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Death Of Both Parents

Question:

I have experienced the death of both parents in less than 2 years. My mother got diagnosed with ovarian cancer and suffered terribly for the last 3 months of life. It was a terrible experience. My father, who is a stroke victim and had numerous medical issues also, wore himself down totally. He would not leave her side except when we insisted. He would sit day after day and week after week, crying at her bedside. Then a few months ago, he died suddenly. I have been diagnosed with PTSD because of some issues previously and also caring for my mother. She had surgery to remove the cancer, and was left with a gaping hole in her stomach. Without being too graphic, I had to see things that haunt me to this day, and it has been almost two years now. I think of suicide every day and have come close a couple of times.

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Answer:

There is grief and then there is grief. Your case would best be placed in the latter category, it would seem, and not without reason. You have lost both parents in a very short span of time. You have lived through both your mother’s agony, and your father’s, and had no way to help them bear their terrible burdens. And, it would seem, you came to the party having already experienced some other issues that left you susceptible to a diagnosis of PTSD. This trauma is very recent, having ended only several months ago. I think you are understandably devastated.

Not everyone who is in the middle of grief benefits from seeing a therapist, much less a psychiatrist, but in your complicated case, with PTSD present, a very personally traumatic and painful double loss, and most importantly, persistently suicidal thoughts and attempts, my sense is that you would benefit from professional care, both psychotherapeutic and psychiatric. Medications can help reduce some of the impact of your symptoms and help lift and support your mood. Forming a relationship with a caring therapist can help you have ready access to an external point of view who can be a sounding board for you, if that will help; who can help you reality test; who can encourage and support you; who can offer you or point you towards interventions (such as EMDR for intrusive memories, self-soothing for jangled nerves, etc.) that might help reduce or better manage your symptoms. A professional therapist can also serve an important monitoring function which would seem almost necessary given your active suicidality, and can (if you alert them), help keep you safe from yourself by arranging for hospitalization when that might be necessary. If you aren’t already under professional care, I urge you to make appointments shortly. You should do this even if money is tight for you, as your suicidal condition is potentially lethal.

You are understandably devastated. Things will never be the same again, and you have lost very important supports in your life. To the extent that you have true PTSD which goes untreated (or which doesn’t respond well to treatment), you can also expect to vividly relive painful memories of some of the very difficult things you’ve experienced periodically throughout your life. In that sense, to the extent that PTSD hangs around, you can expect to experience a rather protracted grief process. While all of this is true, what is also true is that each day is a potential new opportunity to heal, to make new supportive connections with others, to support others, and to find meaning in life despite the wounds you’ve suffered. You may feel like you want to die; you may be very depressed right now; but life can get better, far better, than it is for you right now. If you can find a way to endure what you need to endure; if you can detach yourself to some degree from what is painful; you will find opportunities for new growth. Life can return to a new balance of normal if you allow it, want it, and work for it.

PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder, believe it or not. Like most anxiety disorders, it involves a large amount of wanting to avoid something frightening. The act of avoiding what is frightening helps make the anxiety of PTSD worse, but the catch-22 of PTSD is that the stuff that you want to avoid seems so horrific that you can’t tolerate it and so must try to avoid it anyway. One of the ways that PTSD is treated is to help sufferers to better tolerate what they are afraid of, so that they don’t have to avoid it, and therefore so that they can function better. It’s hard to function when you are avoiding horrific memories. The memories don’t go away even when treatment is successful, but their impact can lessen in intensity.

There are a variety of ways that PTSD exposure therapies are conducted. One approach uses the container of trust that forms within a therapeutic relationship to support patients’ talking about their traumas. Talking about things helps some people (not all!) to feel more normal about what they’ve experienced, and (perhaps more importantly) helps them to realize that they don’t necessarily come apart when they do talk about what they’re tortured by. This learning help reduce the impact of the intrusive memories. It is important that such exposure therapy be done carefully and slowly.

Another approach, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT helps people develop a detached perspective on the contents of their own minds that helps reduce the power of those contents. As people strengthen their ability to disembedd themselves from the thoughts and feelings in their minds, various traumas lose some of their horrificness.

Anyway, you might look into one or another of these sorts of therapy approaches for your PTSD, suicidality and grief. If you can lessen the need to run from these memories you’re stuck with, you will have less need to escape life and will improve your ability to function, which in turn will make it easier for you to develop a new life for yourself. This is very likely possible for you to accomplish, given the appropriate support which I hope you will seek out.

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