Tragic death of a Mother at Another’s Hand

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My therapist showed me your website and I’m grateful for her suggestion to join and get involved here. My mother was killed in 2012 and I’m still struggling very much with what I’m told is called complicated grief. I was very very close to my mum, who was my best friend, my nurse, and my boss at work. And yet I became her caregiver in a lot of ways too due to her mental and physical health problems.
About five years ago she was hospitalized for a suicide attempt and was released in within a year with another patient she had befriended with complex mental health issues. This lady moved in with my mother and accidentally set the house on fire with candles. She managed to get out with assistance from a neighbor but my mother did not. There was no goodbye, no justice served at her death being as a result of another’s hand, no funeral for a month while they attempted to find a way to identify my mother’s remains, and then I was given a full post-mortem and all witnesses statements to read alone in my home. As a result, there’s grief, but there’s also guilt for not being able to stop this happening to my beautiful mum, and boiling rage in my veins at the woman who did this, and the injustice of no one caring or doing anything. They never did identify her body, and it was closed at that.
I guess I don’t see an end to this and I’m struggling to let go of the rage at this woman who killed my mum. Do you have any suggestions for someone in a situation like this?


Dear Charlene,

It is easy to imagine why you are experiencing complicated grief in the aftermath of this tragic loss, complicated as it is by the traumatic circumstances of the death, the issue of blame and responsibility, and perhaps also by the complex relationship you had to your mother across a period of many years, in which her caregiving for you alternated with your necessary caregiving for her. Integrating this sad loss in an adaptive way therefore likely will require assistance in processing the “event story” of the death itself, as well as the “back story” of your relationship to her as you now face a future in her physical absence. Let me offer a few thoughts on some potentially useful steps in both directions.

1. Ground yourself in what was good. Though it can be painful to do so, look for opportunities with your therapist, in a conversation with friends and family, or in an AfterTalk letter to reminisce about your relationship with your mother during a good time–perhaps before the gathering storm of her own psychological problems emerged on the horizon, in those days when her friendship, her nurturance and her direction were strong and reliable contributions to your life. Flesh this out with specific memories–maybe “illustrated” in family photographs of the period–that convey the loving and reliable contributions she made to her daughter’s life. Doing so is one step in useful “grief work” in itself, as well as providing a secure anchor point for other steps to come.

2. Revisit the loss event to gain more mastery of the trauma. Research demonstrates that traumatic events retain their power when we attempt to avoid them, as well as–paradoxically–when we replay them in a ruminative fashion without finding new meaning and new ways forward through the experience. Revisiting or retelling the event in slow-motion detail with a trained trauma therapist who can help regulate the emotions that rise up for you is a “third way” to engage these painful memories, staying with them long enough to take them in, identify and manage the difficult feelings they trigger, and address the troubling questions that come with them. Doing so in the safety of a trusted relationship with an experienced therapist can contribute to the security you need to “sit with” the reality of the death, drawing on any of several well-developed procedures for confronting the imagery, thoughts and emotions the revisiting engenders. Doing this review patiently, bravely, and often on more than one occasion has been found to leave people feeling that they have more control over the memory, rather than the memory having control over them. However, I do not advise you to tackle this step alone, as your aloneness in the experience is itself one contributor to your suffering, and we naturally benefit from an ally in confronting the scenes that violent dying can conjure in our mind.

3. Draw on the healing power of imagination. As strange as it may seem, it then can be helpful to conjure vividly and lovingly how you would have worked to ease your mother’s passing had you been able to do so; the factual impossibility of your having this opportunity notwithstanding. That is, one of the cruel injustices of violent death is that we are denied the opportunity to care for our loved one as we would have been inclined to do had the death been natural and anticipated. By imagining into being how we would have comforted and caressed our loved one, spoking caring or forgiving words to her, we help vivify a story of love that was equally real, and validate a dimension of our relationship that was eclipsed by the death. Reclaim that loving intention, recognizing what you would have given if you could, and consider how you can continue to care for your mother’s memory now.

4. Consider giving a “moral gift” of forgiveness. Finally, your words make clear the strong and understandable rage you feel about the carelessness on the part of your mother’s friend that resulted in this traumatic loss for you both. Nothing compels you to excuse her action or inaction, and you have no obligation to find her innocent of wrong-doing. However, just as your mother’s own struggles with mental health seem to have complicated her life and likely affected her judgment, it seems probable that her friend’s history also did so for her… with tragic consequences, perhaps across a lifetime. Compassionately piecing together what you can, or can imagine, of this woman’s history could provide some context for understanding this terrible event as one chapter in a longer story of struggle against her own demons and circumstances, and perhaps allow you to release some of the anger that holds you, and holds you back, now. if you find yourself strongly resisting this idea, remember you are under no compulsion to forgive, but at least reflect with a therapist the question, “What would be there if the anger wasn’t?” Sometimes we unconsciously harbor one kind of suffering because it seems to protect us from another that seems still worse, and an emotion-focused therapist who is used to helping people sort through different layers of emotion in response to the same event can help us negotiate these complicated currents.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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