How Can I Help Someone With Complex Trauma and Grief?

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 190 · Duration: 00:14:03

How Can I Help Someone With Complex Trauma and Grief?

What do you do when your adult son is being loyal and trying to accommodate his wife, who has experienced horrible tragedies, but he’s going downhill trying? Click To Tweet

We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more in this week’s podcast:  How Can I Help Someone With Complex Trauma and Grief?

Today we’re hearing from Denice from NYC and her question tells a very painful story that is quite long, so I’ll recap it.

Denice’s son, I’ll call him Jake, now 34 is married to a woman I’ll call Jane, who has suffered numerous tragedies. Jane is a twin, but her twin sister died in an auto accident where Jane was the driver.  This was before the couple met. Jake and Jane dated happily for several years, became engaged and they had an engagement party that went well; the families, who live on separate coasts, enjoyed meeting each other.  Shortly afterward, Jane’s two brothers died separately within a week of each other.  Needless to say, that sent her spinning.  Jane was given therapy and as much support as Jake and his family could possibly provide. 

Jane’s behavior became increasingly difficult. She rejected several therapists. Then Jane quit her job, left Jake and moved back to the West Coast and didn’t contact him for over a month. She bought a house on her own, then called on Jake to move out to be with her; they got married and pregnant, and Jane miscarried.  Jane continued to make demands of Jake. She makes financial demands and wants nothing to do with Jake’s family, and makes seemingly paranoid accusations about them.  She wants Jake to participate in in vitro fertilization to get pregnant again, Jake is hesitant given the state of the marriage. When Jake visits his mother in NY, which he has done several times, she sees that he’s losing weight and cries constantly.  She is very concerned for Jake’s mental and physical health and wants to know what to do.

Now to Denice’s situation:

To be honest, at one point in my career, I might have thought this question was a spoof since it’s so bizarre, yet I have met with clients who have had multiple tragedies such as these. And while this is very uncommon, it happens. First of all, let’s think about what’s going on and then what we might be able to do for Denice.

One thing missing from this story is what’s going on with Jane’s parents. They’ve lost three of their four children and the fourth is not doing well.  I’m not hearing about how Jane is supporting or being supported by them. So that’s confusing. In any case,  what’s going on with Jane we would have to assume has everything to do with complex trauma and grief. She might have had emotional issues or character issues prior that weren’t seen, yet with all that’s gone on for her, we know that complex trauma is an issue. 

Complex trauma can show up in lots of ways including severe depression, bizarre behavior and even psychotic episodes.Click To Tweet So, we have to have compassion for what Jane is going through and Denice, you’re right to offer support in any way you can. And it’s appropriate that your son wants to help and support her and stay with her through this very difficult time.

The problem is it doesn’t seem that his support and desire to help is helping her. And it appears to be very destructive to him.  So, Jake’s trying to do the right thing is unfortunately not a helpful thing, it isn’t making things better. Not for her and not for him.  In fact, at this point, Jake is traumatized as well.

So regardless of the circumstances,

we can only help when help is helping and if it isn’t helping, we must do something else.Click To Tweet Jake might need to separate or even divorce; I don’t know, and he doesn’t know yet either.  But here’s how you can start Denice. I would suggest that you and Jake go to a therapist together. It does not sound like Jake is ready to go on his own or for himself.  He’s focused on Jane’s condition and what to do about her or for her. 

This opens the question of how we get someone to go to therapy when they don’t see the need for it, or don’t want to face their issues.  This is a situation I deal with very commonly.  The best way is to present counseling in terms that are not threatening and are more aligned with how they might see the problem and how it might motivate them to participate.  

  • For parents who want their teenager to get counseling, try “I’m setting up a counseling appointment for us.  I’d like some help understanding teenagers and knowing how to be a better, more supportive parent for you.”  
  • For your angry spouse try, “I’d like us to get some counseling.  I seem to be making you angry a lot and want to find out what I need to do differently.”
  • You want your aging parent to get counseling.  “I’d like to set up some counseling for us.  I want to learn how to support you without sounding so bossy.” 

Get the idea?  So, for Jake it could be, “Let’s meet with a therapist who specializes in the treatment of complex trauma and grief and see what we can learn about the best ways to help Jane.”  

I would hope that a qualified professional would advise that it’s important to set some limits with Jane so that we don’t support her destructive and self-destructive behaviors. And I would also hope the therapist that you and Jake see will help Jake understand that he’s experiencing trauma and give him some support and guidance for taking care of himself and of course setting limits with Jane is one part of that.

The point is this--complex trauma, and a personality disorder can look very similar. In both cases we can respond with kindness, compassion and support but we can’t get so caught up in helping, that we end up going down with the ship.

We must be healthy and have our own boundaries in order to help someone else claim or reclaim their mental health. If we get caught up in their dysfunction then we are part of the problem and not the solution.Click To Tweet

Thanks for tuning in today listeners, and special thanks to you Denice for sharing your very challenging situation with us.  This situation is a reminder for us all to appreciate the good things we have in life and take time to notice them, enjoy them, and be present for them.  When you do, it’s a great way to take care of yourself and I want to remind you to do just that because you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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