I remember the day my father died.
He had been sick with colon cancer and died quickly in the hospital only a few months after being diagnosed.
My relationship with my father at that time was non-existent due to an abusive and alcohol fueled childhood. As an adult I did not include him in my life, and in fact didn’t think about him much at all.
However, when he got sick and subsequently died, I had complicated feelings. Emotions threatened to come up that I didn’t know how to deal as they swung from indifference to a deep sadness. So I did what a lot of people do, I packed them all down deep inside and went about living my life.
I surprised myself the following week after his funeral as I found myself going back to work, raising my son and enjoying my partner and our life together. Months went by and I rationalized the lack of feeling my feelings around the death of my father to the fact that I hadn’t really had a relationship with the man since I had left home at the age of 15. Possibly I just wasn’t going to grieve the way others do when a parent passes.
Fast forward to several months later and I’m in a hospital donating platelets. My friend had asked people to donate but looking back on it I believe I was moved to help, in part, for my own unresolved feelings about my father having died of cancer months before. “Coincidentally” the small donation room was on the oncology floor. There were a few plastic covered recliners on the side of the room and a small television attached to the arm to distract me during the lengthy platelet donation process. Occasionally when the door would open to the hallway, I would catch sight of an older gentleman in a hospital gown, pushing an IV pole down the hallway and I would feel my jaw clench as memories began to flood my mind. I felt unsettled as the nurse inserted the IV’s in my arms and asked me what movie I wanted to watch. Suddenly my heart began to beat faster and I had trouble catching my breath. I didn’t know if I needed to scream or cry, but I knew I needed to get out of that room, off of that oncology floor and out of this hospital.
The attendant noticed my distress and she attempted to calm me. Eventually we were forced to abandon the procedure entirely and I waited impatiently as she finally took the needles out of my arm and allowed me to get up, I grabbed my things and ran. As I ran I felt an overwhelming sense of something rising in my belly, to my chest, up the back of my throat and moving quickly up to my mouth. I was terrified and I knew I needed to release it somehow. Did I need to vomit, cry, scream or yell? I didn’t know, but whatever was happening, was happening fast.
I jumped into my car, and I began driving back to work. But the raging emotions were not going to be denied. I had to pull over on the shoulder of the highway and just as I managed to stop somewhere safe the first sob burst out of my throat. There was no stuffing this emotion down and I began to sob like I never had before. I sobbed for the loss of my father, yes, but I also sobbed for the utter devastation I felt at the complete end of any possibility of one day having a better relationship with him. The possibility for him to one day realize the pain he had caused and to truly be sorry died with him. There were no more chances. All of that ended the day he died and I finally let myself grieve that.
Emotions won’t be denied. They may allow you to stuff them down temporarily when it isn’t convenient for you to feel them, but eventually they will be felt again.
My delayed grief over my father’s and my relationship was a result of my inability to acknowledge that deep sadness I felt over opportunities lost and the end of a chance for change or reconciliation. This was difficult to process and after 30 years I still learn new things about myself as it relates to the death of my relationship with my father.
My emotions taught me I could grieve, but more importantly they were a compass to my understanding.
They took me to the places I needed to go in order to understand myself better as it pertained to my father but also as I related to myself as an adult who had survived an abusive childhood. After that cry fest on the side of the freeway I began to feel again. I began to feel the sadness but also the importance of what had happened to me and my family. I would not have understood any of that without my willingness to allow the emotions to direct that path.
What emotions are you holding back? What essential understanding are you delaying by stuffing uncomfortable feelings down and attempting to ignore the learning that could move you to a place of clearer awareness?