Good, effective help is available for surviving relatives who experience problems in their own lives because of the violent or unusual nature of the death of a loved one. The most important step is to find the right psychologist, but unfortunately many people are unable to do this. These are the words of clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Jos de Keijser, who deliver his inaugural lecture as professor by special appointment at the University of Groningen on Tuesday 13 May. The subject of his lecture is ‘Treating complex grieving’.
De Keijser has been researching complex grieving for twenty years, and has studied various treatment methods that appear to be effective.
Most surviving relatives are able to cope with their feelings of grief. Grieving is a natural process, which does not usually require the help of a psychologist or other healthcare professional. However, the process can be very different if the person concerned has been murdered, had a dramatic accident or committed suicide, says De Keijser: ‘The brain becomes overloaded. It has to deal with feelings of revenge or guilt, traumas can develop and surviving relatives sometimes find themselves unable to lead a normal life. Personal factors also play a role. People who have close bonds with those around them are less likely to run into problems.’
The therapy that De Keijser has spent the last twenty years studying is based on cognitive therapy. A specialist treatment is prescribed for each type of loss; after murder, for example, the treatment focuses on dealing with the trauma by means of EMDR. After suicide, the focus is on dealing with feelings of guilt and self-blame. The biggest tragedy is that so many people with these problems fail to see a psychologist. De Keijser: ‘This is partly because some of them believe that they simply have to come to terms with the hand that life has dealt them. Other people think that seeking psychological help means that you are mad.’ Ten percent of people with a physical illness do not consult a doctor; the figure for people with complex grieving is considerably higher at 67%. De Keijser: ‘This is why it’s so important for organizations like the Victim Support Centre, which are being called in more regularly these days, to refer relatives to a clinical psychologist. Fortunately, this seems to be happening on a larger scale nowadays.’ Strictly speaking, there is no great hurry as research has shown that the therapy offered by De Keijser and his colleagues is equally effective for people who have been wrestling with complex grief for some time.
De Keijser is now concentrating on another type of complex grieving; the grief felt by relatives of people who go missing. ‘These people often spend years searching for solace and their brains come up with all kinds of solutions in an attempt to alter the situation. But the targeted treatment we are currently researching may well help them too.’ It includes exercises to break destructive thought patterns, or rituals that provide relief. De Keijser: ‘I heard, for example, that the parents of the two girls who went missing in Panama organized a sort of remembrance service for them. Something like that can play a huge part in the process of letting go of loved ones, even before there is firm evidence that they are dead.’
Clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Jos de Keijser (1958) is professor by special appointment at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. The chair in Clinical psychology and psychotherapy in practice related to complex grieving was endowed by the Stichting Stimuleringsfonds Rouw, a foundation dedicated to grieving. He is programme director of the post-Master’s degree programmes in psychotherapy and clinical psychology within the PPO School.
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