My dad's wife died and he won't leave the house. What do I do? : Life Kit Psychotherapist David Defoe offers advice to a letter writer who is concerned about how to help their grieving father.

Dear Life Kit: My dad's wife died and he won't leave the house. What do I do?

Dear Life Kit: My dad's wife died and he won't leave the house. What do I do?

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Photo collage of a house in black and white with the door closed. A padlock covers a large part of the door. Behind the house on either side are smaller houses with the door open and clouds visible through the open doorway. The three houses are against a dark teal background and surrounded by a frame of letters, envelopes and stamps.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Need some really good advice? Look no further than Dear Life Kit. In each episode, we pose one of your most pressing questions to an expert. This question was answered by David Defoe, a psychotherapist who specializes in depression, anxiety and grief. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Dear Life Kit,

Years ago, my dad's wife got into an accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. She became addicted to pain medication. Their marriage started to get rough. My dad complained that she bossed him around, that he could never leave her side and that she didn't try to do anything for herself. Then, about a year ago, she died from an accidental overdose.

Since then, all he does is talk about how wonderful she was and how much he misses her. He goes through bouts of depression where he refuses to leave the house, even to visit his grandkids. I've suggested counseling. I've even offered to go to counseling with him. He refuses and tells me he just needs to get over it. I find it painful to be around him. And I'm so tired of asking him to come out just to have him say no. How can I help him? — Secondhand grief

David Defoe is a psychotherapist and grief counselor. Imara Counseling hide caption

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Imara Counseling

One of the toughest losses that someone can experience is the loss of a spouse, because it's not just the physical relationship that's lost. It's a loss of identity. For all this time, [the letter writer's father] defined himself as a husband and spent so much time helping [his wife] navigate her accident. Now that he's no longer even a caretaker, he might be wondering, "what do I do?"

Tragic deaths like overdoses can compound our pain. People start asking themselves, "What could I have done differently? If only I was there. If only I had been watching more intently." There's a prevalence of guilt among surviving relatives of people who died tragically, and that makes them grieve more heavily.

[As for the letter writer's father focusing on the positive aspects of his wife's character], sometimes grieving people tend to romanticize things. We often want to hold on to the good in people and release the bad. That's quite normal and natural.

I know the child continues to ask their father to come out and do things and the father keeps saying no. I would suggest that this individual continue to ask and provide the father with some space to say yes. But they should also have realistic expectations and let him know that it's OK to say no too.

The No. 1 need of grievers is to have someone listen to them. The child has to ask their father what he needs — not tell him what he needs to do in order to get over the pain. He needs to be supported while he sits in his pain. We don't want him to ignore or try to bury the feelings. We want those feelings to be present with him [so he can process them].

The child should try to spend time with him on a one-on-one basis. They don't have to do anything or talk about anything. Even if they are just providing their presence, it matters.

Listen to David Defoe's full response in the audio at the top of the page or on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Have a question for Dear Life Kit? Share it anonymously here.

Dear Life Kit is hosted by Andee Tagle and produced by Beck Harlan, Vanessa Handy and Sylvie Douglis. Bronson Arcuri is the managing producer and Meghan Keane is the supervising editor. Alicia Zheng produces the Dear Life Kit video series for Instagram.

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