Grieving for Grandpa Sidney
How years of emotional repression turned into untreated mental illness.
Written by Laura Susanne Yochelson
01 Laura's grandfather died when she was young. However, the pain from that experience never left her.
02 Over time, Laura's suppressed anxieties and emotions spiraled into chronic illness.
03 With the help of proper therapy, she began processing her unhealed trauma, setting new boundaries and developing healthy coping mechanisms.
Part of life is losing people you love.
Some people feel overwhelmed with grief all at once when this happens. For others, it’s harder to process. That’s what happened to me when my Grandpa Sidney died when I was five years old. It has taken me more than two decades to come to terms with the profound impact that his death had on my inner self.
Grandpa Sidney, my only living grandfather, lived 1,200 miles away in South Florida. Seeing him was special because we didn’t have the technology to text or chat. He always brought me hugs, a sunny smile, and a present when he came to visit my family in Bethesda, Maryland. When I visited him, he took me to Disneyworld or to the beach. He was always positive and my love for him was unconditional.
When Grandpa Sidney was diagnosed with cancer my parents didn’t let me know he was sick until it became obvious that he was going to die. I could tell Mom wasn’t herself. She traveled every other weekend to Grandpa Sidney for six months. When I saw him in the hospital near the end, he tried to make me believe everything was okay.
Darkness engulfed me when he died. Nobody knew how attached I was to him. He had always shielded me from reality, which now hit me harder than I had ever been hit. I felt powerless and vulnerable. I worried about something bad happening to Mom, Dad, my sister and most of all to me.
I didn’t know where to turn. I built my identity around being a low-maintenance kid who didn’t create problems. I didn’t feel safe trying to talk things through with my parents, and I experienced a lot of pressure to excel. Mom and Dad drew the wrong conclusions from my successes at school and in sports. They took the mask at face value and missed what was going on underneath. I never grieved Grandpa on the outside, but I never stopped grieving on the inside.
The cost of holding things in was not only high, but also long lasting. I developed chronic, untreated mental illness because no one encouraged me to ask for help when I felt pain. Friends and family couldn’t tell I had a problem unless I talked about it because I was good at hiding things. I wasn’t an expert in communicating my feelings and didn’t learn how to in school. Talking about my emotions wasn’t valued in the same way as getting good grades. As a result, I was never able to process losing Grandpa.
By the time I was 12, when I saw my first therapist, I had begun to develop chronic mental illness. We didn’t discuss Grandpa’s death or get to the root of the problem. The diagnosis came back as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. My parents were horrified that their model child had such a condition and pulled me out of therapy. This pattern repeated itself with a succession of therapists who failed to help me come to grips with anxiety, depression, and anorexia. I carried these labels with me everywhere I went, and they undermined my confidence.
My pain worsened over time. I took it with me to college. My whole life I feared diseases, especially cancer, because of Grandpa’s death. Although this motivated me to study health promotion, my mental illness got in the way. I had to take a leave of absence after the first semester, but was able to finish living from home. I wrote two books as a way of trying to help myself, but mostly blamed others.
Even though my parents kept trying to get me help, I never clicked with a therapist. Things got much worse before they improved. In my mid-20s I had a near-death experience from overdosing on water and being addicted to an enema kit, followed by traumatizing hospitalizations with force-feeding.
I finally had a more helpful treatment experience in my late 20s. I recovered a few miles from where my grandfather had lived in South Florida.
As I started processing my issues, I realized many of them had their roots in the trauma of losing him. Navigating these feelings hasn’t been easy. I need personal time and space for self-care. My therapist and I have developed coping strategies, like an emotion thermometer, to gauge how I’m feeling. Every day, I remember Grandpa Sidney through honing my creativity and expanding my self-awareness.