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….
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,
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