Over the years, as a Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist, I have heard many stories about all kinds of dads – some wonderful, some absent, some mediocre, some abusive. As a daughter, I know I have never stopped longing for my dad’s approval. I truly appreciate how blessed I am that my dad was loving, supportive and offered security to our family. Part of the longing for love is inherent in the unique relationship between a dad and his daughter but the larger part for me was due to the fact that my dad died when I was 19 years old.
His surprise heart attack at age 54 was partly due to his having lived with insulin dependent Type 1 diabetes for 22 years, at a time when diabetes management was challenging, not very sophisticated and certainly not technical. When I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 28, the same age as my father, as silly as it seems, this felt like a connection I had been longing for. I even wondered if the power of the mind and body could bring on a physical change like this. Books I’ve read on the psychic power of illness say yes.
At 19, I had no idea how to grieve the loss of someone so important and instrumental in my life and I was consumed with overwhelming emotions. I can remember watching Little House on the Prairie re-runs and when I would start to cry, I would say inside my head – Dad wouldn’t want you to cry your life away. And I would stop. After about a year of smashing my feelings back down inside, I had what I called a nervous breakdown. I was a wreck. At 20 years old, bottle up to my eyebrows with sadness, confusion, loneliness and anxiety, I consistently struggled to make eye contact with my peers and professors; a very notable sign that I needed to take some action to ease my distress.
One of my instructors at Grand Valley State University was a Social Worker who had a private practice in her 2nd floor Heritage Hill apartment. Before I could get out of my car I sat and did 10 minutes worth of breathing exercises to even walk through the door. I needed more but I was already late.
Finally, I took a breath from sharing in a hyperventilating kind of oppressed feeling way about the loss of my very special dad and how as a sophomore in college and away from home, I had no one to talk with. My therapist said to me very compassionately, “What would happen if you let go of your feelings right now?” No one, including myself had given me encouragement to do such a thing.
In that moment I did not know if I would implode or explode as a rush of pain sobbed out of me. One thing I had been sure of was that I would never stop crying if I ever gave myself permission to start. Thankfully, I was wrong. About 7, maybe 10 minutes later I sat up and said, “I feel like someone opened a steam valve in my head.” I felt so much better and was actually very surprised at how well it had gone. I had begun the slow recovery from my year of not knowing the importance of or the best way to grieve.
During the year I had struggled, I developed chronic neck and shoulder pain, lost my confidence and felt overwhelmed with shame – I didn’t just feel bad – I was bad! Bad for being depressed, anxious, fat, ugly, stupid – you name it and I was it.
However, I never stopped believing I could feel my old self again and with the help of my therapist (whose name I can’t remember because I’ve had several) I started to unknot my neck and breathe deeper. I often tell my clients who are overwhelmed by their emotions that we humans are just like containers. We fill up, discharge and fill up again. We go searching for relief, and may in fact find it in unhealthy places if we aren’t careful.
I was lucky to be able to empty my container by sharing, crying, opening myself up to the healing power of therapy, adding in yoga, meditation and mindfulness about being more forgiving and nicer to myself. Fortunately, it paid off. But I have always said that it took me 4 years to undo the damage I did to my psyche and shoulders in the one year of not grieving.
Each therapist at GR TherapyGroup has their own story of loss and grief. These are a foundation for our acknowledgement that as therapists we feel honored, blessed and thankful to be given the opportunity to support others in their life journey. We know it is often the dark before the dawn.
I have this quote next to my office chair in hope that it offers some reassurance to my clients that healing really isn’t as daunting as it may seem.
Her encouragement afforded me the courage and permission I needed to experience the deep grief I’d bottled up inside me for years.
Buoyed by her invitation, I allowed my feelings to surface, even though I faced intense fear. I discovered to my surprise, however, that my fear of my feelings was actually much greater than the discomfort of the feelings themselves.
For years I’d been running from an illusion.
– Pastor Dawn Scott Damon, from her book When the Woman You Love Was Abused
* The title of this article is a quote by Philosopher George Henry Lewes
Rosalyn Baker LMSW, LMFT, MAC, CNC
Master Addiction Counselor
Certified Nutritional Consultant