Mum has died, dad is weak… our family is falling apart

The dilemma: After my mother passed away recently, it’s been just my older sister, my dad and me. My sister and my dad often have fiery arguments about the overload of responsibilities of the house and they give up on each other. My sister and me don’t feel loved by a father who is himself so emotionally weak. We are always doing our own tasks and since the string that held us together, my mum, is no more, my dad is unable to do his parenting.

We were very close when mum was here. I know he loves us, but he does not seem to care like mum would. We’re pretty much drifting apart. It’s more like he needs our support than he is taking charge and behaving like a father.

Mariella replies: I’m so sorry about your mum. Losing a parent at any point is painful, and in youth particularly so. Whatever the circumstances, even if death offers respite from a long or painful illness, the absence of a person who once occupied space in our world looms incredibly large. It sounds like your mother provided the firm ground on which your family was built. It’s no wonder you’re experiencing tectonic emotional shifts now that she’s gone.

In every family there are complex dynamics: between parents, between siblings and between adults and children. Family units are a precarious structure and losing one element can undermine the whole edifice. Your mother’s death won’t simply have wreaked emotional havoc but also left your everyday relationships in disarray. Without her presence your relationships with each other need to be readjusted and redefined. Communication is key – and it doesn’t sound like there’s much of that going on in your house. Instead of pulling together you’re breaking apart.

There’s a tendency to deify the dead, particularly parents. The surviving parent never quite comes up to scratch

Along with the high drama of mourning, there are the mundanities of life to be tackled. Your father and sister have identified a convenient way to cope with their distress, by airing grievances of a domestic variety instead of tackling the large elephant lurking in the room. It may not be constructive, but it’s definitely not uncommon.

For the novelist Julian Barnes the regular route of being encouraged to “get over it” proved an anathema. He wrote in Levels of Life about the ire caused by the platitudes and perceived provocations dispensed by friends attempting to steer him through his devastation. Barnes and advertising guru Lord Saatchi, whose wife also died of cancer, may not be kindred spirits philosophically, but for both of them, when it came to mourning, “getting over it” was not an ambition. Savouring the memories, living with the misery, not bucking up, may be the path that suits some. For others, pragmatism and practicality are the way forward – the stiffer their lip, the more chores they load up on, the more the accrued weight of duty will outweigh the pain.

There simply isn’t a perfect way to cope with the existential angst, the misery, the loneliness and the all-consuming sadness induced by loss. There’s something to celebrate in how devastating we find the removal from our orbit of those we’ve lived with and loved. It seems impossible that the world should still be turning, or others still going about their unaltered lives. There’s also a tendency to deify the dead, particularly in the case of parents, so the surviving parent never again quite comes up to scratch. It’s a dysfunctional legacy that allows discord and resentment to flourish. Maybe that’s what’s happening in your home.

Your father probably hasn’t changed. His foibles are just exposed more starkly since your mother passed. As you say, he loves you both, but in the midst of his own mourning he may be finding it hard to fully focus on his girls.

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