Dear Dr. Norquist:
I lost my mother last year to cancer, and I just can’t seem to get over it. She and I had a difficult relationship when I was younger but over the past 10 years we had been resolving our difficulties and becoming close again. Then she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within two months of her diagnosis she was gone. I’ve been having such a hard time dealing with it. I’m sure I’m depressed. I know my work has suffered because I can’t concentrate. When I think of my mother I miss her so, so much. I’m often plagued with guilt over the earlier years when we didn’t get along. I’ve been losing weight. Sometimes I just don’t feel like eating and also I’ve been having stomach aches several times a week. My husband says I’m so restless at night that I wake him up. I tell myself “it’s been a year, get over it” but I just can t seem to go back to my old self. What do you suggest that I do?
Dr. Norquist responds:
Grieving is a part of life. Losses are as inherent in living as is change. It is inevitable. Sometimes grieving occurs naturally over time, with the support of family, friends and community. Often, however, the grieving process is more complicated, such as when the lost relationship was complicated, primary, sudden or the culmination of many unresolved prior losses. The symptoms you are experiencing are not unusual for the grief process: depression, loss of concentration, guilt, loss of appetite, stomach aches, restlessness and insomnia.
The process of loss is characterized by a sequence of stages. Often the first response to loss is shock and disbelief. The loss is initially too shocking to fathom, so a common response is to “numb out” and to feel as if the death didn’t occur. As the reality of the loss sets in, there is generally an intense longing/yearning for the loved one. Later, many other feelings and responses emerge including anger, guilt, withdrawal, disorganization, and eventually despair. Eventually the mourner is able to reorganize and find a way to move on with life.
You say you just want to get back to your “old self” but your “old self” doesn’t fully capture who you are now. Major losses affect ones sense of identity. It is a different and new sense of “self” that you are discovering and even creating. One of your tasks currently is to develop a new kind of relationship with your mother, to find a new place in your internal life for your relationship with her. This process requires time, and it requires being able to move through all of the feelings that emerge in order to move on to a new sense of normal in your life. if you find you are having difficulty moving through this process, you may want to seek out assistance from your religious community, a support group, or a grief counselor. Having someone there to stand witness to your journey can be of tremendous assistance in healing from your losses.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2012 Chaitanya Counseling Services