How do I help myself move on from the years-past, but sudden loss of a loved one?
June 26, 2011 10:08 AM   Subscribe

How do I help myself move on from the years-past, but sudden loss of a loved one, when it just doesn't seem to be getting better?

Several years ago, I was engaged to be married to someone I had been with for a few years - when there was an accident. I ended up watching her die waiting for help which didn't make it in time.

Since then, I just can't seem to move on. It's been the better part of a decade. Friends tell me of parents who were widowed after decades and managed to move on, fall in love, and remarry in far less time.

I've had dates, even brief girlfriends, but while I've mostly gotten over the "feeling guilty about dating again" phase, I still just end up feeling distant and afraid to get attached to the new person. I cover it well to them apparently, but not to myself. I find myself drifting to what happened, and to her, in my mind constantly. If a friend or coworker says they are getting married, I try to be happy for them, but I just feel that pit inside. Even small things. If someone mentions a TV show we used to watch, or a place we used to go. I feel constantly on edge about it. Afraid someone will say the wrong thing and send me down the well in my head for a few hours or days.

I've tried to see therapists, but my insurance and work make that very difficult. Still, when I have been able to, the therapy itself doesn't really seem to help, (though prescriptions from it have somewhat. )

My friends were at first very understanding, but as time has gone on, they just don't get why I still have the issues I have. And neither do I. I don't want to be this way. I don't want to be alone forever, or spend all my time in my living room in the dark. I know this was bad, I know I'm entitled to a grieving time. But it's been long enough, and sometimes I just think it's getting worse instead of better. How do I push this along? After all this time, how do I get to the point where I can live a day without this, like every one else seems to have been able to in these situations by now?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This might give you a bit of insight and direction: Complicated Grief. Knowing something has a name tends to help.
posted by Vaike at 10:30 AM on June 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

This isn't just grief but reaction to trauma as well. This is about fear of future loss, not just grieving for what you have already lost. And, isn't that understandable?

If I were you I would try to approach this from the ptsd angle at this point.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:21 AM on June 26, 2011 [19 favorites]

For one thing, don't compare yourself to other people. No one knows why PTSD affects one person but not another who experienced the same event, much less whether your trauma is comparable to another's. You're going to work through this your own way and in your own time.

The imaginal / in vivo exposure techniques mentioned in Vaike's link remind me of the whole genre of grief memoirs. If you can't get to or afford a therapist who specializes in this issue, perhaps you could try writing some of these feelings down in letters to yourself and do your best to send a helpful message, even if you don't feel it right now, that could be meaningful or useful when you re-read it at a later date.

Alternatively, reading the grief memoirs others have written might make you feel less alone on this. I expect they'd be seriously hard to read at first--writing something short of your own would be a better way of letting the feelings you can handle come out at their own pace, or reading PTSD memoirs with very different triggers than yours might let you find parallels that don't hurt so much--but hearing what others have done to overcome this may work for you in time.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:14 PM on June 26, 2011

For one thing, don't compare yourself to other people.

That is, of course, don't measure your success/failure by them. Taking what works for you from their stories is another matter.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:19 PM on June 26, 2011

I'm so sorry for your loss. Your ongoing loss. I know you must also still be grieving for the life you might have had with her, and all that that could have meant.

I know two things. That the length of your mourning is not correlated to the depth of your love. And that sometimes, we can hide behind grief out of fear. Fear of forging new bonds and feeling new love - and so being vulnerable to loss again. If you love, you might again suffer loss. And there's just no way around that.

I don't know where you are located, so I can't suggest anything in your neighborhood. But there are online grief counseling groups which you could participate in whenever you can find the time. It helps to talk with other people who are also grieving and who are at different stages in their grief. I think you need some help.

I wish you all the best.
posted by likeso at 12:51 PM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have no experience with this at all (and hope that I am always spared from your cruel fate).

