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Death Of A Dear Friend

Question:

My best friend was killed in a tornado nearly two years ago. I was supposed to be staying the night with her the night she died. My cell phone had died that night so she was never able to get a hold of me so i didn’t go to her house. So the next morning when my dad found me and told me what had happened i was shocked but i also felt very guilty. I still do. I never talk to anyone about it but my life revolves around her death. It’s almost like i’m obsessed with it. All i ever think about it what i could have done. I don’t know who to talk to about it or if these feeling are normal and they with pass. I would appreciate it if you could help me in any way. Thank you for your time.

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Answer:

There are a few things going on in your letter. Though they are all mixed together, I’m going to try to talk about them one by one so that they make more sense.

The first thing that has happened is that your friend has died and you are grieving. Most human beings are deeply social creatures who form attachments with one another. When those attachments are severed (through death, the breakup of a relationship, or other form of loss), a wound occurs. This wound, which we call grief, is emotional in nature, and has to do with the sudden dissonance between the memory of the comfort of the lost relationship and the reality that the relationship is no longer available. Many people base their own feelings of self-worth on the opinions of others. When key supportive relationships end suddenly, such people can feel a loss of self-worth in addition to other feelings of grief.

Grief is a natural and unavoidable human process. It’s never fun, but you live through it. For the most part it is a time limited phenomena that runs its course for months and years after a significant loss. Grief tends to be very powerful in the immediate wake of a loss, there after come and go for several months, and finally resolve itself to a place where the memory of the lost relationship doesn’t cause flinching. It may be painful to think about the lost relationship for the rest of one’s life, but at the end of the grief process that pain is dull and doesn’t interfere with day to day activities.

During those times when grief is intense, it is fairly common to be obsessed with thoughts about the loss, as you are reporting. What is uncommon is for feeling of loss to persist with great intensity beyond a year or so post-loss. In America, anyway (these things vary with culture), when grief feelings persist with great intensity for two or more years, that grief is generally thought of as "complicated" (where complicated is used to indicate a delayed resolution).

Now, it is not the case that your friend simply died two years ago. By your report, you had plans to see her and very well might have been killed yourself had you actually gone to see her. What stopped you from seeing her that evening was something random and unpredictable; a broken cell phone. So the fact that you are alive and she is dead is perhaps due simply to chance. That something as flimsy as chance can kill one person and spare another is hard for a human brain to accept (even if it is true). Knowing you were spared by chance alone forces you to imagine in terrifying vividness the very real and concrete possibility of your own death; something we don’t normally do because it is scary and our brains and culture protects us from focusing on it too much.

Having an intense encounter with thoughts of your own death can complicate grief, but there is a second factor that seems more likely to be the problem at work here too. You may feel that you are in some way responsible for your friends death (that you could have prevented it from happening) or that you should have been there and perished too and that you don’t deserve to live after such a tragedy has occurred. These sorts of thoughts, sometimes called "survivor guilt", are common enough in the aftermath of a traumatic incident, which your friend’s death certainly was. Normally, in order to qualify as traumatic, an incident has to involve close proximity to actual death and the very real possibility of your own. You were not quite present at the scene, but you did believe you were supposed to be there and so death has touched you personally in that way and perhaps you have been traumatized.

The fact is that life is very fragile, and that people are not as in control of things as they would like to believe. You would like to believe that you could have prevented this terrible tragedy from occurring, but you would have had to been able to predict the future in order to do that. You were not responsible for the tornado, and neither were you responsible for the death of your friend, or even your own safety. You may even know this at an intellectual level, but it is very difficult to not feel that you are responsible at an emotional level.

Given the extended duration of your grief, guilt and obsessional thoughts, I’d definitely say that seeking psychotherapy at this time would be a very good idea. Try to find a therapist who has experience helping people who have been traumatized, or who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The basic principle behind most effective therapy for PTSD is what is known as graduated exposure. This is to say, you talk about the trauma that has occurred, but you do so in such a way that feels safe, and the therapist helps you to put the trauma into emotional perspective. In your case, given your irrational but very powerful sense of responsibility for the event, cognitive therapy, where you focus on putting your beliefs into perspective, would appear to be useful, however. A qualified cognitive therapist should be able to offer you either or both procedures as they prove useful to you. In addition, a number of therapists today are offering something called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) which is designed to help people recover from traumatic experience.

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