Ask Dr. Ceren: Complicated grief

Q: My sister passed away over two years ago, leaving my brother in law alone in Chicago. They were devoted to each other and had no children. In order to take care of my sister, my brother-in-law accepted an early retirement package three years ago leaving a high level administrative job. I think he misses his job and his co-workers.

He is quite competent around he house and can easily fend for himself. I call him several times a week and we e-mail each other daily with jokes and news. I wasn't worried about him living alone because he is fairly young and healthy until yesterday when he told me he rarely goes out except to run household errands. He cried and said he is still mourning my sister. He said he misses her and he imagines she is still in the house with him. He keeps her photograph on the dining table and speaks to her at every meal. Is that weird? What can I do to help him?

A: It appears that your brother-in-law's grief is unrelenting. He had a devoted, close relationship and the loss is striking. It is not weird to yearn for a missing loved one. Some people imagine the lost person is still there for them and does exist - at least in their memories. This may make him feel better or he wouldn't' be doing it. It may seem weird to others who have not experienced such an intense yearning.

People differ in the extent of time it takes for the grief process to lessen. Several factors may contribute to unremitting grief and there may be a variety of actions he can take to help foster the process. Perhaps the tight, nourishing relationship he and your sister enjoyed prevented him from developing other social outlets. It is not too late.

Some people in administrative positions find it difficult to accept suggestions made by others. They prefer to delegate. If he is receptive, you may ask him if he would consider putting his administrative skills to use by working as volunteer to a worthwhile cause, or an agency that he believes in. This would give him the opportunity to get out of the house where he can leave his memories, and to socialize with likeminded people interested in a particular cause. Perhaps your brother-in-law can offer his services to the organization involved with the illness that claimed your sister's life.

John Walsh, whose child was missing and murdered started an important program to help find missing children. He had a strong cause and is a shining example to others.

There are grief groups available that may be helpful to him. Some people find such groups very beneficial. Sharing grief can be a good outlet and foster healing. Friendships can emerge, but your brother-in-law may not want to face letting go of your sister and may not be ready for a grief group. Like chicken soup, it may not help, but it doesn't hurt to try it.

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