Marissa writes in: My boyfriend lost his mum seven months ago, four days after having her diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was his best friend, and had a very close relationship with him. I think he didn’t have a proper grief at the beginning, he was always trying to make his dad and brother feel well while forgetting about himself. He relied on me, we started dating only 2 months before his mum died, but I have been there for him since.
He’s been always saying how much he appreciates my support, and how important I am for him. Unfortunately I had to travel for work reasons last January after having holidays together away from everything, and was away for 2 months, with few opportunities of communication. Now I am back, and found that he fell in a profound depression while I was away; he is usually so cheerful and positive, but now he is like a whole new person, who doesn’t enjoy or gets enthusiastic about anything, he has constant nightmares begging his mum not to die, he says he sees her on the streets, and he says he feels detached from everyone and everything.
He said it was so difficult for him not to have me around when all these negative emotions overwhelmed him, and that he just had to force himself to deal with this on his own. He is so sad, and asked me to have a time on his own, which I find absolutely reasonable, but at the same time he asked me not to get lost, saying that he didn’t want me out of his life.
I have no idea of how to help him, it is very sad to hear him like this — it’s been more than one month since I came back and haven’t seen him yet — and I don’t really understand what he is going through. I keep on receiving mixed messages from him. He wouldn’t let me see him, and I don’t know how else to express I am there for him without disrespecting his will of time and space, but having into account he asked me not to leave him alone. He says he wants to see me, but not now, just soon. What can I do for him? Will he ever come back?
Psychotherapist Richard Beck, LCSW, BCD, CGP, FAGPA, responds:
It took great courage and strength on your part to reach out and share your question with us.
I read your question on the 18th anniversary of my mother’s death, also a death that was unexpected. It might do us both some good if I spoke as a regular person, and not wear my clinical hat as I share my thoughts and experiences with you
In reading over your question several times, I’m struck by the pain of grief I felt as I imagined what both you and your boyfriend are going through, as well as the guilt I heard you express at what you might do differently or better. These feelings are so common and part of the process of grief after a loss, Marissa.
Many people who answer questions on the Open to Hope column are simply folks who have triumphantly transformed tragedy and gave meaning to their life’s trauma. We offer examples of hope and inspiration for others facing life’s losses. These ‘inspirational speakers’ aspire to inspire hope in people when hope seems so far away and unattainable.
Your boyfriend is grieving his mothers sudden death, but in doing so has created the potential for another loss, that of your relationship. Neither of you, as I read your question, want the relationship to end.
He is mourning his loss in a way that makes sense to him but in doing so has pulled away from you. I remember the disbelief and pain I felt after my mother’s sudden death and how difficult life felt to me at the time to relate to or connect with others, even others who tried to comfort me. My pain, and I imagine your boyfriends as well as yours, is powerful, like the pain from a burn, a wound which can’t be touched and has to heal slowly on its own, with stages of healing from within.
The best ointment I know for grief, and all the stages that encompass the process of healing from a loss, is connecting with others. I was fortunate to be in school at the time around my mothers death, Marissa, and I shared my pain with colleagues and teachers alike repeatedly.
They held me and my grief as only others can.
The grief you both are going through is real. Hope is equally real. I found help in the support and comfort of others. I never lost hope. I hope you can cultivate hope, both for your boyfriend and for your relationship.
This past Sunday, Marissa, was Easter. Even though I am Jewish, I am aware of the power and meaning of this holiday.
Love is resilient, Marissa. I wish you and your boyfriend all the best that life has to offer.
RICHARD BECK, LCSW, BCD, CGP, FAGPA is an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Social Work, and a psychotherapist in Private Practice in New York City, with expertise in treating trauma and working with individuals, couples and groups. Richard both trains and treats therapists who work with trauma.
After the events of 9/11 and the Hurricanes of 2004, Richard conducted well over 1000 hours of trauma groups with survivors, their families, witnesses and rescue workers. He continues to lecture, teach and lead demonstration groups throughout the country, dealing with trauma and the importance of groups following a traumatic event and loss.
Richard recently published the Unique Benefit of Group following Traumatic Events, and co-authored an American Group Psychotherapy Association Trauma Protocol entitled Lesson’s Learned in Working with Witnesses, Survivors and Family Members after Traumatic Events.
Richard and co-author Bonnie Buchele, Ph.D., were awarded the 2007 Alonso Award for Excellence in Psychodynamic Group Theory.