Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My daughter was murdered a year ago. She was upset with me before it happened. I saw her the morning it happened, and we only waved at each other. Later, I saw her body lying on the floor in her house and I can’t get that image out of my head. I live it every moment of the day. I feel I’m a bad mother because I didn’t turn around and make her talk to me. I never thought that would be the last time I saw her. I can’t get past it either. I saw a doctor who told me I had post-traumatic stress syndrome. He wanted to give me drugs because I don’t sleep much, but drugs are not for me. I have cried so much there are no more tears. She has never come to me in a dream. Every day it gets harder for me. All I see is my baby lying on the floor with a bullet in her chest. She left two boys and a husband. No word from law enforcement on where the case is either.
Surely your experience is every parent’s nightmare: the violent death of a beloved child, complicated by traumatic imagery, guilt, and the sense of irresolution resulting from the tension in your relationship when you last saw her and from the failure of justice to be served in apprehending and punishing her murderer. Little wonder then, that as you begin a second year of bereavement, you find yourself struggling with preoccupying grief, sleeplessness, and posttraumatic stress. I am gratified that you are reaching out for help, to your doctor, to me, and perhaps to others. You, and other members of your family–most especially your son-in-law and grandchildren–could benefit from a supportive community of concern, with the handful of ideas I will share here representing just one modest contribution to that.
First, recognize that the bullet that took your daughter’s life wounded you as well. Though your injury was not physical, it is no less real, and you need care in order to begin healing. Among other things, this might take the form of active self-care practices, such as ensuring that you do what you can to restore normal daily rhythms of sleeping, eating, and exercise. Though these routine means of nurturing your physical wellness are not a simple cure all, they can provide a crucial hedge against depression, rumination, and the descending spiral of self-neglect that deepens your suffering and saps the energies needed to engage life and the people and projects that comprise it. In other answers for AfterTalk, I have offered numerous suggestions for how these self-care strategies can be cultivated.
Second, seek treatment for the trauma. Nearly every community offers specialized services by professionals who are trained to treat the troubling images and preoccupying thoughts that you describe, using not merely medication, but also well-studied methods for helping you process these horrific experiences so that they have less power to disrupt your daytime thoughts and nighttime dreams. Look for psychologists, counselors and social workers who specifically use exposure strategies, which go beyond general talk about the trauma of your daughter’s death to include close, step-by-step review and visualization of her dying, while containing these distressing images in the context of a trusting relationship that can help you integrate the experience emotionally. Among other strategies, clinicians who are trained in EMDR and “restorative retelling” may be especially helpful in this regard.
Third, consider “reopening the conversation” with your daughter that was closed prematurely and tragically by her death. In keeping with the emphasis of AfterTalk, you might write your daughter a letter to express your regret about the circumstances of your leave-taking, just as if you had had a conflict in the course of everyday life that led each of you distance angrily from the other for a time. What might you say to her to mend fences, to make apology, to ask for her forgiveness, to invite her back into contact with you? What kind of dreams would you like to have in which she might feel at home? If you welcome her back into contact with you in some sense, what would you like to do with her, and what kind of home would you like her to come to visit? How might you serve as the vehicle by which her love is now extended to her children? Beyond the words, take steps to make it so, by planning outings to places you and she might have once enjoyed, where you can sense her presence again, perhaps having inner conversations with her, or including stories of her special moments or qualities in conversations with others, and your grandchildren especially. As you gradually take better care of yourself, of your traumatic symptoms, and of your ongoing relationship with her and those you both love, you can begin to heal some of the wounds that currently fester so painfully, and embrace once more a life of which she can be proud.