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One Year Out And Just Starting To Deal With Grief

Question:

A very good friend of mine lost her mother to a murder about a year ago. She grieved briefly but then seemed to shut it out altogether and try to move on. Now a year later she is finding everything crashing in again. She wants to pick up and move away in hopes that a fresh start will solve her problem. She doesn’t like to talk about it. I get the sense that she doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea of counseling and feels awkward talking to people about something so serious and emotional. She is usually very light hearted and always cracking jokes or pulling pranks on people. I am not sure how to bridge the counseling idea or where to look for a good counselor if she is open to it. The web seems to have information about the symptoms of grief –which do match what she seems to be going through, but not a lot in terms of actual contacts. Please let me know what you think I should do.

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Answer:

Most models of grief tend to suggest a linear pathway of passage through various stages, each stage being experienced only once (e.g., denial, outcry, acceptance), but in reality this is not how grief works. Grief is more circular in nature, and stages that people were in at one point in their experience may be revisited multiple times before the process is done. Mardi Horowitz MD’s grief model captures this best, I think, by suggesting that there is a long working-through process characterized by an back and forth movement between avoidance and overwhelm that people tend to go through before they get “done” with grief. Based on your description, I’d say that your friend is experiencing slow movements between avoidance and overwhelm, and right now has swung into an overwhelm phase of her grief.

People wonder how long grief should take to resolve. Most of the time, they choose a time period that is shorter than people actually need to get through the process. While some people will be mostly done at the end of a year, others will take double that time, and still others may need even more time. Your friend’s loss is compounded by the violent, arbitrary and probably random nature of the murder and how this violates her expectation of having her mother around for years to come so severely. It is harder to grieve a murder than it is a natural death, because we expect natural deaths to occur and are more psychologically prepared for them. Natural deaths don’t cause us to question our own safety and security and attachments with the same intensity as do murders. So it will likely take your friend longer to get through her grief than it might otherwise have done.

You can and should be a support for your friend. Exactly the best way to be supportive for her depends on the depth and intimacy of your friendship and her own personality and needs. If the friendship will support it, it is appropriate to initiate discussion of your friends’ continuing emotional pain. Back off if your friend indicates she doesn’t want to talk about it but feel free to make clear that you are strong enough to help if she wants your help, and that you want to help when and if she needs you. Also feel free to repeat your offer to be a shoulder multiple times. Avoid pushing yourself on to her, however. It needs to be her decision to speak with you about what is happening for her; not yours.

Counseling is certainly a good idea – if your friend is open to doing it. It is appropriate for you to suggest that you think counseling could be helpful, and that it is not just for “crazy” people, but very much for people in life transition and crisis (as she is). You can make recommendations that therapy would be a good idea, and even go so far as to locate and interview a few convenient psychotherapists with grief experience in your friends’ area and provide your friend their contact numbers. There are therapist directories on the Internet (Mental Help Net’s is here, and the Psychology Today one is good too), or you can call upon friends for recommendations, or even use the yellow pages. Going beyond that sort of thing might prove more hurtful than helpful, however. It would be invasive for you to push things at her in a forceful or overly repetitive way. The most important thing for you to do is to communicate your love and your respect for her position. Your genuine expressions of caring and love will make it clear that you mean well, and your respect for her as an independent adult who can make her own decisions will save you from becoming yourself a mother to your friend.

One general piece of advice that you might communicate to your friend if asked for your opinion, is that it is probably not a good idea for her to uproot herself and move during a time of grief, mostly because she isn’t going to be in a state where she can think rationally about the true pros and cons of such a large decision as moving. Moving would not necessarily free her of things she wants to avoid thinking about, and it would take her away from supports such as yourself, and a familiar environment that can be a real comfort while in pain. Moving might also be a bad financial decision. Best if she can wait a year or so or as long as it takes until she is feeling less acute suffering.

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