NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, April 5, 2013

Inconsolable Grief for a Mother's Death in an Enmeshed Mother-Daughter Relationship

I've written about enmeshed families in prior blog posts (see link below).  In this blog post, I'd like to address the issue of inconsolable grief for a mother's death in an enmeshed mother-daughter relationship. 

Inconsolable Grief For a Mother's Death

Enmeshed Mother-Child Relationships
Enmeshed mother-child relationships often hinder emotional development for the children in those relationships.  It's not unusual for these adult children to have difficulty forming adult relationships outside of the family because the relationship with the mother has become all consuming to them and leaves little room for other adult relationships.

In this type of enmeshed relationship, when the mother dies, the adult child often feels inconsolable grief because she is so emotionally dependent upon the mother.

The following fictionalized vignette is a composite of many cases to protect confidentiality:

Ina was an only child.  Her father had abandoned the family when Ina was an  infant, so she had no memories of him.  Her mother often said to her, "It's you and me against the world."

When it was time for Ina to start school, both she and her mother experienced tremendous separation anxiety.  Every weekday morning was an ordeal.  They would both cry when the school bus came.  Ina's mother would come everyday to bring Ina her lunch and sit with her in the school cafeteria.

Ina's teacher tried to talk to the mother about allowing Ina more time and space to form friendships in the classroom.  She tried to tell her that Ina wasn't forming friendships during recess and the lunch hour because she was so focused on the mother.  But the mother got annoyed and complained to the principal that the teacher was trying to interfere with her relationship with her daughter.  After that, the teacher backed off.

Ina made a few friends in junior high and high school, but she still preferred to spend her free time with her mother.  She had very good grades, but she didn't participate in any social activities in school.

When it was time to apply for college, Ina only wanted to apply to local colleges so she could remain at home.  Her guidance counselor advised her that her grades were so good that she would probably get scholarships to colleges outside their town, but Ina wasn't interested.  Her mother also thought it was best for Ina to stay close to home.

Ina had crushes on boys, but she had no interest in dating. When her friends talked about meeting someone and getting married, Ina cringed.  She never wanted to get married.  Her mother had spoken to her about how miserable she felt when Ina's father abandoned them, and Ina couldn't see why her friends would want to risk getting hurt like this.

After college, Ina worked as a customer service representative at a local bank.  After work, some of the employees would go out to dinner or to a movie and they would invite Ina to come along.  But Ina preferred to go straight home to have dinner and watch TV with her mother.

As the years past, Ina's manager encouraged her to apply for other jobs at the executive headquarters, but Ina wanted to remain close to home.  She was a good worker and customers liked her.  She received two promotions at the local branch, but her manager told her that she was limiting her career by only considering jobs at the local branch.  Ina explained to him that she was happy doing what she was doing, and she didn't feel the need to apply for jobs outside of their branch.

Over the years, employees that were trainees under Ina excelled beyond her because they sought opportunities at the executive branch.  Ina remained in her job as a senior customer service representative, but this didn't bother her.

When Ina was in her mid-40s, her mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.  Ina took time off from work to take care of her.  Despite what the oncologist said, Ina had no doubt that her mother would recover.  Even as her mother's health continued to deteriorate, Ina held onto this belief.

When the doctor recommended hospice care, Ina became furious.  She felt he was giving up on her mother, and she told him so.  She held onto her belief that her mother would survive up to the day she died.  Then, she went into shock.

For several weeks, Ina was unable to even get out of bed.  Her aunts took turns taking care of her.  All she wanted to do was sleep.  She felt that living life without her mother was unbearable.  When she was awake, all she did was cry.  She was inconsolable.

After three months, Ina returned to work.  She felt like she was in a daze.  She had lost more than 20 lbs. and she looked pale.  Fortunately, she knew her job so well, after all those years, that she could perform her duties, even though she felt like she was living in a dream.  Whenever anyone tried to express their condolences, she would stop them. She didn't want to talk about it.

When she got home, she didn't know what to do with herself.  Everywhere she looked, she saw reminders of her mother.  She was unable to give away her mother's clothes.  Instead, she would often go into her mother's closet, hold her mother's garments to her face and smell her mother's perfume which was still embedded in the clothes.  Then, she would cry.  Her aunts offered to help Ina give away the clothes, but Ina wouldn't even hear of it.

