an ultrasound done where I watch my liver, kidneys and pancreas dance around within the monochromatic frame.
The doctors all tell me that they can find nothing wrong with me, much to my relief and frustration. I seem to feel worse, physically, during the moments in which I’m relaxing. “Maybe your pain doesn’t have physical roots,” my friend suggests. “If you can’t find a cause, maybe it’s psychosomatic.”
Webster’s dictionary defines psychosomatic as “bodily symptoms caused by mental or emotional disturbance.” The rationale is that when we experience trauma, our bodies respond by going into fight or flight in an effort to protect us. Cue in the presence of physical bodily responses such as releasing stress hormones, increasing blood pressure, and impairing the immune system.
But sometimes the body struggles to transition back out of that mode, or gets overwhelmed and holds onto the emotional trauma as physical pain or illness. By no way am I implying that all, or even most, illness is linked to trauma, but it’s worth noting that sometimes unexplained physical symptoms can have emotional roots.
I have shouldered the weight of compounded and complicated loss for months, and so when I come to think about it, it makes sense that my shoulders, neck, and head are tense and hurting. I have been swallowing incendiary anger for so long now that I don’t even realize I’m still angry; so I guess all I would taste is an acidic, steady burn.
But up until this realization, I still believe I’m doing just fine. I’m responding to everything that happened to me in the best way I know how to — through analyzing, dissecting, and discussing my feelings. I’m not actively avoiding, escaping, or denying, so I reason that I’m on the right path. Grief is supposed to be hard, and nothing can erase the pain of losing someone, so this is all normal, and things will get better.
At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself.
But I decide to entertain the thought of meeting with a grief therapist anyway, because what harm could it do? If an emotional approach heals my symptoms, then great; and if not, at least I’m lucky enough to have coverage for a series of sessions. I make the phone call and schedule an intake appointment.
I get to my first meeting and this new therapist, who as it turns out isn’t much older than I am, begins the session. She talks about the weather and then asks me what brings me in to see her. I tell her I’m looking forward to some warmer days so that my patio garden can stay outside permanently, and that my Dad died tragically less than a year ago.
Without warning, I’m suddenly in tears — tears that more or less stick around for the entire hour. Tears I hadn’t anticipated. Tears that strain my voice and make it hard for me to get through a full sentence. And let it be noted that I very seldom cry in public, never mind in front of a stranger.
I’m noticing how hard it is for me to make eye contact with her while I describe how I feel. I’m very uncomfortable. I’m trying to keep a leash on my emotions, but they’re bubbling up over the surface. I tell her that I am doing just fine, that I’m not avoiding how I feel, but that for whatever reason I’m not feeling great physically.
“I now cry all the time, at the drop of a pin,” I say, mostly to myself, as I wipe my cheeks with a Kleenex from the box the therapist hands me. “I never used to cry, only when something really bad happened to me,” I tell her.
“Something really bad did happen to you,” she says.
What was he like?
She asks me to talk about my Dad, to describe who he was. This is not a hard question to answer, because I know him like the back of my hand. Though I’ll admit, this is not an easy question to answer, either. I take a few seconds to choose my words, then begin by telling her that my Dad was the type of person who made an impression on everyone who knew him.
He was very enthusiastic about his hobbies, of which he had many. These hobbies included (but were certainly not limited to) his fish tank full of African cichlids, his knife & tool collections, as well as his diverse array of music DVDs.
My Dad was nothing if not a passionate guy, and he was always determined to excel at any project he undertook. I have vivid memories of him FaceTiming me on more than one occasion while I was away in university because he wanted to show me the sump pump he’d proudly installed in the basement of our old home.
I could call him to talk about anything – from cooking to cleaning to cars to career advice, and when he died, he left a massive hole in my life. She says she can see that, and she can feel the energy of it coming off me, too.
What would he say?
I tell my new therapist about all the ways in which my heart has broken since my Dad died last summer. Because it wasn’t just his death, but a series of painful events that followed his death, that make my feelings so nuanced and complicated.
“What do you think he’d say to you if he were still here, Shannon?” she asks.
He’d tell me to fight for what’s right, to stand my ground and not let people walk all over me. My Dad is solely responsible for the fire that burns inside of me the very moment I feel that someone is being unfair, unjust, or untrue. Add kerosene to that fire if the person being unfair, unjust or untrue is doing so against a member of my family. My Dad taught me fierce loyalty, and anyone who challenged his kids were wrong – there was no convincing required.
Every single person who attended his funeral, and there were hundreds — I mean the place was basically at capacity — every single one repeated the same thing one after the other as they greeted us in the procession line. They said, all your father ever talked about were you three, and they were right.
“How did you say goodbye to him?” she asks me. It doesn’t take me long to think about this one. I tell her that, well, I didn’t. Not in any real sense — and not while he was still alive. At this point, I have to stop myself, because the heaviness of that acknowledgment begins to sink in.
I am suddenly picturing him in his hospital bed, and my tears begin falling and they’re making it impossible to talk any more. Having to say goodbye to him after the fact was one of the most excruciatingly painful moments I’ve ever had to endure, and just recounting this memory is enough to bring me to my knees.
It gets me thinking that maybe I’m holding onto the complicated emotions relating to his death in part because I didn’t get to say goodbye. And it also surprises me to recognize that all the sadness, anger, and guilt that spill forth in this meeting — well, they’re not new feelings. They’re just feelings that have never been processed.
I thought I was good at dealing with my emotions, but I’m beginning to discover that I’m only good at thinking about them and analyzing them and ruminating over them. I’m apparently not great at all when it comes to processing and resolving how I feel. Or, as my friend explains it, I am a great observer of my feelings; I can easily give her a weather report, but I’m not skilled at being vulnerable with my feelings — I don’t want to stand outside in the rain.
This therapy session truly humbled me. I guess I wasn’t that fine after all.
That a complete stranger could ask me a few questions and evoke such an emotive response is surprising for me, though it probably shouldn’t be. I guess I’m better at impression management and keeping my grief under control when I’m around people who know me, but this therapist opened the floodgates. I’m caught off-guard with the number of emotions that have surfaced, and also with their intensity.
I’m glad that at the very least, the mountain of healing I have to climb is now within my line of sight. It’s a funny thing — I’ve felt its weight and power looming over me for so long, burning in my stomach and pounding in my skull, but somehow up until this very moment, I could not see a thing.