Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
Firstly, thank you for providing your expertise online. It has helped me since losing one of my twin sons in his late 20s in a motorcycle accident not long ago. This time has been filled with not only grief for the loss of my very close son, but also worry for his twin brother who witnessed the accident and is now suffering from PTSD. They were not identical but still, exceptionally close, even still sharing a house and most activities together. He is receiving therapy for this trauma and I believe he has the resilience to make a new life and identity for himself. I was just beginning to feel confident that he would heal but now he has decided to begin riding his motorcycle again. He says it is something he is passionate about and that he “feels he is closer to his brother when on the road.”
I know it is normal for a grieving parent to be extra worried about losing another child, but in this case, due to the risk of this activity, it is a very rational thought. I realize at the age of 30, I cannot ask him to stop riding, but I do need to be able to come to terms with it so I can continue my own healing and not constantly anticipate living through yet another loss of my only remaining child.
So, my question is, how do I do that?
Thanks in advance,
Whether or not others recognize the “tripling” of your grief, it is important to acknowledge its three sources: in the direct loss of one of your precious twins, in your aching maternal concern for for the one who remains, and in the traumatic nature of the death that took your son from you. Like three separate tributaries that converge into a single current, the course of your grief and its volume must grow proportionately. How to navigate these treacherous waters will certainly be a serious challenge, but I will try to offer a few suggestions as you attempt to do so.
1. Accept that the death of a child under any circumstances is complex. To a greater extent than most losses, it upends the natural order, violates our inborn need to protect our offspring, and produces a grief that can be queued up by a thousand triggers, anticipated or unanticipated, as life moves forward. For many bereaved parents, seeking the company of others who have known this tragic form of loss offers a unique form of social support that is hard to find elsewhere.
2. Channel your concern for your surviving son in healing directions. As you recognize, motivated as we may be to safeguard the living child, ultimately our power to do so is limited by the choices he will make. By questioning his excessive risk taking, but not crossing the line into becoming overly controlling, you will retain more credibility to be heard and taken seriously. Leading with “I” statements when discussing a loss that no doubt has shaken the entire family (e.g., “I’ve really been missing _____ lately. Do you think about his absence at family events too?”) can mitigate the sense that you are holding the magnifying glass over him. Likewise, if he is seeking therapy, it can be personally and relationally helpful if you are too… perhaps even with the same family therapist, who can promote mutual understanding and support.
3. Stand your ground in the face of fear. Trauma is maintained in part by our understandable tendency to avoid circumstances that trigger the terrible reminders, or re-arouse the complex of horrific emotion associated with the event. But steering clear of these triggers–in this case, the motorcycle and your son’s motivation to ride it–also carries the indirect consequence that you fail to “un-learn” the fear, which can only happen if you (and he) safely expose yourselves–ideally gradually–to the bike… and perhaps even take a ride on it (at cautious speeds). Nothing requires you to do this, of course, but approaching this gradually–even looking at photos of motorcycles, or standing for several minutes in the presence of the parked bike with your son or other family members–could over time help diffuse some of the traumatic overlay that can complicate your grief.
This said, it is worth emphasizing as well a paradoxical risk that can arise, especially with young adults, in the presence of such circumstances. Research demonstrates that young male drivers in particular can react to the “terror” aroused by witnessing a fatal crash by themselves driving quickly and recklessly, as if to unconsciously prove their invulnerability. This is especially true for young men who have “thrill-seeking” personalities, or who tended toward unsafe driving to begin with. The inherent vulnerability of a motorcycle obviously compounds this risk. If this in any way describes your living son, talking this through with him in a caring, non-acusatory way would be a wise prelude to the kind of exposure therapy I have described above.