Tell Me About It

Dad died in front of me 10 years ago and I’ve never recovered

I just pushed the memories down. If they got too much for me, I self-harmed until the physical pain distracted me from the emotional pain

PROBLEM: Just over 10 years ago my father passed away very suddenly. In the space of just over an hour he went from sitting on an armchair watching television to lying dead on the floor.

It’s difficult for me to remember everything that happened that night (for example, I have no idea when the paramedics arrived; my cousin also came to the house; and I didn’t even know the local parish priest was there until he was kneeling over my father, giving the last rites).

One of the main things I do remember was the intense fear I felt. I was frozen to the spot. At one point it felt as if I’d left my body. The other lasting memory I have (I’m not sure if it’s true) is at one point my father lifted his head while the paramedics were working on him; at that point we made eye contact and I can’t even begin to tell you how much that upsets me.

After he died I just snapped into an “auto mode”. I helped move his body, called my sister and tried to comfort my mother. During the funeral I just stayed in that mode; I barely cried and I guess I just got on with things.

However, for the months after the funeral, the memories of that night just got to me, and I could not handle them, at least not emotionally.

I just pushed the memories down, and, if they got too much for me, I self-harmed until the physical pain distracted me from the emotional pain.

I can’t visit my father’s grave, and I feel very uncomfortable going back to the house. I feel disconnected from my family. I blame myself for not being able to do more to help.

Now any time I get angry at myself I usually self-harm (nothing too deep; nothing to worry about), and now I don’t see any future for myself. I have always been single and I always will. I just feel like a pitiful, weak excuse of a man. Maybe I didn’t allow myself to grieve properly. Maybe I didn’t acknowledge my own experience of that night, but I don’t see how doing so will make any difference for me.

I was 22 when this happened; now I’m 33.

ADVICE: It is really good that you are writing about your life, as it shows that you have not quite given up on ending the suffering you are going through. It appears that you are going through a very long-term experience of complicated grief.

Symptoms of this are reported to include: marked and chronic separation distress; loneliness and preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased; and symptoms of traumatic distress, such as feelings of disbelief, mistrust, anger, shock, detachment from others and frequent pangs of intense, painful emotions (see Predictors of Complicated Grief: A Systematic Review of Empirical Studies by Elizabeth Lobb et al).

This is not something that you are likely to sort out on your own, and my sense is that you already know that you need help with it.

Ten years is a long time to be without relief and comfort. At 22 you were very young to witness such a traumatic death, and it seems that your coping strategies stopped being useful almost immediately. We often go into “coping” mode when something distressing happens, and this allows us to function until supports can be put into place. However, you have continued with this outward front of functioning without any substance behind it.

Being alive means being connected to people, and it seems as though you have resisted this both in terms of your family and any possible partner you might have. The resulting emotional isolation and pain is so bad that self-harming seems a viable option. This is clearly not a habit that can mitigate the pain of loss, and you know that it needs to stop if your life is to have meaning and purpose.

The first step is to take the risk of opening up to someone you can trust. This can be to someone in your family (because they love you) or it can be a professional.

You might worry that you are burdening family, but for them your happiness far outweighs that. The chances are that you would like to be in that position with them: of helping them towards a more fulfilling life.

If you cannot do this, talk to a counsellor or psychotherapist and you will find a knowledgeable and non-judgmental place from which to look at your life. This will be the beginning of connecting, and perhaps your idea of always being single will change and you will come around to the possibility of forming a family of your own.