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Mary’s Family


Doctor and patient closeup on handsIn November, Mary had been in hospice for several months, but she and her family were hopeful that she’d make it through the holidays. But just a few days before Thanksgiving, after a long battle with a chronic illness, Mary, age 42, passed away at home with her family at her side, including her teenage son (Peter), her husband (Bill), and her mother (Sonia).

0–3 Months Later

“I should’ve pushed harder to enroll Mary in that research study. Maybe it would’ve cured her. I can’t believe I let the doctor tell us no.”

Mary's Husband: After Mary passed away, Bill couldn’t help but blame himself for not doing more for Mary. He felt like he’d been a bad spouse and father for being unable to help Mary as much as he could have when she was alive. He often thought he let his family down. Bill’s thoughts about himself became consistently negative, and he began hating himself. He spent a lot of his time yearning for Mary, which inevitably made him feel lonely.

Mary's Son: When Mary died, Peter first isolated himself from others. He felt like he couldn’t stand to be with other people whose lives seemed to be continuing like normal. Peter avoided his friends and his dad, and tried really hard to avoid thoughts of his mom.

Friend: Hey, I’m sorry about your mom.

Peter: It’s okay. I’m doing fine.

Friend: Do you want to hang out tonight?

Peter: Sorry, I can’t. I’m busy.

He felt if he could pretend it never happened, he wouldn’t feel so bad. But as the weeks passed, he began to realize that avoiding these thoughts wasn’t really helping him feel better.

“I don’t know what to do with myself anymore. I usually text Mary at this time in the morning and go over to help out. What am I supposed to do now?”

Mary's Mother: Even though Mary’s death was not unexpected, Sonia still felt overwhelmingly sad when her daughter passed away. Part of herself was gone and there was no way to bring her back. At first, Sonia couldn’t figure out how to spend her time– she had been helping to care for Mary for so long, she didn’t remember what it was like before Mary was sick. Sonia felt lost now. Not only did she miss Mary greatly, but her daily routine had changed. She knew that she needed to find something that could anchor her in this new reality.

Learn about how Bill’s reactions affected the family.

Learn about how Peter’s reactions affected the family.

Learn about how Sonia’s reactions affected the family.

3–6 Months Later

“I should probably check the mail…maybe after just one more game.”

Mary's Husband: Before Mary’s death, Bill had enjoyed playing video games occasionally. After Mary died, Bill preferred to immerse himself in that world and not think about what was really happening around him. Playing computer gameHe began to spend more and more time playing video games. Because of his obsession, Bill struggled to remember to complete household tasks, like paying bills. He wished he had asked Mary about certain household tasks that had been her responsibilities, and blamed himself for not taking that initiative. He felt worse and worse about himself, and in turn, spent more and more time distracting himself by gaming.

“I think the mortgage is due at the beginning of the month, but I’m not sure. I wish Dad would help with this stuff.”

Mary's Son: Peter felt his mother’s death even more as his dad began to spend more time playing video games. Peter often tried to remind his father of responsibilities around the house– making house repairs, paying the mortgage. When Bill didn’t step up to the tasks, Peter began to take over the chores himself, though he often felt uncertain and unprepared to do many of them.

“I’ve never actually finished a whole puzzle myself before. I might try one today.”
Puzzle pieces

Mary's Mother: While still letting herself grieve, Sonia decided to focus on her own well-being after Mary’s death. Sonia scheduled self-care activities for herself throughout the day, like taking a morning walk with her neighbor, making sure she ate regular meals, and listening to a five-minute guided meditation each night before bed. Although her grief and sadness did not disappear with these activities, she felt that she was better able to cope with these emotions.

Learn about how Bill’s reactions affected the family.

Learn about how Peter’s reactions affected the family.

Learn about how Sonia’s reactions affected the family.

6–12 Months Later

“I really think I could finish this level today…maybe I’ll just stay home again and do it.”

Mary's Husband: Bill became even more absent and isolated with his gaming. He often slept on the couch, but his sleep was fitful and he woke up anxious a lot. He rarely interacted with Peter or Sonia, and sometimes skipped work to stay home and game.

Bag of vegetablesMary's Son: With Bill continuing to neglect household duties, Peter took over more and more tasks. To make sure he was doing things right, he reached out to his grandmother and she was able to explain some of the chores. Peter’s friends also recruited their parents to help with logistics, sometimes bringing groceries or dinner.

Peter: Hey, can you ask your mom how to make lasagna?

Friend: No problem!

“Mary always loved to paint, but I never even tried it. Now I love it. I feel like Mary has brought me some joy even after she is gone.”

Mary's Mother: Without Mary, who was a source of joy for Sonia, Sonia felt less excitement in her life. In order to deal with this hole in her life, she began planning activities that she was excited about. Sometimes she scheduled dinner out with her grandson or a weekend away with a friend. She still continued to prioritize self-care, sometimes trying new ideas she’d read about, like completing a paint-by-number art piece which she hung proudly in her living room. Mary was still often in her thoughts, but as time passed, Sonia slowly felt less intense grief about her death and more at peace.

Learn about how Bill’s reactions affected the family.

Learn about how Peter’s reactions affected the family.

Learn about how Sonia’s reactions affected the family.

1–2 Years Later

Mary's Husband: Peter insisted that his father go to therapy for his addiction. At first he resisted treatment, because he claimed he thought everything was going fine.

“I don’t think I’m addicted to anything. Everyone plays video games every once in a while. I don’t see why this is a problem.”

After many months of pleading, Bill finally went. Bill’s therapist helped him better understand his circumstances and diagnosed him with Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD). He eventually began to realize how his maladaptive coping had impacted both his life and his son’s. He also noticed it had negatively affected his work and social life. He began attending therapy weekly and working on improving his PGD symptoms, with the goal of getting better for Peter. Through his treatment for PGD, Bill was able to work through his grief about Mary, and started engaging in household responsibilities. Slowly, with Peter and Sonia’s help, Bill was able to take back control of his life.

“I think Mom would be proud of what I’m doing now.”

Mary's Son: Peter was able to begin to rely on his friends for more than help around the house, and began talking with them and with Sonia about his mother’s death. He found talking about his feelings so helpful that he joined an organization devoted to finding a cure for her illness. He felt connected by talking to other families who had been impacted by it and felt like he was able to help them. He also decided to try out for the soccer team to find a healthier way to cope with Mary’s death, and he ended up loving it. Running around after school improved his physical and mental health, and he made lots of friends on the team.

Mary's Mother: Sonia continued to support Peter and Bill as best as she could. She taught Bill how to cook, and began to attend Peter’s soccer games. She still made sure to take time for herself, something she found extremely important since Mary’s death.

Learn about how Bill’s reactions affected the family.

Learn about how Peter’s reactions affected the family.

Learn about how Sonia’s reactions affected the family.

5 Years Later

In honor of Mary, Peter convinced Bill and Sonia to participate in a walk to raise money for other patients with Mary’s illness. Together, the family was able to meet their fundraising goal, and they walked the route in Mary’s honor. They no longer felt trapped by the challenges they faced after her death and were able to move forward using healthy coping strategies.

Test Your Knowledge of Coping Strategies

  1. What coping strategies did Bill use? (You can choose more than one.)
    1. Avoidant
    2. Supportive
    3. Engagement
  2. What coping strategies did Peter use after Mary’s death? (You can choose more than one.)
    1. Avoidant
    2. Supportive
    3. Engagement
  3. What coping strategies did Sonia use? (You can choose more than one.)
    1. Avoidant
    2. Supportive
    3. Engagement

Check My Answers
Correct answers are shown in green.

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