Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Longing for Dad: Resolving Father Loss

This weekend for two days, a young man with whom I have been consulting by phone for the last couple of months is flying to Minneapolis from the East Coast to work with me. He found me when his mother spotted my book Longing for Dad: Father Loss and Its Impact and purchased a copy for both of them.

My client’s father had been ill with cancer for a year, but my client, who was then 15, wasn’t told of his father’s condition until a week before his death. This gave my client no opportunity to say good-bye to his beloved father. And worse still, his mother left him on his own after her husband’s death because, she admits, he was having a hard time and she didn’t know what to do. So there he was, trying to make sense of this traumatic experience all on his own. Yes, his mother brought him to a therapist for 2 or 3 sessions, but the therapist didn’t know what to do with him, either. So all his grief went down inside.

In essence, he lost both of his parents when the father died.

He recalls having tears once. He sobbed on his sister’s shoulder for a few seconds at the graveside until he could regain his composure. He then stuffed all his feelings down inside.

When he initially called to begin work with me, he was extremely depressed and, by his own admission, lost. His being clueless about how he felt translated to his being virtually paralyzed when it came to relating to women or knowing what he truly wanted to be when he grew up.

Although we made much progress in our phone appointments, I was delighted for him when he requested to come to Minneapolis to work face-to-face with me on the extremely arduous task of resolving his father’s death. He had been left alone with it for so long, that I interpreted this request as a giant step forward toward his being willing to trust and to ask for what he needed.

I have spoken with his mother three times. Now, in retrospect, she wishes she had been more assertive in breaking down her son’s protective shield and protecting him herself. Surely, this would have helped him with his skittishness with women. Undoubtedly, she was grieving and adjusting to being a widow herself. However, what a difference it would have made for her son if she had been more effective in protecting him and talking with him at the time.

Parents, please do not leave your children on their own to make sense of life’s traumas. They don’t have the cognitive machinery to do so until they are at least sixteen, according to the great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. And they need your support and constancy, then more than ever. If you don’t know what to say to them, just sit with them. Ask how they are feeling and how you can help. Above all, don’t abandon them. Just being there for and with them is an elegantly simple balm.