Writer and broadcaster

I’m grieving the loss of my parents and my youth. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

My father died three years ago after a long and steady decline into dementia, over many years. My 89-year-old mother now has dementia and is in a (very good) nursing home. When my dad died I was relieved, as he had become nasty and had been ill for so long. I was also relieved when Mum went into the home (18 months ago) as after 18 months of struggling through living alone and also being very nasty, she settled down at the home very quickly and is happy (and no longer nasty).

The odd thing is, I’m now overwhelmed on a daily basis with grief for the loss of them both (and even though Mum is alive, she is like a child). I keep dwelling on the past far too much. I was 50 this year, which didn’t help. I had a very privileged Enid Blyton-style upbringing and it’s only since the 2008 financial crisis that I don’t feel on such solid ground financially. The appalling cruelty of all the terrorist attacks in the last few years have also tilted my belief in mankind off its axis.

I realise that I may be grieving for the loss of my youth and times past as well as for my parents. I have a husband who is decent but distant (he always has been) and a wonderful 12-year-old daughter.

We had to move house in the new year and even though our finances are still in good shape (touch wood) I feel like a rabbit, frozen in front of the headlights. I used to be so different. Now the idea of challenges feels like climbing Everest. What can I do to get out of this terrible mindset? Just reading back over this email makes me realise how negative I’ve become and, frankly, not a little pathetic.

Losing a family member through death or dementia can bring grief – we all seem to accept that – but what is less acknowledged is the fear it can bring: grief and fear are linked.

Suddenly everything changes. You may feel negative and pathetic but, actually, if you look at what you have achieved in the past few years (or even months) it’s no small thing – you’ve buried your father, you have managed to successfully move your mother into a very good nursing home and have moved house. Interestingly, you mention very little of your life – inner or outer (job?). I wonder what makes you feel most like you at the moment? What grounds you, stabilises you? What can make you feel safe, even if it’s just a little pocket of sanctuary? (Funny you mention Enid Blyton, but when the world seems too big I often retreat into re-reading her books from my childhood.)

I contacted Jennie Cummings-Knight (bacp.co.uk), a counsellor who has lots of experience of working with ageing and people with dementia, and the issues these bring up. She explains: “There are different kinds of bereavement and you’ve been through not only the death of your father, but also your mother’s dementia, which is still a bereavement though of a different sort. Their body is still there but the person has been replaced by someone else, and in a way that can be even harder to bear than someone you love dying because it’s not final – you can’t move on.”

Cummings-Knight explains that dementia taps into our fear of ageing. “We think, am I going to end up like that, all vulnerable?”

She adds that although we all know we’re going to die, none of us wants or expects to end up with dementia. “You feel very fragile at the moment because you don’t feel safe; the very security of your world has been rocked. But there is nothing weird about how you feel, it’s normal to feel as you do.”

With your husband being distant you don’t have much of an emotional life-raft do you? And your idyllic-sounding upbringing must feel very different to how you feel now and that must be scary. But you can – and will – feel safe again.

Cummings-Knight recommends that you don’t “worry about others’ expectations and slow down the whole thing [to manageable chunks]”.

You have just moved, so while you will probably feel even more vulnerable, being in a new place, you are also starting a new adventure.

And, says Cummings-Knight, “You are also facing mid-life and this period can make you feel the challenges of the future more keenly.”

What to do? Knight recommends “being there for your daughter – your own family is the priority. Explore communications with your husband and maybe find a good counsellor that you could talk to. [Try your GP first, if not look at the BACP website.] How we relate to our partner is our own responsibility. Accept what you can, but act wherever you can.”

That last bit is important. I wonder how much the way you and your husband communicate has just become what it is by default? I feel that if you could ballast yourself against life with the reserves you have at home – and you have a lot – this may help to give you your own security. Recreate that safe haven from which to view and interact with the world – the one your parents once gave you.


This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 13th February 2016.