Hello everybody, welcome to episode 168 of Optimal Living Advice, the podcast where we take any questions you might have about the many struggles of life and get them answered for you here on the show. I’m your host, certified life coach Greg Audino. Well, everyone, I’m going tell you now: We have a more serious matter on the table today and, you know what? If you don’t like it, with all due respect, I don’t know what to tell you. It is so important to constantly encourage conversations about very uncompromising and painful parts of life that are not going anywhere. These are the types of things we try to resist or not think about because they’re unpleasant, but doing so is only harmful in the long term and makes ensuing pain feel even worse. So I might not be as cute in my commentary today with the topic of grief and guilt, but I believe that this will be one of our most important episodes so I hope you all listen through the end and bear with me. Let’s get to it…
QUESTION: “Sadly, my estranged uncle took his own life recently in a bout of what I assume (given the little I know) to be depression, loneliness, and also physical pain due to health issues. He was only 49 years old and leaves behind 6 children.
It has been very difficult on my father because the two had a strained relationship, often going years without speaking to one another, something he (and other family members) now regret despite the cause generally being my uncle's poor choices and self-involved nature.
My question for you is, how can my father go about processing the loss without carrying lasting guilt for not being there to help his younger brother cope? It breaks my heart to think this is something that will weigh on him for the rest of his life.”
Your Father's Journey
All right, and a major thank you for sending this in. As I said in the intro. a moment ago – it’s a very serious matter and one that I’m more than happy to help you with, and hopefully your Dad as well should he choose to listen to it.
With that being said, I want to preface by reminding you that this is your father’s journey. And even if everything I say sounds good to you, it’s anyone’s guess what kind of messaging he’ll be responsive to based on his values, his opinions on self-growth, and more.
Everyone grieves and learns differently, so I can’t say when he’ll be ready to put to practice what I go on to talk about (if he even likes it) or any other variation of counseling he might get.
Changing Feelings of Identity
So as far as I can see (and I’m not that well-versed in grief counseling specifically), it’s going to be imperative for your father to understand the wholeness of his identity. Right now, and throughout the brunt of his grieving process, it’s going to be hard for him to forget that he’s not just a brother.
More importantly, he’s not just a brother who had a poor relationship with his own brother who committed suicide.
With the death of a loved one comes a lot of feelings of identity change. The futures that we imagined having with them are no longer possible…perhaps your Dad hoped for a future in which he would’ve reconciled with his brother. The futures that we envisioned our loved ones having for themselves are no longer possible.
We rethink our treatment of these people, and especially in cases like this where feelings of guilt could very much be on the table, there is higher risk of summing ourselves up in the light of such things.
Grief and Guilt: The Narrative in Your Father's Subconscious
What that means is that the narrative that could quite easily go through your father’s subconscious is: “If my brother who I wasn’t on good terms with has now killed himself, the way my identity fits into this is that I could’ve done better. I didn’t do better, this is what has happened, and therefore I did not play my part correctly and I’m a bad brother, maybe a bad family man, a bad person, I’ve made an irreversible mistake, etc.”
You see how these thoughts can – not necessarily will, but can – compound and how the emotional ties to what has happened could throw your father’s entire perception of himself into a frenzy, clearly distorting not only the impact he had but the impact this has on him.
We don’t want that.
Adapting to The Reality of Life
A big part of grief counseling is the patient being able to adapt to the reality of life without the person in question and also, if the grief is in regards to a death specifically, being able to retell the story of the death truthfully.
The more your father can appropriately detach himself by realizing that his past behavior is not the sum of his brother’s death, nor is his brother’s death the sum of your father’s behavior going forward, the more accurately and healthily he’ll be able to accomplish these goals of grief counseling, as he’ll be freer of any narratives he might be spying about him being even partially to blame.
He’ll have to understand that he is not defined by this; not his past behavior, his present feelings, or his future plans. There is more to his life and more to what caused his brother to do what he did.
This is why many people in grief are encouraged to get back to their normal lives, at least in practice. It’s so the other parts of them, like their social lives, hobbies and other relationships are still able to thrive.
Being Respectful of Identity Pieces
Still, however, it’s important to pay respect to that one identity piece that has now been harmed. What can your father do to repair this broken portion of himself?
Well, he can do what any of us can do: learn. He can learn to take a proper amount of responsibility anything that stands to have him put himself too much at fault. He can learn how to be more patient with people who behave the way his brother did. He can learn to be more appreciative of everyone in his life.
Not to say he isn’t appreciative, but we all end to realize how much we take people for granted once they’re no longer with us.
Through this learning, hopefully he will find that his relationship with his brother has not ended entirely, but that it continues to unfold for him in a new way that brings continual light and gratitude into his life.
If your father is able to focus on these types of gifts he can receive from his brother’s death and use them to fuel a better lifestyle, he can more easily realize that living in this way is honoring his brother, and because of that, perhaps having a better relationship with him than he ever did before.
That’s a very honest and healthy way to remove guilty feelings.
Your Father's Grief and Guilt: Conclusion
But again, all of this hinges on your father’s specific grieving process and timeline. Which leads me to you, asker. Maybe this question is just as much about your Dad dealing with his own grief as it is about you dealing with your Dad’s grief.
Your role right now is not to be a super hero. Be patient and supportive of his process. Don’t make demands on him unless he happens to be behaving in such a way that is clearly destructive. Don’t try to rush him through it if you find it’s making you uncomfortable.
Be there for him. Let him know you support him and be an active listener. Through your own example, remind him that he is a beloved family member who is cared for by many and whose efforts don’t go unnoticed.
That’s what’s in question for him right now, so let your actions show him that there’s no wedge between him and the family he’s fortunate enough to still have.
Everybody, if there’s one piece of advice I’d like you all to leave this episode with, it’s to actively think about your own death and the death of your loved ones.
This is not morbid. It is the best measuring stick you can ask for in terms of how much value and gratitude you’re bringing to your own life and the lives of others. It’s a hard truth that, if leaned into, can bring a lot of abundance to the time you have left.
Ok, my friends. I love you all. And I want to support as many of you that are looking for support as I can.
If you’ve got a question you’d like to send in for the show, please do so by emailing us at advice AT oldpodcast.com
Send your question there and we’ll do whatever we can to help you out on the show and though an email exchange.
Done for today, thanks for toughing this one out and strengthening the support system of our asker and his father. I’m sure they both appreciate it. I’ll talk to you all next time. Take care.