Death snatches away our lover, our friend, our parent or child, creating a hole in our life as if part of us was amputated. We feel buried under a mountain of sorrow, and other emotions make the load even heavier. Anger intrudes on our sorrow, as we rail against our loved one for leaving, or against God for stealing a piece of us. We torture ourselves with guilt, beating ourselves up for all the things we didn’t do.
When we feel trapped by grief, life seems pointless. Our grief paralyzes us into stillness, as we become depressed, overwhelmed and emotionally shut down. We no longer allow ourselves joy, and our life shrivels to a forced march through a lonely narrow tunnel, confined on all sides by memories, anger and guilt. We can’t focus on the living people in our lives, who now must suffer the additional pain of our emotional absence.
Naturally the pain absorbs our attention for a time. While it will never completely disappear, eventually we must find a way to let it go, so we can live again. For some, this process occurs gradually and naturally, ultimately allowing us to accept that the pleasure of our relationship exists only in memory. For others, the bitterness of loss lingers, and we continue to feel overwhelmed. When we find ourselves stuck in grief, we need tools that will help us fully embrace the emotions of our situation, integrate them and return to the present.
When we’re hurt, we try to protect ourselves by shutting out painful emotions. While it’s natural to avoid pain, we may be cutting off more than we bargained for. Blocking off access to some emotions prevents us from feeling the healing power of others. When we bitterly shut out memories of our loved one, we also sever our connection with the joy and support that we received from that relationship.
Shutting ourselves down is only a short term fix. If we try to sustain this state of emotional disengagement, we find ourselves fighting against ourselves. Denial forces us to restrict ourselves to flat emotions, avoiding love and intimacy for fear of stirring up forbidden feelings. This rigidity of thought and emotion stifles the healing work we need to do to integrate the pain of our loss into the next stage of our lives.
It’s hard to integrate the emotions of grief. So much hits us, all at once. While our sadness makes sense, other emotions may shock and confuse us. We may be disgusted by our own sense of self-pity, hating that we focus on ourselves. Worse yet, we might feel angry with God and angry at the departed for leaving us. These emotions, and our concerns about having them can be crippling aftereffects of loss.
More emotional complications
Jumping into the emotional tangle of loss is especially difficult when our loved one was a victim of death that we think ought to have been avoided. Death by murder, accident or disease gets us thinking about all the what-ifs, regrets, blame and revenge, distracting our attention from dealing with sorrow and loss. Suicide especially raises dark questions that are even more difficult to integrate. When death came at our loved one’s own hand, we feel angry and betrayed, and these painful feelings make it more difficult to grieve and move on.
When we focus all our attention on blame, we remain locked in a battle with an unbeatable foe. Since we can’t argue with the deceased, or with God, we are left mired in our own emotions. As we struggle to cope with these ineffective emotions, we might tuck them away, like a grudge. Even though we think they’re out of sight, they add to our load. Working with a counselor, we need to fearlessly face the complex feelings that trap us and begin to let go of our excess baggage.
Release from the past
These caustic emotions block the many other emotions that rightfully need to take their place in our heart. We have lost someone we loved and needed, someone with whom we shared valued parts of our life. We need to move beneath the surface of this pain and sorrow and find at its core the love and attachment that is now lost. Until we face and embrace the positive emotions that lie at the heart of our loss, we’re cutting off the best half of grieving.
Resolving our grief, we find ourselves more able to live, and less trapped in the past. As we work through grief, our feelings about the departed become softer, gentler and more forgiving. Rather than bitterness and regrets, we ultimately appreciate and are comforted by our memories. The work we do during mourning helps us live with dignity and health.
Family and friends
Support offered by family members and friends helps sustain us through this difficult time. But there are limitations to the conversations we can have with them. We may not want to burden them, especially if we feel ashamed of our anger and self-pity. They have their own complex feelings to deal with, and even when they work hard to be there for us, they may not know how to respond to our feelings of anger at the deceased or at God.
