My father recently passed away. Everyone keeps telling me how sorry they are for me and that it must be awful for me. The problem is, though, that it isn’t. I hated him and he hated me. He was a miserable person and, although I have no idea where he is now, I’m sure he’s better off than he was here. Is there something wrong me for not feeling sad? What am I supposed to feel?
The only feelings you’re “supposed” to have are the ones you’re experiencing right now. You’re not obligated to feel sad, depressed, lonely, grief-stricken or any other emotion that other people are suggesting you should have. Whatever you feel at this moment, that’s what it should be.
Some might argue that hate, anger, indifference, relief or any other emotions you might be experiencing are simply a defense mechanism to protect against feeling intense grief. I’m sure that’s true in some situations but does not have to be applicable to you. You ultimately know yourself better than anyone and if you’re not grieving, then so be it.
When I was in graduate school I had, for the most part, very easy-going and supportive professors who supervised my clinical work. One exception to that was Dr. L, an intense, psychologically strong woman who worked with me early on in my training. Dr. L was a straight-shooter who told you if and when you sucked at your job. She would often interrupt my verbal updates on patient progress in her German-laden accent with, “Great. Now shut your face and let me tell you what you did wrong.”
I sat down with Dr. L each week to talk about the clients I was “helping.” She actually used the finger quotation marks when she wanted to emphasize my lack of skill. On one particular week the first client we discussed was a late-60’s woman whose mother had passed away a few days prior to our session.
“What did you say when she told you her mother died?” asked Dr. L.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“Why did you say that?”
“I assumed that was the polite thing to say. Isn’t that what everyone says when they hear that someone died?”
“Right, they do. What everyone says and what you, the Psychologist, says are not one in the same. Why do I say this, Mr. Dobrenski?”
Because you’re a cold-hearted bitch who loves to make people, me specifically, miserable? “Because therapists have poor social skills?”
She shook her head in frustration. “No. Think about it. By telling her ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ you telling her what you think she should feel: sadness, regret, grief. You’re pressuring her to experience something that might not be there.”
It made a lot of sense. “She did look a bit awkward when I said that, maybe a little guilty.”
“I’m not surprised. She is an older woman. Her mother could have been in her 90’s, maybe even older. Maybe her mother was in great pain or enfeebled or needed constant care. What if your client was relieved to not have that responsibility any longer? What if she felt liberated? Do you think she’d share that emotion with you if you’ve told her that she should be sad?”
Again, Dr. L was spot-on. “I understand.”
“You should drop the phrase ‘I’m sorry’ from your therapeutic vocabulary,” she said with her usual conviction.
“I’m s…okay. What should I say in those situations?” I asked.
“What about, ‘how do you feel about what’s happened?’ or ‘tell me your thoughts and feelings about this?'”
Both seemed a little foreign and clumsy but I got her point. I went into the next session and apologized, ironically, for giving my condolences. She accepted and ultimately revealed that a large part of her was in fact relieved that her mother had passed away. While they didn’t necessarily have a strained relationship, the client felt free not having to take care of her anymore. And once she acknowledged that without being judged, she felt validated.
I hated it when Dr. L. was right.
I share this story with you because your experience with your father’s passing needs to be your own and you can’t let friends, family, or society dictate your emotional state. Whatever you have going on: relief, anger, cheer…just acknowledge it as what it is, without judgment. If those feelings change you will deal with those new emotions then. But for now just try to be comfortable with what you have.