The death of a loved one is often the most anguishing event of any individual’s life experience.
A sudden and unexpected death is often described to me as “…a gut punch… unbelievable… the bottom has fallen out of my world…” Even if the death is expected or had been long anticipated, the actual moment that we learn of the death can only be described as shocking, devastating, and often times surreal. We are immediately plunged into the tasks of mourning which involve notifying others, funeral planning, and managing others’ reactions and expressions of sympathy, which often feel shallow amidst our anguishing despair.
Our loved one’s physical absence is the first and most significant loss we have to navigate. His slippers are still by his chair, her coffee mug sits by the sink, or their last message to us is still in our voicemail box—but they’re not here… and never will be again. It is this unending absence that preoccupies our every moment in the immediate aftermath of their death.
In time, though, other equally profound losses begin to surface, and we become aware of the many additional layers of grief yet to come.
…that dreamed of vacation to Europe will never happen… …he won’t walk me down the aisle on my wedding day… …she’ll never meet my future children… …I have to sell our home because I can’t afford to stay here alone… …she managed all the finances… I don’t know where to begin…
This list—known as ‘secondary losses’—is long, and each of these losses can bring just as much sorrow as our loved one’s physical absence. What’s worse, these losses are not all apparent right away. They emerge slowly, over the course of the rest of our lives, and bring with them a fresh resurgence of despair and the need for continued grief work, often at a time when we may have thought we had gotten through the worst of it.
The most important feature of coping with all these secondary losses is simply acknowledging them as they come up. Reaching back out to those support people who have been with us from the beginning can provide comfort, as we feel the need to talk about and process new and unexpected aspects of our loss experience.
Planning for and allowing ourselves to feel all the feelings as they arise is a healthy response to the experience of secondary losses. Acknowledging that our grief will continue to surge long after the actual death is a large part of the task of grief work. After all, there is no way of knowing in advance what can happen to take us ‘down to our knees’ again. Tolerating this renewed pain as we continue to take those small steps forward into the rest of our own lives is part of the anguishing process of healing from loss.
Some of these steps could include:
…beginning to consider some type of vacation for yourself—maybe with others—in the future… …determining how best to honor his memory at your wedding… …journaling about your loved one’s life, loves, and accomplishments for future generations to read… …seeking help from others in determining how and when to downsize… …hiring a financial consultant to help organize and prioritize the management of your finances…
The reality of the loss of a loved one is that our lives will never be the same as before. Recognizing and accepting grief’s unfinished business of ongoing secondary losses is a tall task of grief work. A task that requires self-compassion and humility as we come to terms with aspects of our grief experience that we couldn’t have imagined in the early days after their death.
Grief is a lonely journey; but you need not go it alone. There IS a difference between feeling lonely and being alone. The help of a professional grief counselorcan be a healthy act of self-care as the enormity of grief’s unfinished business becomes apparent over the passage of time.
Holding opposing thoughts at the same time is called cognitive dissonance. As a mental health counselor throughout this pandemic year, I have witnessed my clients, colleagues, friends, and my own family experience a repeated barrage of changes and challenges that have contributed to ongoing experiences of cognitive dissonance.
“I enjoy working from home BUT, I miss my colleagues and the energy of the work environment.”
“I love the extra time I’ve had with my kids BUT, I’m worried about the long-term effects of them not being in school.”
“I’m healthy and not at risk BUT, others just like me have died from this virus.”
This internal conflict takes a toll on our mental health. We’re weary from the ongoing battle of thoughts, and angry that there is still no clear path back to something that might feel normal again.
We find ourselves needing to repeatedly evaluate each set of conflicting thoughts when they arise. We are often unable to align them in any way that brings peace of mind or lessened anxiety, and so the conflict continues. Over time, this thought cycle creates anxiety. As a result, many of us are living in a perpetual state of anticipation and hypervigilance.
There is no easy solution for coping with dissonance of this magnitude. It’s a day-to-day challenge for all of us. Tolerating internal conflict requires mindfulness and consistent self-care. These efforts can help us develop an internal strength that will endure long after the COVID pandemic ends.
Navigating the anguish, despair, and emotional pain of the loss of someone we love through death is NOT a passive experience. Our loved one’s death is an event. Grief work is defined as the process by which we come to terms with that event. This work requires many intentional and arduous tasks.
First, we must open ourselves up and embrace the emotional pain as it floods our mind, our body and our soul. This vulnerability of opening ourselves up to emotional pain is counter-intuitive to our instinct, which usually guides us to avoid pain as much as possible. However, there is no detour, no bypass around grief. The pain must be endured until it becomes thoroughly familiar. This is perhaps the single most challenging aspect of grief work. No one wants to embrace emotional pain forever. And so, we ask relentlessly, “When will it end?”
We must seek out those who will listen to and give us permission to talk about our loss as much--and for as long—as we need. Telling our story is a vital task of grief work. Telling our story can be anything from sharing the memory of our last time spent with our loved one, where we were and what we were doing when we got the news of their death, or the details and timeline of their diagnosis and their medical history, our experience of being present at the time of their death, the joy they brought to our life and the love we had for them. Or, our story may be about the challenges we had in the relationship, the regrets we have, or the guilt we bear for not addressing issues when we had the chance to do so. Certainly, any ‘unfinished business’ we feel we had with our loved one needs to be heard and processed in order for us to now find forgiveness or resolution unilaterally. Each time we tell our story, a new and different aspect of our loss resonates within us. As we gain perspective from telling our story, we are able to slowly adapt to the changes that are the inevitable result of our loss.