While the people around us may not be fully equipped to help us talk through our problems, their presence helps in other ways. These living people remind us that they need us now, as much as ever. When we become aware of their presence and their needs, and we make every effort to be available for them emotionally, we find ourselves being forced out of the past and into the present.
Recovery from previous loss
When we lose someone we love, we are reminded of previous losses. If we effectively coped with those previous situations, our memories won’t be a problem. In fact, along with the memories of loss, we know the end result of our healthy process; after the pain, we adjust.
On the other hand, when we coped with our previous loss by burying our feelings, these unresolved memories gnaw and scratch at our consciousness trying to burst into awareness. We hide our feelings behind walls of denial, shutting down our emotions and withdrawing from supportive relationships. When we find ourselves trapped by layers of unresolved loss, at some point we need to learn how to open up and heal. When we face the pain, and deal with it directly, we may be amazed that we can conquer this demon from which we have been hiding for so long.
Beliefs about the universe
As we face the pain of loss, we may feel horrified that the universe or fate or God would treat us so cruelly. Our anger against God is a normal reaction to loss, but if we stay stuck in this anger it can turn us bitter and diminish our life experience. When we explore our beliefs we may discover opportunities for healing old anger and developing a deeper understanding of our place in the universe.
One of the beliefs that gets us into trouble time after time is the attractive idea that the universe will keep us and our loved ones young and pain free. As children, we start out assuming that God, like our parents, will protect us from all difficulties. Inevitably, life dishes out unwanted woes, and dashes some of our cherished expectations. When we suffer setbacks, we blame God for betraying our agreement, mistaking our childhood fantasy of His intentions for the real pact between us. As we face the difficulties of life, we need to deepen our relationship with God. By reviewing our expectations of His part in the Plan, we can search for faith in a God whose compassion transcends worldly circumstances. When we open ourselves up to the whole range of insights provided by religion, we find emotional support and comfort.
Accepting our own mortality
As we face the death of a loved one, we are reminded that we too will die some day. The pain of our loss becomes mixed in with our anxieties about the ultimate end of life. Making peace with death seems to be the most difficult challenge of our life. And yet to live fully we must fearlessly accept death, and let it be.
Grief in other types of loss
Death is not the only cause for grief. When we lose something important to us we naturally feel the many painful and complex emotions of bereavement, and healing from these emotions becomes an important task for our growth. For example, we may experience profound grief if we lose a limb, a relationship or a job. Divorce may be every bit as painful as death, and sometimes even more so. If we grew up without a nurturing, protective environment, at some point in our adult life we need to mourn our own lost childhood.
When thoughts and memories flood us with more emotion than we know how to handle, we should seek counseling. In counseling we openly talk about our grief, realize we’re not alone, and get a helping hand to restore our emotional balance. We learn that it’s okay to talk about our sorrow, that others have similar experiences, and begin to open up to the whole range of emotions. We absorb the implication of death, that we ourselves will die some day. A counselor has heard people face these experiences many times before, and knows how to help us put our loss into the perspective of our life, so we can become realigned in our new situation.
When we face loss, we are swept up in new and complex emotions, presenting special challenges we may not be prepared to face on our own. We need to open up to grief as a process. With community support, religious ritual, counseling and other emotional tools, we will find our journey through grief to be faster and healthier. Losses are part of life, and after loss we must return to life. While at first this may seem hopeless, we ultimately find that we emerge from this process with a deeper, richer appreciation for life, and our role in it, enriched by all that came before. By honoring and enjoying all that we received from our loved ones, we can pass along the gift of life to all those who are yet to come.
See also: Aging, Beliefs, Blame, Divorce
On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
The Phoenix Phenomenon: Rising from the Ashes of Grief by Joanna Jozefowski
Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit by Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh and Robert King Merton
Father Loss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of Their Dads by Neil Chethik
Waking up just in time, a therapist shows how to use the Twelve Steps approach to life’s ups and downs by Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.