Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
It’s been several years this February that I lost my daughter; she was only 30 years old. I still can’t get past the grief; it consumes me every day. I’m on anti-depressants but it doesn’t seem to help, and its affecting my daily life to the point that I can no longer work and my husband and I are having problems. What advice can you give me? I’m desperate.
The loss of a child at any age is typically a devastating experience, shattering as it does the fragile illusions of a just world and of our own ability to ensure the safety of those we have loved and cared for their entire lives. It is not surprising, then, that nearly every bereaved parent will acknowledge that they are never the same, and that they live with greater seriousness and recognition of the fragile nature of life than they did previously, often feeling less investment in trivial or material pursuits. In this sense, they seek to relearn the world, and relearn themselves, in the wake of loss.
But this does not mean that chronic depression and prolonged and preoccupying grief need to become a life sentence. Indeed, many bereaved parents ultimately come to live with greater consciousness and clarity, often pursuing projects formal and informal that reach out to others who suffer or need care in their own ways. Time alone, however, heals few wounds–it is a question of how you use the time to integrate the loss into your changed life and move forward lovingly with others.
What steps might help you with this? One would be to ask yourself the soul-searching question: Would it be okay for me to be okay? That is, how comfortable are you with recovering a sense that life has value and significance, that you can be warmed by the love of others, that you can permit yourself moments of contentment and joy as well as sadness? If in contemplating this–perhaps even closing your eyes and trying to visualize stepping fully and freely back into life–you sense a part of you saying or even shouting “No,” then it may be essential to have an honest dialogue with yourself about your reluctance to do so. What would it mean if you were to allow yourself to live and even thrive in the aftermath of this unspeakable loss? Would it imply that your daughter’s death was insignificant? That you were forgetting her? That you were betraying or abandoning her?
Whatever the meaning of your mourning, it would be important to engage it with constructive actions that affirm your life as well as your love for her. For example, if you fear that living and loving imply forgetting, can you plan meaningful memorials to your daughter that affirm your bond, but that also permit you to invest in other evolving goals and relationships? Can you keep her in appropriate conversations with others, so that you “move on” with her, rather than without her? As you find ways to carry her with you into a changed, but meaningful life, you help ensure that you do not merely consign her to the grave. And as you pursue this project with others who love her, such as your husband, your daughter may again be a source of pride and joy to you both, as well as sadness.