Loss of a Loved One

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I would like to ask a question I’m sure has been asked and answered numerous times. I lost a loved one this past summer; it was so sudden. I cried every day for a whole month and still do. At times it seems as if my thoughts are just of him; I try to block it out, but it doesn’t work. I think of him constantly every day. I’ve been told it gets better with time but for me, nothing’s changed, so I was wondering how long should one expect to go thru this? Is this normal? Please tell me it gets better.

Linda F
Dear Linda,

Your comment that “at times it seems as if all your thoughts are of your loved one” is unsurprising given that you are still in the early months of your grief, and are at some level still trying to come to terms with a sudden and dramatic loss. This tendency to be preoccupied with thoughts of your loved one or of the death could reflect what psychologists call “rumination,” which the dictionary defines as “to think deeply about something,” particularly in a repetitive or circular way. Rather than simply try to “block it out,” which could actually perpetuate the cycle, it might be more beneficial to simply allow the thoughts, but to do so in a way that either detaches from them, or promotes greater processing of the images or memories they bring along. Here are a few ideas about how to do so.

1. Observe mindfully. Here, the idea is to permit the thoughts to come, but rather than “buying into them” and attaching to them in an anguishing way, simply allow them to pass through, as if you are observing them quietly from a distance–perhaps like looking down on highway traffic in the valley from a mountaintop lookout. “Yes, there’s that thought, ‘I’ll never have anyone like him in my life again.’ What comes after that? Ah, ‘He was so special.’ And what comes next?” You get the idea. Just witness the thoughts like a passing parade, recognizing that they, like all experiences, will rise up and fall away, opening the door to something else. This is very different than resisting, blocking, or counter-arguing them, which is usually futile.

2. Shift your focus. If you find yourself thinking about all you have lost, change the channel to all you have retained, and especially the “gifts” given you by your loved one. If you see him at the moment of death, invite an image of him in a moment of shared living, recalling a treasured memory that brings you joy. Of course this does not erase the grief, but it can leaven it with gratitude and make it more bearable.

3. Convert absence to presence. Rather than passively stew in thoughts of your loved one’s absence, invite his presence in a kind of inner dialogue. “I’m thinking about getting a different job; what would you advise me to do?” “I wanted to take this walk in the park, like I used to do with you. What do you think of this tiny white flower, or the call of that bird?” In other words, you can invite your loved one’s presence with you in helpful or healing ways, even if they are bittersweet. This will probably feel quite different than simply trying to lock the door on him to banish him from your life.

4. Keep his stories alive. Find an audience for your loved one’s stories–whether in a grief support group, in a family gathering, or in any other setting where you might have spoken about him in life. Death may end a life, but not a relationship, and finding an audience for the stories ironically may allow you to visit them, and then leave them, coming and going naturally just as we repeatedly do with those to whom we are securely attached. It is when the our sense of connection feels most jeopardized by separation that we seek it desperately, so that as we recover a more comfortable access to it psychologically, we often feel more comfortable in setting it aside temporarily to attend to other people and projects that also have meaning for us.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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