I agree - from my very very elementary understanding, this sounds like trauma, too. (To watch someone die? That's horrible.... someone you love? Beyond words.) So this is just something to perhaps help? This is my take on it. I hope it helps. If it doesn't, please try to forget it and forgive me my clumsy efforts.

You would want her to be happy, to glow, to be pregnant, to have children, to love again, remembering you always, had the reverse happened and she lost you.

She would want the same for you. She was denied the rest of her life, and you are continually being given the gift of waking up each day and going to bed each night. Life is precious. I believe the dead stay with us, ever in the corners, perhaps, but with us nonetheless. And she would want you to have the zest for life, for love, for happiness, for waking up each day and experiencing the joys and pleasures and sorrows, the sheer roller-coaster exhilaration that is living. So live for her. Be happy and rejoice in your own life for her. Perhaps, with an activity that reminds you of her, you can say to yourself, "Girl, I'm doing this for you, and it's *awesome* and I'm so happy. This is for you."

You would want her to go on living. Do the same for her and rejoice in your life in memory of her.

Your love for her has not died with her death. You love her still, and I promise you that no one else will ever touch it. It is sacred, and it will be with you always. She will be with you always. You will never love another woman the way you loved her - you will love her differently. There's nothing wrong with that. What's horrible - and what she would find horrible - is to march toward death an empty shell as a result of her death, rather than dancing toward it and grinning and celebrating life, spiting the Reaper with each moment you draw breath.
posted by Dukat at 1:05 PM on June 26, 2011 [10 favorites]

Get thee to a gentle and sympathetic therapist who can help you learn how to untangle this. Because it can be untangled.

I'm not gonna offer five-second internet diagnoses, but I will tell you that there is a name for going off the deep end when encountering otherwise-innocent stimuli: those are triggers, and they can be overcome. Slowly as all hell. One at a time. But it doesn't have to be like this for the rest of your life.

Triggers are a way that your brain connects everyday life to what my shrink calls the 'core hurt,' the thing that happened that you still haven't processed yet. The thing that's still fucking you up, even though on the surface you might be perfectly okay with it. It looks like you have that identified pretty well - now it's a question of making it.. not right, there's no way in hell to make that kind of experience right, but livable.

Which can be done. I promise, it can. It sucks sometimes and it's really hard sometimes and you'll have days of "fuck it, I am not doing this today, so screw it, my broken brain and I are going to the beach instead." It sounds like you do want to change this and that's the most important part. If you want to, you will. Just gotta learn how.

Hugs, condolences, and a fist-bump of solidarity. You can do this.
posted by cmyk at 1:19 PM on June 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've been experiencing much the same problem since marriage partner told me to get the hell out of the house and move back in with my parents. My other half didn't die, but I've been experiencing almost the same issues. I tried dating and I just couldn't form any significant attachment, there's a song that we used to love singing together and I can't even hear it now without feeling physically ill, I've been unable to play some of the video games we used to play together...

My family has been pretty understanding about it since it's happened. I know my parents are getting a little tired of the hiding in my room thing, but I tell them it still bothers me a lot. They got a bit more sympathetic when I sat down and discussed it with them, explaining that I don't want to be like this all the time but I'm not really sure how to change it. Some of my friends have gotten the same treatment. I'd like to think it's helped.

I occasionally try to remind myself of the things I can do now. I'm planning on going to college soon, to find a job I really enjoy. I picked up a new hobby that has resulted in a lot of fun and meeting some new folks. Some days, it IS all I can do to just get out of bed and face the world; this is why I keep a book nearby. If I can't stand to get out of bed, I can at least read something entertaining until I can stomach the thought. Having an overly large extremely comfortable deep bathtub helps as well -- I take long, hot, comfortable baths when I'm upset. (If you don't have a tub, a shower can have similar effects of getting your brain working.)

