My mum was widowed six years ago. My dad died, in his early 60s, after a short, unexpected illness. It was a shock for all of us. However, I am really concerned about my mum.
She’s in her mid-60s, fit and healthy and fills her days and evenings with a whirl of activity, much of it physical. Since my dad died she has taken up sports, developed countless new hobbies, made a huge circle of friends and built what appears to be a full and active life. I am enormously proud of her.
However, I’m concerned that she seems to be utterly exhausted much of the time. I only see her every few months and the last time she seemed somehow reduced. She admits she is tired but her reaction seems to be to throw herself into activities in an even more frantic manner. She has recently admitted that she can’t bear her own company and needs to be doing something to stop her from thinking about “things” (these remain unspecified because she won’t speak in any depth to me or anyone else).
When she’s in the house alone, she always has the television on and often two radios playing at the same time (and it’s not a big house). She seems to have dealt with her grief by refusing to spend any time contemplating it.
She went for one session of grief counselling not long after my dad died and says it was the worst hour of her life, reliving everything. She refuses to contemplate any other type of talking therapy. I am terrified about what will happen as she becomes less physically able to keep this pace up and she is forced to stop and think about “things”.
I have two sisters who also live away from our mother and agree that this is very worrying. I know she misses all of us but she won’t come and visit, although she is a perfectly confident driver and we have all offered to buy train tickets. She always has something else she has committed herself to.
Are we overreacting and should we let her deal with her grief in a way that suits her? I would appreciate a fresh perspective.
G, via email
I’m sorry to hear about your dad dying. The death of a loved one affects people in different ways. While it’s great that your mother is so active, I agree that it appears that she hasn’t really dealt with her grief. The signs are all there and you have astutely noticed them: she has lots of friends but isn’t comfortable being on her own. She doesn’t like silence or thinking time, because it makes her face the very thing she’s trying so hard to avoid.
I spoke to Alison Thompson, a bereavement practitioner from Cruse, cruse.org.uk. (I’d like to gently suggest that you might want to ring them yourself for a bit of a chat. There are also some good leaflets online.)
The first thing Alison picked up on was that your father died unexpectedly; she said this can lead to levels of trauma. “What your mother is doing is quite a common reaction – she’s rushed to fill her days.”
“Activity is good,” explains Alison, “but not so good when it’s being used to mask and deny grief.”
Alison agreed that the grief your mother has buried may resurface, most likely if she gets ill. Because while you can defer grief, you can’t deny it totally. The added difficulty is that your father’s death was six years ago, and your mother’s friends may simply assume that she has moved on. So even at times when she may want to bring it up, she has no natural way of doing so.
Therapy would make your mother confront her grief, so it’s no wonder she found it “the worst hour of her life”.
But Alison’s advice is that you can’t force counselling of any kind on your mum. She suggests that you – and your siblings – might consider writing a letter or email to tell her about your concerns. Reassure her that grief is natural and that it’s OK if she wants to grieve (she may also be trying to stay strong for her children). Reassure her that no one is going to force her to talk, but that you are there to help and support if she needs it.
Alison says: “For most people, grief is a normal reaction and doesn’t need any intervention and we must be careful not to pathologise it [there is no suggestion that you are].”
She also recommends a book for your mother – An Introduction to Coping with Grief by Sue Morris – but you might benefit from reading it too.
First published in The Guardian Family section on 22 November 2013.