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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Dad’s Mourning Process Is Oppressing Me

A loyal daughter wants to help her father overcome the loss of his wife. She also needs to lead her own life. (Alex/flickr)
A loyal daughter wants to help her father overcome the loss of his wife. She also needs to lead her own life. (Alex/flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

...

Dear Steve,

My mom passed away about two years ago, and ever since, my dad has been very clingy to me. My parents have always supported me being an independent young adult, and I grew to enjoy my space. It actually makes the time I do spend with my family much more enjoyable, because it is on my terms. It kills me to see my dad still grieving our devastating loss, but I am beginning to resent his constant need to see me or be in touch. How can I help him find peace and happiness without compromising my happiness?

PHOTO

Signed,
Loyal Daughter

...

Dear Loyal Daughter,

The question you’re asking is profound and fundamental one: How do I support a loved one in mourning without letting this support take over my life?

It must be so painful to suffer the loss of your mother, and now to feel so acutely your father’s difficulty in adjusting to that loss. This is something that often gets overlooked in the grieving process: It’s not just about a death, but about the struggle to create a new life.

I’m not sure what the phrase “constant need” actually means here. Is he insisting on daily visits or calling multiple times a day? But it’s clear that you feel pressured and resentful. In some sense, your father may be trying to use his relationship with you to replace the constant companionship he had with your mother. His clinging to you is also one way of clinging to the woman you both loved. I doubt that any of this is governed by conscious intent. It’s more like an instinctual manifestation of his grief.
The problem, as you rightly note, is that in order for you to have a full life, you need to feel that you can relate to your father on your own terms, not his. That means you have to set up boundaries, which is tough to do when you feel such acute sympathy for your dad.

...confess how you’re feeling. Not just that he’s crowding you, but...that he needs to build a life without your mother.

You could always take the approach of not answering all of his calls and not being so available for visits. Putting your own life first is one way to put boundaries in place. But I think the better approach in this case would be to confess how you’re feeling. Not just that he’s crowding you, but the more fundamental concern, which is that he needs to build a life without your mother.

A big part of this is figuring out what other sort of supports he has in his life, in the form of friends, other relatives, a religious community, hobbies, etc. You might also suggest that he seek counseling, if he’s amenable. He clearly needs help in making this transition, and a space where he can express the parts of him that still feel bereft and stuck. And he needs to hear, as well, that you love him dearly and want to support him, but that you also need the space to lead your own life.

The prospect of confronting all this is no doubt terrifying, Loyal. But the thing to remember is that your father is the same guy who supported your independence all those years ago, who understood that you needed to live your own life to live happily. You have to have faith, therefore, that he still feels this way, even if for right now his raw need has taken over.

The irony here is a painful one, but perhaps inspiring, too. You’re trying now to help your father create a more independent life. It’s important to remember that you can only do so much. Ultimately, he’s got to be willing to find “peace and happiness” on his own by looking toward the future while honoring the loss he still feels. And regardless of his decisions, you have to allow yourself to lead the happiest life you can, which is ultimately the best way that you can honor your mother.

Do what you can and forgive yourself the rest,
Steve

Author's Note: I felt such sympathy for Loyal Daughter. What she’s describing is a process that almost every child goes through at some point: trying to care for a parent whose needs suddenly feel overwhelming. Obviously, I think she should level with him. But I’m curious how other folks have dealt with this crisis. Please leave a comment below. And please send your own questions along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don’t have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your queries via email.


Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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