Complicated and consuming grief of a friend

Dear Dr. Neimeyer–

I have read and appreciate your work about meaning reconstruction in loss.
I have a friend whose grief is so complicated and consuming that she can’t
find life for herself (her husband died from cancer about six years ago) and
she can’t seem to move forward at all.

Here is an excerpt from a text I received last week:

“I am afraid that I will never be emotionally stable ever again. My
personality and my ache for Michael hold me in this state. It is hard to
reconcile how life moves on in light of these two things–who I am, and how
I feel about his death. In some sense I have survived but the cost has been
great, leaving me feeling that I no longer fit into the flow of life
anymore. I am so grateful for so much I had with Mike, and I am so sad at
having lost so much when he died…. How do I reconcile those two things
and remain stable? It doesn’t seem possible to me. I oscillate between those
two extremes…. Hence my emotional instability.

Thanks for just being there for me….

Jina”

I’m not sure what I’m asking you for…….. Your thoughts……. Do you
have a book on meaning reconstruction that I can purchase that might give me
some more tools to share with my friend? As you can see from her text she
is in a world of pain and disconnectedness and she says she doesn’t want to
be but can’t escape it. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

With Warm Regards and Deep Respect,

–Rebecca


Dear Rebecca–

You are a good friend to write on Jina’s behalf about a long and life-limiting
loss that does seem to have all the hallmarks of complicated, prolonged
grief: an aching preoccupation with her husband that has consumed her
for the past six years, a sense of profound disengagement from once sustaining
life meanings and relationships, an inability to “move on” into a changed
future. In addition, she acknowledges that some features of her
“personality” seem to contribute to her impasse. Although she doesn’t
elaborate on this in her text, we do know that people with early life
experiences of abandonment, loss, or emotional neglect can respond to later
more loving relationships with great emotional investment, but also with a
kind of dependency tinged with anxiety about further loss–which can trigger
a collapse into a bottomless well of yearning when the loved one dies.
Often those who suffer complicated, unending grief feel guilty about
allowing themselves to reinvest in life and other relationships, as if
letting grief soften would amount to a betrayal or forgetting of the
deceased. Of course other factors, such as a history of mood instability
associated with significant depression or bipolar disorder can also pose
risks for our adaptation to bereavement.

As a friend, what can you do to help Jina through this labyrinth of loss?
No doubt you are already doing much by providing a listening ear for her
emotional vicissitudes, whether expressed in texts or face-to-face
conversations. And invitations and prompts to engage her in living
connections with others are equally relevant, and likely part of what you
and her other friends continue to offer. But sometimes more is needed,
perhaps in the form of concentrated work to transform the continuing bond
she has with her husband into something that she can carry forward into her
life, so that she need not only find closeness to him in the realm of death.
Some of this work might be done in the form of her journaling to him,
writing him letters that express directly and honestly what she continues to
feel these many years beyond his death, and then seek his counsel on what he
would lovingly advise. Writing back to herself as if from him can then
become a healing step, as her husband is likely to know her intimately and
sympathetically, and perhaps also know of the signature strengths she might
draw on to bravely step back into life–while taking with her much of the
learning and loving that characterized their years together. Good grief
therapy (perhaps drawing upon some of the specific strategies outlined in
the book, Techniques of Grief Therapy, described elsewhere on this site)
could reinforce these efforts, and also help to identify and surmount other
obstacles to adapting to the changed circumstances of her life, which need
not end with his.

–Dr. Neimeyer

 

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