The question: I suppose this is a problem of old age, but I think constantly about my ex-husband, who has been dead for almost 40 years. Could this be from unresolved trauma? It was not a happy marriage.
The answer: Regularly thinking about someone who was an important part of your life – good or bad – even years or decades after they have died is not unusual. Grief is a mysterious creature and the process can be so unpredictable, and so very individual.
Thoughts of someone who has died tend to be more frequent and intense when the death was of someone particularly close (a partner, a child). The grieving process is protracted when the death is untimely, unexpected or particularly traumatic or tragic. Having unresolved or complicated emotions from the relationship while the person was alive can also play a role, as you have alluded.
As a society, we are strangely ill-equipped to deal with death. I am often asked questions about how long it will take to "get over" a loss, or how one can deal with "unresolved issues" when it comes to their grieving. My experience – both personally in dealing with the death of my father, as well as professionally – is that we never really get over the death of someone that was an important part of our life. We simply learn to cope better over time.
Whether your thoughts are a problem depends on a few factors. First, when you say "constantly," what do you mean? I have many patients who will describe thinking on a daily basis about their deceased loved one. A fleeting thought on most days, even decades later, is not necessarily unusual.
Consider the intensity of the emotions associated with thoughts of your ex-husband. Are they neutral thoughts that pop in and out of your head, and don't interfere with your day-to-day activities? Or, do you find you get stuck in a ruminative state that causes a high degree of emotional stress?
There is no magic formula for how long it takes to cope well after a death. But most people will find that it can take from a few months to a few years to get back to their usual mood and activities, and have thoughts of their loved one without breaking down or becoming overly emotional.
Four decades later, you still sound disturbed by the quality or quantity of thoughts you are having about your ex-husband – so clearly something needs to change. Spend some time reflecting on what impact his death had.
Do you feel that there were unsaid things that you want to communicate to him that you never did? Do you have anger or regret at yourself for not doing things differently, such as leaving the marriage earlier? Are there elements of self-blame or shame for decisions you did or didn't make? Have you made efforts to move on in your life, or is your past relationship still affecting current-day decisions?
Doing some soul-searching on the above can help you move forward. Start by writing down your thoughts in a journal; every time you get stuck on a thought, note what it is specifically that's in your head, and what it means about your life now. This can be a very powerful exercise.
If you find this doesn't make things better, joining a grief support group or seeking the help of a therapist may be of benefit.
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network's Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV's The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra .
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