By Esther Mann, LCSW
My daughter Resa was always a sunshine of a girl. Happy-go-lucky, quick to laugh, have fun, and start an adventure. Everyone loved to be around her, and she was the light of my eyes.
Resa married at 22 to a wonderful man. They made a beautiful couple and had four fantastic children. At various stages of my other children’s lives, I always seemed to have something to worry about, but she was the child that seemed to be moving along nicely, and my husband and I never wasted any sleepless nights on her or her family. Too good to be true, and that’s exactly what it turned out to be.
Almost two years ago, my son-in-law passed away suddenly, probably of a heart attack. He was all of 51 years old. It was a shock to everyone. For months we all walked around like ghosts—not fully present. But slowly, my grandchildren, my husband, and I started to, bit by bit, get back to the task of living our lives again. It wasn’t easy for any of us, and we all had to push hard to get out of bed, get moving, and resume old habits and lifestyles.
We knew there would always be a hole in our hearts and that life would never be quite the same. But there were still many sources of happiness and nachas for all of us to enjoy. Maybe not fully, but we were starting to live life again.
Not Resa. Resa was out of her mind with grief over losing her husband. They were so in love, and best friends to boot! She was shocked, devastated, and totally in despair. We wouldn’t have expected anything different from her under the circumstances.
I kept watching her and hoping I would see some signs of her moving forward after a number of months, hoping some parts of her old self would reappear. She had taken to wearing only black and completely stopped wearing makeup. Her personality completely changed—the way she walked, talked, and in general, everything about the way she conducted herself was different, almost unrecognizable. At the beginning, it was understandable and acceptable. But at some point, it started to seem so over the top to my husband and me, her siblings, even her children.
Resa is still a young woman, not yet 50 years old. G‑d willing, she has many years ahead of her to live and love life. But it seems as though she’s given up on everything that once defined her as a person and gave her happiness.
I don’t know who this person is anymore. It’s hard for my husband and me to be around her. Some of her children have told us that they, too, are suffering because it feels as though they lost both their father and their mother. Nothing is the same. Nothing is wonderful anymore.
I have tried talking to her about her dramatic change and suggesting that it would be good for her and for her family if she tried harder to get back to the way she used to be. These conversations don’t go well. She tells me I’m being insensitive to her and that I miss the fun “party girl” but don’t understand how she is forever changed and I need to accept it.
I miss happy Resa. Who wouldn’t? She brought so much joy to my life, and I feel that emptiness. But I am worried about her. Do you think Resa’s behavior is normal? I’ve never experienced the kind of loss that she’s experienced, but I have friends and relatives who have lost loved ones and they all seem to eventually bounce back. Does it sound as though Resa needs professional help and, if so, how do I get her to go for help if she is so adversarial toward me every time I mention her behavior?
As a grandmother, you’ve been around a bit. So I don’t need to tell you that life is often hard, if not downright brutal. Somewhere along the way, most people, if not all, experience painful happenings that go beyond anything they could ever have imagined.
Pain is not evenly doled out so that we all have the same amount or type of it. Nor do any of us bring the same set of circumstances, personality type, resiliency, attitudes, or general emotional foundation to any challenge. We are all so different—from start to finish.
Some people seem to be able to survive staggering events that would leave most of us breathless and unable to put one foot in front of the other. And then there are those individuals who are totally broken as a result of what they are forced to endure. The magnitude of their pain is so overwhelming and consuming that the person is forever changed.
Though grief plays out differently in each person, and sometimes it can take many years to abate, it seems to me as though Resa has been broken open. I’m guessing that there will always be a “before” and an “after” in her life. Not to say that along the way she may not mellow out a bit, but there is the “old Resa” and the “new Resa,” and the sooner you all learn to accept this strong possibility, the better.
Let’s talk about being broken open. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though what caused it certainly was. When one is broken open, it is a time to stop, pause, reflect, and renew one’s sense of self and perceptions about life and what in life is truly of value. Some people go through their entire lives without slowing down long enough to take stock and discover more about themselves and their purpose. This doesn’t make them bad people, but it’s easy to miss the mark on living a mindful, purposeful life. As the saying goes, “stupid and happy.” One may wonder, what’s so bad about that? And the answer is, “nothing.” It works quite well for some people.
But your Resa is an entirely different story. It seems that after the loss of her husband and clearly her best friend, she isn’t going back to the days when she was all smiles and sunshine. Her new self is evidently disturbing to all of you. It’s understandable why you all are mourning the loss of “old Resa.” But I think it’s important for you to consider whether today Resa might be living a different but fulfilling new life, focusing on new priorities, allowing her to balance, in a meaningful way, her loss and her new attitude in life—a life that hopefully is lending new purpose to her very existence.
Look closely at who she is right now, how she spends her time, and what she is really about. Rather than compare her to her old self, try to discover whether there is something satisfying within her in her present state that is making her life feel worthwhile. Work on being understanding and empathetic toward who she is in this moment, and consider modeling this awareness for your grandchildren who are also mourning the way things were with their mother. You need to ask yourself who this new and revised Resa is hurting more—you or her. From her perspective, this new attitude is likely just the thing she needs to keep moving forward with her life.
Finally, the question is whether your daughter is depressed, or only different. You didn’t say anything about her being depressed—only very, very different. If that’s true, is it ultimately your problem or hers?
Could speaking to a professional or joining a support group be comforting for Resa? Probably. Can you force her to go? Probably not. However, for all you know, she is in touch with other people whom she can talk to freely and feel understood by. And perhaps it would be helpful for you and your grandchildren to seek comfort from a therapist as well.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.