What My Dad’s Death Taught Me as a Grief Therapist

By Elizabeth Collison, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Though loss of a loved one can be one of the most challenging and emotion-filled experiences of our lives, most of the time we discover we are more resilient than we might have imagined and we somehow figure out how to survive and carry on. It can take time to come to this realization, however, and this is something that I learned firsthand. 

My father died due to a uniquely severe presentation of a relatively common medical condition when I was four years old, so loss has been with me for nearly the entirety of my life. This was my norm, and thanks to my wise-beyond-her-years mom and our loving community, my dad’s memory was invited in and always felt present throughout my childhood. The fullness of my grief was not realized until my preadolescence when I started to more thoroughly understand the weight of what this loss meant for me and my life. That’s when I experienced a much deeper missing of him and the pangs of grief began.

What is grief?

People mostly think of tears and sadness when they think of grief, but the way grief presents itself can be as varied as the circumstances that cause it. Grief emotions can include sadness, anger, numbness, shock, joy, relief, and more. Grief can be messy, complex, and confusing or grief can be like a weighted blanket; heavy, uncomplicated, and secure. Some grief is light and short-lived. Grief often changes and fluctuates with time, and it does not have to be all negative.

Grief often changes and fluctuates with time, and it does not have to be all negative.

For me, life brought complications and times of emotional distress as I coped with no longer having my dad with me, but it also made clear how many gifts my father’s death gave me. My mother helped model acceptance of his physical self no longer being with us, while celebrating my ongoing connection to his memory and legacy in my life. Since I was so young at the time of his passing, she preserved the memory of who he was through asking family and friends to write letters to me about him, for me to read as I got older. Looking back, I can now see how my father’s death completely reshaped who I am and my life path. The depths of friendship and support from others through the entirety of my mom’s life and my own have been beautiful and humbling to receive. It helped provide a passion and direction for my area of research interest during my graduate studies and clinical training. I was able to work in hospice and palliative care settings, where I was honored to be a part of a team who helped individuals as they transitioned through end of life. Through these encounters I have come to better appreciate from both an academic and a personal lens all of the factors that can play a role in how we experience and process grief.

Dealing with grief and loss

When we are experiencing intense feelings of grief, instead of “letting go” we can think of “moving on”-- learning to carry grief (and the memory of our loved one) with us as we continue to venture forth and live. This process can happen quickly or can take years. Some signs of “healthy” grieving as we walk this journey are 1) we are able to share our grief with supportive others, 2) we can experience a full range of emotions, 3) we are able to remember our loved one through memories both good and bad…funny and painful, and 4) we can resume self-care and preferred activities or even develop new hobbies and relationships.

Developing a strong support system and connecting with it routinely to reduce loneliness was essential.

I found my grief journey had ups and downs through my teen and young adult years, often corresponding to general loneliness or sadness associated with other life stresses (e.g., break-ups, moving far away from family and friends). Developing a strong support system and connecting with it routinely to reduce loneliness was essential. I have found it helpful to connect with my dad’s memory through special belongings or objects. I have indeed sobbed many times over the years while snuggling with a stuffed animal he gifted me. Sometimes I will reminisce with a family member who knew him, particularly during certain holidays or on his birthday. The intensity of my missing him and the associated sadness has gone down and my crying episodes are now rare, but the loss and my connection to my dad remain an ever-present part of my life.

Signs you are stuck in a grief cycle

Signs that we may be “stuck” in our distress are that we struggle to accept the loss has even happened, or seek to escape this reality; we feel numb or like life is meaningless without our loved one. We feel intensely alone and are detached from others or are disengaged from activities and adequate self-care. If these continue to be steadily present a year after the loss of a loved one, it is a low likelihood that continued time will lead to change and healing. If the latter description sounds like your experience or that of a family member or friend of yours, know there is hope for moving forward and getting “unstuck” from the distress.

How to get help processing your grief

For as long as psychotherapy has existed, therapists have helped provide support through significant and sudden life changes, such as the death of a loved one. More recently, however, we have better recognized that time does NOT always “heal all wounds”, and an evidence-based treatment has been developed to effectively wrench someone from grief “stuckness” and move them toward “integrated grief”. This treatment involves working with a therapist who provides a supportive and caring environment to lead the client through planned exercises and prompts to guide them along their grief journey. These exercises help them to reach the healing milestones that are needed to get ‘unstuck’ from their grief, including: managing emotional pain, imagining a more promising future, strengthening relationships, living with reminders, connecting with memories, and more. 

Though I continue to miss my dad – and that sadness might show up at both predictable and unpredictable times decades after his death –  it doesn’t hold me back from life and from connecting to loved ones. If you are concerned that your grief or the grief of someone you love is disruptive to life, relationships, and joy, please consider connecting with one of us for support.  

I’ll leave you with a visual I find helpful when contextualizing the experience of navigating grief.


Resources and support for grief

Therapy Lab’s Grief Plan incorporates cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), psychoeducation, and coping techniques. Our therapists use behavioral activation and self-care approaches in a sequential flow of evidence-based therapy designed for anyone—regardless of whether grief is fresh or long-lived. If you’d like to learn more, for you or for a loved one, check out our Grief Plan or reach out to us at hello@therapylab.com.

If you want to explore resources on your own, here are some recommendations.

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