Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: How can I help my bereaved friend?

<b>Dear Virginia, A close friend of mine lost his much-loved wife to cancer four years ago. She was 35. He is still disabled with grief. We have long emotional discussions which invariably end in tears &ndash; his and mine. All I can offer are platitudes and glib consolations. His feelings are still raw and he says he can't imagine any future without her. He appears to be drinking himself to death and wasting his talents. How can I help him? Yours sincerely, Ian</b>
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Sorry as I am for your friend, Ian, the truth is that people do die all the time. That's what happens to us. All of us. When it happens much earlier than usual it's particularly sad, and I'm not condemning your friend for feeling unhappy – but four years on? And drinking himself silly? I think the time has come for him to get a grip and either decide to join his wife in death or try to make a go of life.

And I'm afraid your lugubrious commiserations, tears and platitudes appear, rather than helping him stagger to his feet, poor man, to be keeping him wallowing in the mire of grief. I have a picture in my mind of you both weeping, like a couple of drunks in a bar, staggering out of the pub and yes, wretchedly unhappy but also, it has to be said, finding some kind of upside – perhaps a gloomy companionship – in swimming about together in the vale of tears.

You can help him, for a start, Ian, by not joining him in his sorrow. He's a drowning man. Don't jump in and drown with him. Stand, rather, on the sidelines, throwing him a rope to pull him ashore. At this stage, don't share his grief, but offer him hope by changing the subject, after you've commiserated for a decent time, and telling him stories of the great outside. Introduce him to nice women. Go to a match together, if that's your thing, or an exhibition if you're not the sporty types. Suggest going on holiday together for a long weekend – preferably a health farm or a spa. Then I suspect you'll see a different person in the morning to the drink-sozzled misery you might find at the end of the day.

Remind him that while drink offers a short-term solution to depression, in the end it can act as a very competent depression-inducer. And think back, too, to the days he was married. Was he a drinker then? If so, this bout of boozing is almost certainly not connected to his late wife at all, but rather, the sign of an alcoholic who would certainly have turned to drink, whether his wife had been alive or not. She might even have left him herself had he become enough of an old soak while they were together.

Ring him up frequently, rather than wait for him to ring you, and tell him he must try giving up drinking and get some other interests, and shove him off to a doctor – it sounds as if his grief has turned into a habit that's turned into depression at this stage. Suggest a bereavement counsellor. Suggest he do something rather than nothing. Because at the moment he is making no effort to help himself at all.

I hate to say it but somehow I doubt he'll take any of your advice. I think he'll go on using his wife's death as an excuse for his drinking. Though of course he could be using his drinking for an excuse for keeping his wife's memory morbidly alive, simply because he cannot bear to face up to the fact that she has, indeed, gone. You, however, needn't join him in either of these misguided ambitions. Your job is to draw him out of the graveyard and the pub and into the sunny uplands outside. Well, let's not go mad. Sunnyish, at least.

Readers say

Tell him to heal for her sake

You have to make him realise that doing what he is doing is not what his late wife would want. She would want him to be happy and not be drinking heavily and still mourning her four years on. He can move on without forgetting her and he will always love her. But he needs to think about what she would want and it wouldn't be that.

Ian Laird, Birkenhead, Wirral

Seek professional help

I lost my wife of 20 years 19 months ago and, at times, I have a felt paralysed by grief. Our society has a poor understanding of grief and bereavement, particularly as it affects the young, and is rife with inappropriate and unhelpful notions about "moving on".

Prolonged grief can make observers uncomfortable, but the reality is there is no timetable. Some people begin to recover much more quickly than others. Support groups can play a vital role in helping the bereaved to see that they are not alone in the profound emotions they are suffering.

I would recommend the Widowed and Young (WAY) Foundation ( www.wayfoundation.org.uk). But I think Ian's friend's grief may have slid into depression, compounded by the worrying levels of drinking. He must be urged to seek professional help with both his depression and his drinking.

Andrew Popp, by email

Time to move forward

It appears that Ian and his friend have entered a "comfort zone" where the whole experience of his friend's wife's death is repeated over and over again, exposing him to the danger of never coming to terms with his grief.

I lost my husband to cancer three years ago and was advised to attend bereavement counselling. This enabled me to talk to someone who was not emotionally involved and who viewed my situation objectively. It was a painful experience, but it helped me escape that vicious circle of endless repetition. Perhaps Ian could suggest this to his friend as a way to move forward in his life.

Ann King, Ightham, Kent

Negative support

It sounds as though Ian's loyal support to his friend has passed its usefulness and may even be having the reverse effect.

Four years is a long time, even accepting that some people may never get over the loss of a loved one. Ian's friend needs to be learning how to live with the grief and functioning without the alcohol.

Terry Casey, Maldon, Essex

Distract him

By having long and emotional discussions, you are keeping the pain alive. The best way to help your friend is through distraction. Begin by booking a surprise day trip. Tell him about it on the day that you intend to go, so that he cannot make excuses. During the trip, talk about other things and encourage him to do the same.

Try doing something different in a couple of weeks' time. Gradually, you can increase it to weekly and hopefully he will realise that he can have some fun again.

Nicola Gauge, Sandy, Beds

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