At our first session, Nancy (not her real name of course) told me that at first, right after her dad died, she was speechless.
“I don’t know if there was nothing to say, or if it just would have taken too much energy to try,” she said. “I wasn’t interested in a world where he wasn’t, I know that.”
Since she was now talking to me, that had changed. I asked her when her ability to talk came back.
“For six weeks or so, I had nothing to contribute. I could form words, I just didn’t care to. My brother would poke at me, asking questions, trying to get a rise out of me, but I just stayed out of it,” she said.
Finally, he let me have it. He told me, yelling, right at the table in the middle of a big family thing – my mom thought it would be a good idea to get everyone together and have Dad’s favorite meal, as if that wouldn’t be too sad for words – that he’d just lost Dad and he refused to lose me too and I had no choice but to start talking to him. He told me to suck it up and stop acting like I was the only one suffering.
“And?” I asked.
“I actually thought he had a point, so I said, ‘Alright alright. I’ll talk. Happy now?”
“I looked over at him, expecting a smirk, but his eyes filled up and I felt terrible. I’d been wallowing and all he wanted was for me not to abandon him too. I’d betrayed him,” she said. “We’ve been talking ever since. It’s been six months now, and I’m kind of back to normal.”
“What are you hoping I can help with?” I asked.
“It’s laughing,” she said. “I can’t do it, or at least if I do, I feel so guilty.”
She told me that at her dad’s wake, there was laughter, as people reminisced, told stories, quoted her dad; and she was enraged. The worst thing had happened, so how could they dare laugh it off? At his funeral, the eulogies were full of funny stories of her funny dad.
“I felt like I was on a different planet from everybody else. I looked over at my mom and she was howling over the time on vacation when he drove our RV through Frontier Days in some town. He pulled down the banner that stretched across the street and just kept driving until we got on the Interstate. He embarrassed kind of easy. At the service, I just sat there and looked down until it was over,“ she said.
“Why did the laughter bother you so much?” I asked.
“It just wasn’t time yet. The problem is, it still doesn’t feel right, like disrespectful.”
“Tell me more,” I said.
“The truth is, I do laugh sometimes, and then I feel so guilty. They used to have rules, like you mourned for a year and wore black clothes. I would have liked that better,” she said. “How long is it supposed to be?”
I told her that there is no one guideline that fits everyone. In fact, one of the things we know today is that different people have different needs when it comes to grieving. And I, for one, think that we each get to design our own.
She wanted a timeline; I wanted to ask some more questions:
“How do you think your dad would want to be remembered?
“As a great guy.”
“How was he about laughter?”
“He thought he was a comedian. If you had a sour face, he wouldn’t stop until he at least got a little smile out of you.”
“Do you think that has anything to do with this laughing thing for you?”
“Obviously. Maybe I just don’t want to laugh with anyone but him.”
“What advice would he give you about this?”
“Get up off your butt and have a little fun. You’re still alive.”
“What do you think about that?”
“I guess. But is it really all right?”
I assured her that it was, that laughter can be healing, especially when shared with others who mourn the same person and his quirks.
We agreed that she would loosen the grip a bit and allow herself laugh without punishing herself later.
She came back once more, and said that she liked the idea of checking in to see what advice her dad would have in other situations too.
“I found out that I pretty much know what he’d say, and I like that. It’s like he’s not completely gone.”
I told her that for my money, that’s the best way to grieve – to keep your loved one close in the ways that you can.
On the way out, she shook my hand, and said, “Thanks, I guess. But I think I pretty much figured this out myself.”
“Right,” I said. “I just pitched you a couple of good questions. That’s my job. You did the hard part.”
She turned and walked out, with a wave and a little laugh. I didn’t hear from her again.