Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My Mom passed away two years ago this July. I feel I’ve been coping alright but lately I’ve been feeling very lonely and somewhat angry. Angry because it seems there is no one that really cares anymore. No one has time for conversation and listening. I try hard to listen to other people because I know it’s important but I swear, I get just a few words out and that person is ready to move on to talk to someone else or they get distracted easily and change the conversation. Mom and I would talk for hours, literally about anything and everything. I realize that is gone and there is no one that can replace her. Due to seemingly unrelated circumstances, I think, a few of my “friends” have decided to back out of my life. I realize now that these were never really true friends but people that didn’t want to be in it for the long haul. However, today…right now, I’m left with two friends, of which I am the third wheel. I feel angry because I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve hardly talked about Mom but I think I might be seeming kind of needy these days. I’m angry because I’m alone. My husband is always here for me, but the attention span of people these days has me so angry and lonely. It feels like people just don’t have time for true conversation anymore and this leaves me feeling hopeless because I long for someone to talk to that can understand what I’m going through and take the time to listen and care about what I’m saying. I know this is a lot to ask but is it really that hard to come by? I’m also a mother of two great kids, teen and pre-teen. They need me so I try and be the Mom that they need. However, yesterday I found myself in a situation where my daughter really needed me to be strong. I did and it was great but it left me with a tremendous sense of loss for my own Mom because I realized what an amazing gift a Mother/daughter relationship is and what if one day my daughter has to cope with the loss of me. That thought made me crumble and it was a downward spiral the rest of the day, which left me extremely sad and lonely.I’m really having to grow up. I’ve never thought of myself as a selfish person. I really do care about other people and I listen to their stories. I listen and respond to what they have to say and I follow up later to make sure they know I’ve listened and I care. But it seems that nobody follows up on me. When I feel like it’s my time to talk and share my thoughts, it’s like it’s suddenly time to wrap up the conversation and time to go. What am I doing wrong? Am I expecting too much?
Your description of the social dynamics of grieving is as clear a summary of what happens when grief is intense and prolonged as any I’ve heard. In favorable circumstances, our close associates and family respond to the call to “tend and befriend” us in our grief, listen to our pain and loneliness, and provide practical assistance to us in our changed world… for a time. But as weeks turn into months, and months to years without significant reduction of our need, most people experience what psychologists term “learned helplessness,” that is, a sense that nothing they do has a lasting effect, and so they gradually give up trying. The result can be a reciprocal pattern of withdrawal: they back away from us in our seemingly inconsolable grief, and we back away from them in a sense of anger and disappointment. And as the social circle grows smaller, the burden on those who hang in there with us grows heavier.
It is partly for these reasons that mutual support groups for different kinds of losses have proliferated, some of them focused on a particular kind of relation to the deceased (such as widows or bereaved parents), and some on particular causes of death (such as suicide or cancer). But many support groups also accept members who bring a variety of losses, some of which may be offered by churches or other services in your area. Joined as they are in the experience of grief, such groups typically provide a more understanding ear for members than they might find in the outside world. Looking for a suitable group in your area could be one way of reconnecting with compassionate others who can help you hold your grief, and look for ways to move back toward a life that is less fraught and anguished.
But as a friend of mine who is a leader in the mutual support community also noted to me recently, dealing with protracted and complicated grief that seems unyielding across the years “is above his pay grade.” By that he meant that as strongly as he values the role of support groups, he also recognizes that some forms of grief can leave people feeling so decimated, so isolated, and so vulnerable for so long that a referral to professional grief therapy is indicated. In my experience, and as evidenced by a growing body of research, this kind of reaction to loss is more likely when we were attached to the deceased as you might have been to your mother–who seemed to offer a uniquely intimate sense of security and connection across a lifetime, one you continued to depend on even as you raised your own children. The loss of this safe haven can be so devastating in such cases that no amount of simple, well-intentioned support can mitigate it, and special procedures to help people through the impasse created by complicated grief are necessary. The good news is that therapies that help us face the hard realities of the loss, rebuild a sense of psychological connection to the deceased even in their physical absence, overcome our avoidance and rumination, and reconstruct our relational world have been found to be very effective, even or especially in the wake of great loss. So seek mutual support from others who have “been there,” but also consider whether working with a professional grief therapist might be a helpful step beyond your seemingly solitary confinement in the prison of your bereavement.