Dear Dr. Norquist:
My father is dying from cancer. He is my only real family, since my mother left us when I was 12. He and I haven’t seen eye to eye for awhile now. He is kind of cool towards me, but I think it’s mostly because he doesn’t like sharing his feelings. I don’t know how to deal with losing him. His doctors give him three months. It almost seems like he wants me to pretend everything is normal. Even though I support myself and live with my boyfriend, I don’t know how I will deal with his death. I guess mostly I try to pretend like he’s not dying. How can I prepare myself for his passing?
Dr. Norquist responds:
The fact that you are writing to ask this question shows me that you are, indeed, already starting to prepare yourself for your father’s death. It sounds like you have experienced a tremendous amount of loss in your life already. I’m sorry you are having to go through this great loss as well. Losses cannot be processed ahead of time, or all at once. The more losses you experience, the more complicated it is to process it and the longer it takes. One common self-preservative response is to deny the loss and to go on as if it never happened. This way the psyche protects itself from overwhelm. This may be fine for awhile (especially if there are other major storms in your life), but eventually it will limit your ability to be emotionally intimate. Feelings that are not processed do not just disappear. Eventually they may resurface as physical and mental symptoms.
Great losses often take years to fully process. Loss is an intricate part of life for everyone to one degree or another. The goal is not to get to the end of processing loss, but to be fully engaged with the process of living while also acknowledging grief and loss as they arise. Life and death are dance partners. Both are present all the time.
Try to find ways to be fully present with your father, aware of and appreciative of all of the nuances of his essence. Just be with him, soaking it in, sharing whatever you feel needs sharing. Be present with yourself as well, listening inside for whatever needs to be felt, heard, or understood. In this way, processing loss can become a way of becoming more alive and aware in your life. I wish you well in your life journey.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ No. 2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)
Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2010 Chaitanya Counseling Services