What Makes Grieving Even More Painful
When it comes to grieving a loss, whether is the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, or another major loss, there is a lot of good information out there about what is natural to feel and experience. Most people know about Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ model on grieving, and it’s very helpful to be aware of those natural stages of grief and allow oneself to fully experience them. As you may be aware, they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and they can occur in any order and may repeat.
Having supported many clients through loss, I’ve seen additional feelings that go beyond these natural stages of grief. These additional experiences surrounding loss fall under the umbrella that I call Learned Distress, the feeling we absorbed early in life that there is something wrong with us being exactly the way we are. Learned Distress can make grieving even more painful than it is naturally.
Here are the biggest Learned Distress contributors to grieving that I have seen:
It’s not safe to feel this. Many people feel that their survival depends on burying or denying any “negative” feelings. So, you can imagine how troubling it is for someone with this survival mechanism to enter especially the anger and depression stages. Things may feel very out of control when they start to feel this natural anger or depression come up, so on top of feeling that negative intensity, they also have a strong feeling of not being safe piled on top of it. As a result, it can take longer for the anger and depression to move through them than it might for someone who is more able to allow themselves to feel these things.
There’s something wrong with my ability to rely on myself. This feeling often leads to what is known as co-dependence. This person feels that they need the person or situation (like a job) they’ve lost in order to survive, that they can’t do it all on their own, and that this person or situation was the only way they could get their needs met.
I don’t know how to handle this. When it comes to loss, whether it’s a person or a situation, it is likely that we have never been through something similar. It’s typical for someone to feel a sense of panic either anticipating this loss or after it occurs, just from the feeling that they don’t know the rules that they have to follow or that they don’t have a road map for handling all of the situations and feelings related to this loss.
If you’re facing loss and you’re experiencing any of these additional stressors, there are a couple of things you can do to help yourself.
Know that you have everything you need within you. Even if you’ve never been in this position before, you have within you what I call natural well-being, which can give you the support you need in any situation. (This can include feeling stronger within yourself or being pointed toward resources that can help you.)
- If it feels unsafe to experience your negative feelings, you can remind yourself that your well-being is what allows you to be perfectly safe, no matter what you are feeling.
- If you feel like you can’t handle life on your own, you can remind yourself that your well-being gives you the resources you need to rely on yourself.
- If you’re feeling like you don’t know how to handle this situation, know that your well-being actually does know how to do that and can guide you through it.
Know that it’s OK to feel anything. This is what I always remind my clients when they are grieving. And “anything” really means that—angry, sad, depressed, neutral, numb, or even happy. All of these things are OK to feel at any time when you’ve experienced a great loss. The more you give yourself permission to really feel anything, the more these feelings can move through you in just the time and way that is right for you.
Keeping these two phrases with you—”I have everything I need within me,” and, “It’s OK to feel anything,”—may be very helpful to you the next time you’re grieving. I hope that you’ll be able to treat yourself with gentleness through your next difficult loss.