Is the fact that I lost my mother at 16 making me tearful now?
A woman who lost her mother at 16 has worked hard to build the life she always wanted. So why is she suddenly so tearful? Mariella Frostrup has been there herself If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to [email protected]
The dilemma I am a happy, rational and evidently completely normal woman in her mid-20s. In the past year I’ve started a great career which is fulfilling and fun, fallen in love with a wonderful man and started living the life I wanted when I was younger and directionless. But I have become more and more prone to stress, and my problem is that I’m not very good at handling it. Aggravating (but by no means catastrophic) situations leave me in a puddle of tears, from missing a flight to not being able to do my taxes properly; even one incident when my boyfriend suddenly couldn’t stay the night left me a snivelling wreck. I am living in a foreign country. I like it here and I am making friends, although I miss my family and home country.
I lost my mother at the age of 16 and the grief was never fully addressed, but pegging everything on my mother’s death will get me nowhere. Oddly, before getting together with my man, I would seldom cry, usually only when alone. Since I fell for him, I can’t hold it in. What can I do to stop crying and face a challenge without a tantrum?
Mariella replies These aren’t tantrums. You poor, brave, stoical girl. I hope I don’t sound patronising, but your letter makes me want to hug you, not chastise you. You’ve worked really hard to keep yourself together since your mum died – and what a success you’ve made of it. Despite having your emotional security challenged by yourbereavement, you’ve managed to quiet your fears for long enough to step boldly out into the world, far from home and hearth, and create a successful life. That’s taken a huge amount of will and effort, and although the wear and tear may be invisible, I believe it’s the major contributor to your feelings of inexplicable woe.
Just when you thought you’d ticked all the boxes for happiness, sadness has started seeping through the cracks like a river through rocks, precipitated no doubt by your exposure to new love. Your will and determination to survive and thrive is writ large between every line, as is your bemusement about why, with all the pieces you aspired to in place, your foundations are starting to feel shaky. Unresolved grief can be overwhelming, and the potential for your mother’s death to have a continuing corrosive impact on you can’t be underestimated.
For evidence, just consider the impact a little trigger like a good love affair is having on you. Having lost a parent at exactly the same age – in my case the less central of the two, my alcoholically absent father – I know only too well how that loss shaped the next two decades of my life. If I can in some small way save you from some of that destabilising vulnerability and the legwork employed escaping it, I’d be delighted.
What you dismiss as irrational sadness is an emotional alert that should to be explored and learned from. This is not “snivelling”, as you so self-deprecatingly put it. You may be baffled by the timing, but to me it makes perfect sense. Your survival instincts have allowed you the time to build security and happiness into your life again before letting the demons scuttle out of the closet. This inexplicable sobbing about minor events is a healthy attempt to purge your body of the grief you’ve been keeping in check. The arrival of a loving partner in your life has ignited memories and sensations of love.
Acknowledging your sadness and even indulging it is fundamental to your future happiness. I’m not sure what shores you’ve washed up on, but I’m hoping grief counselling is on the menu there. Your boyfriend will, I’m sure, be supportive, but dealing with past trauma is the job for a professional if at all possible. It’s important to be able to talk to your boyfriend about what you are feeling, but you don’t want to make him responsible for your emotional wellbeing in a direct transfer from what was snatched from you too young. It’s wonderful that his love has helped to melt down your past misery, but that shouldn’t make it his responsibility.
Having worked so hard to distance yourself from the pain of your mother’s death, you are now ready to confront it. You’ve done rather brilliantly on the surface; now you need to focus on some internal repairs. Luckily your letter gives me every reason to have faith in your abilities.