What I’ve learnt about dealing with intense complicated grief.
Closure is not a possibility. I will move on in my life, but only if I find a way of carrying my grief with me. I need to integrate the deep sadness I feel into the whole fabric of my life.
I can’t lock it away, ignore it, deny it, change it, cover it up or otherwise carry on as if nothing happened. Trying any of those strategies can be the path to despair or mental illness. I’ve met many people who have tried. It is not recommended.
Living life to the full means just that. Embracing everything in your experience. Integrating feelings and emotions you have along the way, into your life. Not putting on a brave face or using your stiff upper lip. Not soldiering on or using mind over matter.
It is common to feel overwhelmed by your emotions. How do you react to this?
Do you suck it up and weather the storm? Do you react, directing anger and blame outwards? Do you practice some breathing technique, ride the wave and move on? Do you fall apart and then feel ashamed.
When I was first bereaved I did a combination of all these things. Anything to get me through the practical tasks of the day. Talking with friends and family I could see that my coping strategies were working fine.
Soon though I met people who had been coping well for many years and in some cases decades after bereavement. Then some part of their lives had started to crumble. A job they had been doing for years suddenly became unmanageable. Their long term relationship collapsed. Anxiety and depression started to creep into their lives.
All traced it back to not fully expressing their grief. Now, here they were many years later paying for counselling or taking medication. They realised that they were now paying for all those years of keeping silent, bottling it up, staying strong.
I have noticed that when I am in a situation where some strong emotions are triggered I have some choices. All relate to owning the emotion rather than reacting to it.
Reacting to Emotions
When we react to an emotion we are often directing our energy outwards. Blaming or directing anger towards others or the circumstances. Sometimes we blame ourselves or some spiritual entity.
When we own an emotion we are not sitting on it or denying it. We are not blaming or shaming ourselves. We are noticing how it is affecting our body. Then we have choices.
- Filing it away to deal with later.
- Leaving the situation, walking away.
- Speaking our discomfort in a way that implies ownership.
I was sitting in a group meeting when I became triggered by the subject matter.
The effect on me was that my mind got into analysing the material. I was composing arguments for and against it. I was trying to plan what I would say. My body was tensing up and I felt anxious.
My first response was to say nothing.
I then considered leaving the room.
Finally, I decided to speak about my discomfort.
“I am aware I am finding this conversation difficult. I can no longer listen to what you are saying because of that discomfort.”
Then I tried to find words to explain my discomfort which did not blame, criticise or judge the speaker. I focused on the material that was being disseminated and how that related to a traumatic experience in my life.
I expressed the feelings of anxiety that were being triggered, and the effect it was having on my body. I told them I had considered leaving the room but decided to express my feelings and stay.
Obviously I was able to do this because I felt safe with the group of people I was with.
The effect was extraordinary. Nobody tried to argue with me or make it better. They acknowledged my feelings and we continued. I was able to listen to the rest of the presentation and join in with the discussion.
Emotions are signals. They feed us information.
The process of counselling and self-awareness is all about getting in touch with your emotions. Learning to read the messages.
You notice you have a physical reaction to something someone has said or done. You may use mindfulness practices to get in touch with the emotions and thoughts about those emotions.
Then you can embrace those emotions. Next time you have the physical reaction you will be quicker to recognise the emotional root.
In my case, I am having to embrace the sorrow of losing my daughter. When I was bottling up those emotions or trying to ignore them I was also unable to experience joy.
Sorrow and joy are inextricably linked. By experiencing sorrow, I can now experience the joy and love that my daughter brought into my life. By denying or burying the sorrow I was also hiding away the joy.
If it was possible for me to get over the sorrow of losing my daughter then I would also be losing touch with the joy and love she brought into my life. I want to feel those emotions. I want to be friends with them and integrate them into my life
I can see that the same applies to all emotions. They are not single entities. They are not something to get over. We cannot experience a sunrise without also experiencing a sunset. It is impossible to experience high points in our lives without also experiencing low points.
So embrace all emotions. Own them as your own special treasure trove of lessons. Be ready for the roller coaster of life to take you over.