Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My son passed away two years ago. I am angry hurt and I cannot believe it! I can’t look at pictures of him. I can’t grieve, I can’t work, I don’t want to get up in the morning, and I can’t sleep. I can’t seem to function. I have a hard time focusing on anything, and my memory seems to be going, not of my son, but in general. I feel lost and just roaming through life. I have a daughter and granddaughter that I also need to be here for. I feel I just can’t. I can’t help myself, let alone anyone else. Please help. Thank you.
It is clear that your relationship to your son in life was very special, and his untimely death seems to have thrown you into a kind of “no man’s land,” a place between worlds, being fully engaged with neither your loss (you can’t grieve) nor your life (your work, your daughter and granddaughter). Moreover, as you now begin the third year of your bereavement, something seems “stuck” about this experience for you; the fog persists, as if everything in your life were out of focus. Here are few ideas to consider for things you can do to reconnect more fully to your grief, your world, and yourself.
Make space for grief. Although your “anger and hurt” seem pervasive, you also acknowledge a kind of avoidance of strong reminders of your son (can’t look at pictures of him) and his death. This is understandable, as it is one way of buffering the pain and longing… but often at great price. The result can be getting “sidetracked” in secondary, protective emotions like anger, which can find little functional expression, and that fail to address the core feelings associated with his absence. Making space for the latter is strong medicine, and might benefit from a secure counseling relationship with a trusted therapist. Ideally, he or she can provide the sense of safety and support you would need to perhaps literally reopen the family photo album and marinate in the images of your son and your relationship to him, in a way that likely would encourage you to descend into the well of grief, but also help you toward the end of the hour to climb out again. With the structure provided by the counselor, perhaps you could then journal about the experience as a way of sorting through it and begin to find meaning in it. The key is clearly and cleanly to begin to engage the grief, and then disengage from it, rather than minimally surviving in a place between two worlds.
Make space for your life. Give yourself permission to take a break from your grief, as through scheduling time with your living loved ones in some engrossing activity. This might take the form of doing something with your granddaughter that you once did with your son, such as visiting the zoo, children’s museum, or another highly engaging environment that will pull your attention and hers into the world around you, while also in this way honoring your bond with your son vicariously. If loss-related thoughts intrude, just note them discreetly on a small sheet of paper, giving them a quick label so that you can return to them later, in an hour you have set aside for that purpose. In other words, allow a natural pendulum swing between your inner world of grief and your outer world of reengagement, but begin experimenting with controlling when you do each. This will be hard at first, but gradually will get easier with practice. Again, accountability to a counselor for doing this can help you move forward, as you gradually schedule more “life” time across a period of weeks.
Change the channel. Few people realize the crucial role of high quality, uninterrupted sleep in helping us live well… until we don’t have it. As this seems to be a significant challenge for you, take special care in practicing good sleep hygiene. Use the bedroom only for sleeping, set a specific hour when you go to bed every night, and set an alarm for the same time every morning. Avoid all electronics in the bedroom–TV, computer, e-readers–and in general, in the last two hours before bed, as these stimulate brain activity that is incompatible with releasing into sleep. If you are laying in bed for more than 15 minutes without sleeping, get up and do something else–a low energy chore, or reading a paper book–and then return to bed. Attending to each of these things will help you restore your sleeping, and with it, the quality of your days.
Evaluate your depression. If two months of practicing the above strategies fail to make a significant difference in your mood and functioning, consider consulting a physician for antidepressant medication. No drug can curb your yearning for your son, but the right one can help you restore your memory, energy and hope and help clear the fog enough that you can find ways forward with caring others through the changed terrain of your life. Instituting a program of regular exercise has been demonstrated to have similar effects. Step by step you will more clearly engage your grief as well as construct a better future, one that includes your loving relationships to your son and living others in a life worth living.