The weekend between my father’s death and his funeral, my mother’s house was filled with people. Extended family, friends, neighbors, they all came. I appreciated most of the support, except from one aunt. She, like me, was filled with the need to take care of my mother. It became a sick competition between us. I resented her help. I felt she should back off. Uneasy, she talked too much.
Everything she said came out wrong or inconsiderate. She bragged on how nice my husband was and how she wished we had children—knowing I couldn’t get pregnant. She realized her insensitivity and apologized. Conversationally, she said someone she was close to suffered from depression and thought he might kill himself, too. Her comments seemed casual to me. I couldn’t process the things she said. In my mind, it had only been a few hours since I had just found Daddy’s body.
At first, I felt hammered by her words and listened in shocked silence. Then my anger spewed forth. It didn’t come out so much in my words as how I said them. I bore down on her—leveling my eyes upon her like an aggressive dog on the verge of attack. She went flying out of the room, crying.
Even though we were in a reactive state of mind, the resentment stayed with me for a long time. Slowly, I realized I had been using her as a safety valve for my anger—anger that Daddy had been so selfish, that he had left his body for me to find, that I sat there feeling so powerless. She was a safe target, a scapegoat; I knew she loved me. Later, I apologized. She said there was nothing to apologize for. She was right. We were all so full of grief.
Grieving people say and do stupid things. Grieving people react just as stupidly. We hurt each other. Be thankful. Understanding or not, we become great teachers in the lessons of forgiveness.
The emotional bonds to my family had always been convoluted. Strands of affection, anger, joy, love, rebellion, untold concern, and knots of pure, seething frustration had piled up over the years like heaps of tangled rope from an unfinished project—in such a mess that I had stopped trying to sort them out.
The night after Daddy shot himself, I had a dream that all my family were cave-explorers. We were linked together with nylon ropes and walked cautiously into a cavern that went deep within the earth. On a plateau which only feet away dropped-off into a dark abyss, we pitched our camp for the night. In my dream, I awoke to see Daddy standing close to the plateau’s edge. He turned to look at me for a moment and smiled sadly. Then he jumped. His still-attached ropes nearly pulled us down with him. I dreamt that I frantically secured my sister and mother to a rock so that we wouldn’t be carried over the edge, too. I awoke wadded-up in bedding, struggling, screaming out instructions, trying desperately to get him back—trying urgently to secure everyone else.
The rest of the year after my father’s death, I lived that dream. When my mind wasn’t muddling over Daddy’s suicide, I worried over family members. I was afraid of my mother and sister’s grief and tried to ignore my own. I called, daily; giving out advice to adults capable of living their own lives, and never believed them when they assured me that they were ok.
“…overprotectiveness in relationships is one of the possible consequences of trauma-related guilt.”
Trust After Trauma,
Aphrodite Matsakis, Ph.D
Mom called us her little hummingbird warriors. When I was five-years-old, I wanted my older sister to read to me, but she wanted to watch TV. I got mad and cracked her over the nose with the book spine. She retaliated and slapped me. We sat there in front of the TV with tears running down our faces, whimpering, and patting each other’s leg in comfort. For nearly forty years, we had resolved our thorny problems with arguments.
After Daddy’s suicide my sister called and wanted to talk out her feelings. She wanted me to listen—that’s all. Each time I tried to share something of my feelings, she cut me off. I got angry and told her “if you want to talk, the street should run both ways.” She got quiet and said in a hurt voice, “I think so, too,” and hung up.
Our grief triggered each other’s despair, ruthlessly. One weekend my sister spent the night with Mom; my husband and I went down there, too, just for a day visit. I took some tools for Mom out to the garage—where I had found Daddy’s body only a few months before. My breath caught while I was out there, but I shoved down my pain. Maybe my sister had listened to too much of Mom’s talk about Daddy before I got there, or maybe she had spent too much time looking at the walls. Everywhere in Mom’s house were painful reminders of Daddy—pictures, tools, memories. Her broken heart, I’m sure, ached. Seeing the pain on each other’s face, we misjudged it, thinking the other was angry. Anger and grief looked a lot alike in my family.
So we did what came natural. We argued—loud, outside in front of the neighbors, in front of God. Even when we tried to make up, we just got into another argument. My chest heaved; her face flamed. Our pinpricked eyes gouged at each other. I’m not sure how we restrained ourselves from hitting. Strip away our adult veneer, and there we were again—Mom’s two little hummingbird warriors.
Twenty-four hours later, we apologized and meant it. We grew up.
Family members can and do trigger the grief process. Expect conflicts; it’s natural. Grief is a process for the whole family.