On the fifth year of the anniversary of her mother's death, Ina's manager found Ina crying at her desk.   He closed the door and talked to Ina about going to therapy.  He confided in Ina that he had attended therapy several years ago when he and his wife ended their marriage, and he found it helpful.

By this time, Ina's grief had grown worse, not better.  She knew she couldn't go on like this, so she decided to start therapy, even though she didn't feel that anyone could ever help her to feel better about her mother's death.  Even the thought of feeling better made Ina feel that she would be disloyal to her mother.

Initially, Ina was defensive in therapy.  She only wanted to talk about her mother and the times they spent together.  She never wanted to talk about any plans for the future.  She couldn't even envision herself making plans for the future that didn't include her mother.  Although she would never hurt herself, there were many times she wished she could just go to sleep and not wake up.

At first, she resisted all recommendations about things she could do to take care of herself so she could feel better.  She didn't want to exercise or go to a yoga class or join a book club.  She didn't want to reach out to the few friends who remained in her life.  She just wanted to keep doing what she was doing, even though she was feeling miserable.

Then, her therapist recommended that they do inner child work using hypnosis.  Ina had never experienced hypnosis before, but she decided to give it a try.  She felt it was better than her therapist's other recommendations.

Much to her surprise, Ina was able to sense the younger part of herself that felt so vulnerable and afraid.  Using hypnosis, she was able to nurture that younger self, and she began to feel some relief from her grief about her mother's death.

After a few months, Ina still felt sad, but it wasn't an inconsolable sadness.  She still missed her mother, but having the ability now to nurture herself emotionally, she felt the sadness was more manageable.  She still visited her mother's grave every week and "talked" to her mother, but she wasn't crying as much as she was before.

After several months, Ina felt like she might be ready, with help, to give away her mother's clothes.  So, her aunts came to help her clean out the mother's closet.  Ina held onto a particular dress that she knew her mother really loved, and she allowed her aunts to give away the other clothes to a charity organization.

At her therapist's recommendation, Ina did her own private ritual to commemorate her mother's life.  She set up a place on her dresser with a picture of her mother, a candle, and her mother's favorite broach.  Then, she said a tearful goodbye to her mother, acknowledging that her mother was gone, but she would always have a place in Ina's heart.

After that, Ina felt somewhat better.  She realized that she would always have her memories of her mother, and she believed her mother was "in a better place."

Gradually, over time, Ina became more social.  She had some regrets that she had remained "stuck" for so long and she would never get that time back.  But she began to take her first tentative steps to make friends and, for the first time in her life, to date men.

Enmeshed Mother-Child Relationships:  Overcoming Inconsolable Grief 
In the vignette above, Ina, who is a fictional character, eventually attends therapy to deal with her inconsolable grief.  But there are many people, who have similar experiences of grief, who never even consider going to therapy. They remain stuck emotionally in their grief for the rest of their lives.  In their senior years, they often have regrets for everything they never experienced in life.

For people going through this experience who are open to therapy, they're often surprised that they can feel better.

Often, what happens is that they experience how they can internalize their mother emotionally in a new way, even though the mother is no longer alive.

Although the mother is no longer alive in the here-and-now, the adult child can feel the mother as alive in his or her own internal world.

This type of work, for people who have been very enmeshed with a parent, isn't quick.  Often, the person who feels grief has mixed feelings about letting go of the sad feelings.  There is an illusion that by holding onto the sadness, they're holding on to their dead parent in some way.

Clinical hypnosis is often helpful when there is inner child work to be done, as in the vignette above.  It helps clients to get to a place on an unconscious level that is usually difficult to get to with regular talk therapy.

They're often surprised to discover that it's quite the opposite.  Letting to of the sadness allows the person who feels grief to make room for a different experience, the internalization of the parent in a healthier way.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you've lost a mother or someone close to you and time has passed, but you're not feeling any better, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience helping clients with this issue.

In most cases, people find a new way to overcome their grief that still honors the relationship with the person who died.  But it also allows the person who is still alive to transition to having a more meaningful life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also see my articles:
Avoiding Codependency With Your Children

Overcoming Shame in Enmeshed Families