I like others' ideas of writing encouraging letters to yourself. If you don't now, maybe start a journal, preferably on real paper with a real pencil, and write out the good in your life. Only the good things. If you want one for the bad, that's fine; write it somewhere else so you don't have to look at it once you've written it out. Getting those feelings on paper can help clear your headspace.
posted by Heretical at 2:22 PM on June 26, 2011

I am so sorry for your loss - I honestly can't even allow myself to imagine how I would feel were I in your situation.

While I have not experienced quite the same thing as you, I have dealt with PTSD for the better part of a decade now. A number of your statements suggest to me that you are suffering with PTSD as well, particularly this: "I feel constantly on edge about it."

I am a victim (survivor?) of a really insanely fucked up and brutal rape from some guy that was apparently a serial rapist, that broke into my apartment while I was sleeping and woke me up with a butcher knife held to my throat. While I can't understand your pain exactly, I do not what it feels like to lose someone you love (in this case, the person I was before) and what it is like to constantly feel on edge that society will say or do something inadvertently that puts you back into that frame of mind. I know how intrusive thoughts of a traumatic situation can be even without society's help.

I will tell you the two things that helped me:

1.) I went to cognitive behavioral therapy. In the type that I did, I had to relive the traumatic moment in as much detail over and over again. For like 4 months of weekly sessions. We audio-taped me doing this and I had to listen to the tapes every day as "homework." I also had other homework wherein I had to do things that made me feel uncomfortable and rate how uncomfortable they made me. Then we discussed why.

Maybe that all sounds really fucked up and involved, but it helped me so much. The basic premise is that your mind is still caught on this one page in the book of your life. It was such a queer, incomprehensible page that your mind remains stuck trying to sort out what happened there. After going through it over and over and over again, it becomes so commonplace to your brain that it stops getting stuck and just moves on with the story.

2.) Cognitive behavioral therapy got me to be a functioning adult again. You sound like you are basically functional, but in some ways you still aren't - especially as far as relationships go. But I was still plagued with nightmares. I remember thinking I was doing pretty good with the nightmares and commented to one of my friends that I only wake up 3-4 times a week with nightmares anymore and I was happy with that. My friend replied that he honestly couldn't remember the last time he had a nightmare. That boggled my mind.

Nightmares weren't the only thing though. In some low level way, every moment of my life became waiting for the other shoe to drop. When you are intimately confronted with the knowledge that something unthinkably horrifying can happen to your life literally at any second, it changes you. So in some way I existed in fight-or-flight response no matter what the situation, unless I was really, really drunk.

Recently I realized that I still have PTSD because I was living in this way. I talked to my neuro about it, and just last month he started me on prazosin - an alpha 1 blocker. Prazosin has been hugely effective in treating soldiers with combat PTSD. But PTSD is PTSD - be it from combat, rape or watching a loved one die from an accident. I have to tell you, it's the first time in 8+ years that I've felt some measure of relaxation in my life, but with no mind-changing effects like some SSRIs and other drugs used for similar purposes produce.

Anyway, if either of those avenues sound like something you want to investigate further, feel free to private message me. I wish you all the best in your journey. I know that one day you will feel better. Something that helps me get through dark times is knowing that in 12 months from now - or hell, even 3 months - there is no way to predict what your life is going to be. We people that have had something really shitty happen to us suddenly are doubly aware of this fact. Life could be better, worse or mostly the same, but you just don't know. Maybe the world will end in a nuclear war by then, or maybe you will have run into someone whose soul you connect to so deeply that you will be able to move on with your life. There's just no way to predict it.
posted by corn_bread at 2:29 PM on June 26, 2011 [10 favorites]

Your post reminds me a little of what I've heard from women who suffered pregnancy loss; what you're mourning is not just the loss of a person, but the loss of a dream and of a life you never had. That can not only be very difficult to get past, but it can be very difficult for others to understand and sympathize with.

I think others have given you good practical advice so I won't add anything to that.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:56 PM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

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