Helping a Friend with Complex Grief

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Reader’s Question

A friend of mine (I’ll call him Mark) was involved in a work-related accident half a year ago that caused a death. Mark was responsible for a tall scaffold being built at his workplace. He’d been building it with a colleague and close friend who worked for the same company. The friend was in training under Mark.

Mark decided they weren’t going to build the scaffold all the way out on one of the sides, because they didn’t need it. They were going to mark it off with red tape, so no one would go to the unfinished area. It was getting late, so they closed off the building site for the night, went home and left the marking for the next day.

The next morning, Mark came into the building place and went to grab a cup of coffee. It was winter and cold, and he needed something to heat himself up, as the weather was bad. His friend had started a bit ahead of him and was already in the scaffold doing some work. Unfortunately, the scaffold had frozen during the night and was completely glazed. Mark’s friend slipped and slid in the area they had yet to close off, and fell to his death.

Mark is now at the stage where he is blaming it all on himself, and he can’t seem to move on. The police investigated and concluded that it was a work accident. But Mark feels that he was the one who decided not to build the scaffold to its full length. He was the one who called it a night and decided to wait with the warning-marking. I bet he even thinks it’s somehow his fault it got icy.

“He was a rookie. He shouldn’t have been up there alone in the first place. I should have built the scaffold to its complete length. I should have marked it up with the warning tape before I left that night. It’s all my fault!”

What is the best thing I can do for my friend at this point in time? I keep trying the rational way, breaking it down bit by bit, saying it was all a series of random things that led to a horrible accident. Sadly, I don’t seem to be able to help him move on. Do you have any suggestions for me on how to help him better?

Psychologist’s Reply

Wouldn’t it be lovely if nothing bad happened to good people? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could control everything that occurs? The sad facts of life are that some things happen by chance and bad things do happen to people who don’t deserve it. However, these truths are very difficult to accept. We don’t like to think that things happen at random, so we work really hard to find someone to blame for the event.

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In fact, this tendency to attribute blame is so common that social psychologists have termed it the Just World Fallacy. This fallacy occurs because people want so badly to believe the world is fair, that they look for ways to explain away injustice. This usually results in blaming the victim but, in this case, Mark blaming himself will have the same outcome: if Mark were at fault in the death of his colleague, then the world would be just, and such an event would never happen again.

Although applying logic sounds like a good idea, the problem is that Mark’s feelings have nothing to do with logic. Instead, the Just World Fallacy deals with our fears and feelings of vulnerability. In other words, it defies rational thought and, as such, is difficult to get past. Mark also may be experiencing what is called survivor’s guilt. After experiencing a traumatic event, many people tend to feel guilt that they survived while others didn’t. This too is hard to work through because, just like the Just World Fallacy, it operates on emotion and not reason. Either way, it sounds like Mark may be dealing with a lot of complicated emotions that he must work though. Consequently, one way for you to help Mark may be to suggest that he seek counseling because it sounds like it’s time to call in the experts.

In order for Mark to move forward, he needs to deal with the guilt he is feeling and accept that he could not have prevented his friend’s death. He may also need to work through his anger and grief at the unfairness of it all. It could be that Mark has focused so much on his own guilt that he hasn’t allowed himself to feel the pain of his loss. A counselor who specializes in trauma and/or grief can help Mark come to terms with what happened, realize that punishing himself is not going to bring back his friend, and work on forgiving himself for any perceived fault.

Working through complicated grief is a tough process and it will take a lot of time and effort. Thus, another thing you can do for Mark is to be supportive and patient. He also may need relief from the sadness, so perhaps you can plan some fun times that will include a lot of laughter. It sounds like you care a great deal about Mark and have been a good friend to him. He is lucky to have you.

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