Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Dear Virginia, My father died last month and I feel nothing – just faint relief. He was never much of a dad to me, although he did love me. He was an alcoholic and drove my mother crazy; she often says she'd wished him dead. He spent all her money and was totally selfish. Yet my mum is beside herself with grief and she and some of my friends berate me for being so cold, or warn it will 'hit me later'. I feel guilty. Am I weird? Yours sincerely, Cherie

I hate people telling me what I'm really feeling underneath, or telling me how I'll feel in the future or, indeed, how I must have felt in the past even though I wasn't aware of it. It's so bloody patronising.

Of course I do it myself – all the time – but when I catch myself out, I slap myself on the wrist and tell myself that I have to give people credit for their own assessment of their feelings or, at least, to concede that their assessment of how they feel is probably far more accurate than mine. It's one thing to suspect, privately, that one might be right; quite another to tell someone to their face.

But in this case, I wouldn't pay any attention to the knowing Cassandras who tell you your grief will hit you later. Of course it won't. There is no grief to hit you. You might one day find yourself sad about not having had a loving father during your life, but you have probably been grieving that loss, in a quiet way, all your life.

You're not weird. Don't worry about feeling "nothing". And don't be fooled into believing your feeling of nothingness conceals a seething mass of anger, grief and horror. Accept what you feel as real. It is. Yes, you might feel differently in the future. You might feel even more "nothing" than you do now. Or positively cold. Or you might even feel like dancing on the old fiend's grave. If so – fine. Accept it.

The idea that there is a common pattern of grief has taken such a hold that it seems that if you stray from the strict path of shock, numbness, guilt, anger, tears, resolution or whatever it is, you are committing a social faux pas. But we all have different ways of grieving or accepting death, and sometimes we have different ways of reacting to different deaths. Cool as a cucumber about the death of much-loved son. Beside oneself at the death of his hamster, a month later. Curiously sad about the death of public figure, like Diana, who one's never met. Furious at the death of a friend who commits suicide. And so on. Reactions to deaths are so different and often chaotic, and people can feel so frightened by them that they feel compelled to shove them into categories and get upset if their bereaved friends don't react according to the rules.

One thing does appear to be true, and that is that the deaths of people about whom one has ambivalent feelings are often more difficult to cope with than deaths of those one loves or hates. That would explain why your mother, who loved and hated your father, is in such turmoil. And remember that this anger she's expressing towards you, claiming you're weird not to feel the same way as her, is probably an anger inspired by grief rather than anything else.

Why should you feel the same way as her? Just because she likes sprouts doesn't mean you have to like them, too.

Try to be as charitable as possible about her feelings and realise that yours are no more "weird" than hers.

Readers say

Your feelings are normal

No, you're not weird! If you never had a proper father, you can't grieve for the shell of one as if he was your darling daddy, so don't beat yourself up.

My father was selfish, deceptive and completely irresponsible. He drove me crackers. He always said he loved me, but it was very conditional and, frankly, not worth having; when he was vile he was so vile I never wanted to see him again.

When he died I just thought, thank goodness: he can't do any more damage. My neighbour said, it'll hit you later. It's years later and it hasn't. I'm still relieved he's dead, but I have to be careful who I admit this to: only people who saw him at his worst, or have had a similarly awful time with a parent have any comprehension of why I feel as I do.

Be nice to your mum, even if her grief is inexplicable to you: it's possible she may feel guilty for having wished him dead, and responsible for his drinking. Since you're not prostrate with grief, you're in an excellent position to help her. By dealing with all the clothes-clearing, and so on, and by caring for her, you can prove to both of you you are human and not "weird".

Name and address supplied

Think of the good times

Your mum is mourning your father not for the man he was, but the man he could have been and the marriage that should have been. She once loved your father enough to plan a life with him. Now he has gone, along with all her past hopes.

You did not pick this man to be your father – but try to find a happy memory or two. He loved you in his own way. Different people grieve in different ways, you're not weird – just a little detached from a father who was more attached to alcohol and himself than his family.

Linda Hine, Liskeard, Cornwall

Grief takes many forms

You are not alone. When my mother's alcoholism killed her, I felt prolonging her life would have been awful and couldn't cry. People kept saying "it will hit you". It didn't. What worried me was that her alcoholism had got a grip after her father' s death, which she had "taken very well": I was concerned I might go the same way. I felt no grief, but listless, depressed, guilty.

I called the Cruse Bereavement helpline. I felt a fraud, but I knewsomething needed attention. A counsellor explained the forms grief can take, helped me to remember positive things about my mother and to make sure nothing nasty was lurking. I emerged feeling much better. Go to Cruse, they understand everything.

Jane by email

You're not cold or callous

My father was devoted and teetotal – but also despotic and arrogant. He died when I was 16. I cried, but later felt mainly relief and this has never changed. My mother told me that I was the one who kept everyone in our family going. This gave me some solace for my guilt. When I lost a dear friend in 1999. I understood what grief felt like for the first time. So now I know I'm not cold or callous. Grief may come to you when you least expect it, or it may not come at all.

Pam Baxter by email