We do not need to grieve alone. However, seeking out the support that we need from others often overwhelms and intimidates us. We don’t want to be judged; we don’t want to be a burden; we don’t want others to really, truly know how bad we feel. So, we put on our “I’m okay” face, and move through our days as if we’re fine. If we do reach out for help or understanding, we often discover that our support people might not be who we expected them to be. Other family members are likely grieving themselves. Their relationship with the person who died may have been different than ours, more complicated, or less close. Additionally, our friends and others close to us find it very difficult to witness our pain. They try to cheer us up, distract us, prod us to “…move on… let go… get over it…” These are just a few of the reasons that so many describe grief as such a lonely place—even within their immediate family and close friends.
Often, we need to seek support from outside our immediate circle which, again, is counter-intuitive and in itself a daunting prospect. However, the support found in a griefsupport group can be surprisingly comforting, as members of the group instinctively understand the emotional experience of loss without judgment. The group experience can often provide the unconditional support we need to process our grief on our own terms.
The culmination of our grief work is the ability to acknowledge all that our loved one has meant to us, the influence that our relationship with them has had on us; understanding how our loss informs whowe are now. And, finally, how we take that new sense of who we are—after loss—into our own future.
You don’t heal from the loss of a loved one because time passes; you heal because of what you do with the time. ~ Carol Crandall
We’ve made it to the first day of summer! The number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths are down and the trend is described as “hopeful.” There is talk about how our children may return to school this fall. All signs of our movement beyond the pandemic crisis are there, yet we feel anxious.
Our new reality includes seeing others in public in masks--or not. Being told to continue to physically distance from others yet--seeing those who do not abide by that ‘rule’. Feeling preoccupied with our body’s location in relation to others… wondering when they washed their hands last… questioning what we should touch… hearing every cough around us… wondering if is it safe to use a public restroom… and on and on…
These preoccupying thoughts and worries as we begin to move outside our safe cocoon can escalate our anxiety and sense of personal safety, even as we long for social re-engagement with others across the fabric of our day-to-day lives.
Ultimately, we must balance our personal need for connection with others with the very real knowledge that the virus is NOT eradicated. We have a responsibility to manage our activities in ways that honor our instincts to stay safe. Perhaps some re-engagement anxiety is not such a bad thing? However, if you are feeling overwhelmed or surrounded by others who are taking all this less seriously than you are, consider talking to a caring counselor for assistance in managing this new--yet very real—anxiety.
What to say that is new or different about our current circumstances of social distancing and self-quarantine? I feel I’ve been bombarded with emails, text messages, blog posts, and professionals of every kind offering me advice on everything from how to properly wash my hands to “quarantine recipes” to at-home exercise tips. Enough already. I’m overwhelmed.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this from my own perspective as well as, the perspective of how best to help my clients?
What I’ve concluded is that what might be helpful is to just simply… allow.
Allow yourself to feel sad, to grieve all that you’re missing out on right now. Everything about our life today was unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. We are adjusting and accommodating to a new way of thinking and doing across every aspect of our day.
Allow for the space you need to just… be. The emotional burden we are all bearing is profound. While we might think that we have all this extra time to do this (exercise) and do that (tackle home projects), the reality is that our minds and hearts are burdened right now. And allowing ourselves to just be is not only okay--it is necessary.
Allow for worry. I frequently caution my clients that worry about the future robs us of today. I also encourage clients to engage in mindfulness, which to the focus of your awareness on the present moment.
But now, who in the world isn’t worrying about their future? And, doesn’t it feel impossible to ‘stay in the moment’ of whatever we are doing when our health, our relationships, our children’s educations, our jobs, our very way of life are all at risk of irreparable change? Worry about the future makes a lot of sense to me right now.
So, what I’ve come to realize is that some of the ‘rules’ that I’ve had for myself, and have espoused to my clients for years, don’t seem to apply right now. I’ve also heard some refer to this as our “new normal.” I don’t think so. This is not any kind of normal! We are in a constant state of uncertainty, fear, and speculation. Maybe, just maybe, we will reach a new normal when we’ve come through to the other side of this virus pandemic. Until then, we need to throw out any notion of normalcy.
Sadness, grief, a need for acknowledging our stress and our anxiety and our worry…. Sounds pretty somber, right? So, let me add a few other ideas that we can allow for…
Allow for dreams about all the things that we want to get back to—and maybe even do differently or better—when we can. We each have the opportunity to thoughtfully consider how we will re-engage with our loved ones, folks we work with, and our neighbors and friends. We will be able to approach past relationship challenges with a new perspective, one born out of time to really reflect and evaluate. We can choose to enact changes in our own way of being with others in our lives.
Allow for anticipation of seeing family and friends again… and for celebrating! There have been so many missed occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, weddings, births... So much to catch up on, so many people to spend time with, so many opportunities to reconnect. It’s a lot to look forward to, really.
Allowfor possibilities. The possibility that as a community, and as a nation, we have learned so much about what we are made of. We will have been reminded (just as we were after 9/11) of the power and the goodness of every American to come together when we need each other most.
Allow for thepossibility that the way we view our children’s educations, the way in which we accomplish our work, and the manner in which we tackle immense challenges may all shift for the better, and in ways we cannot imagine right now. Think about advances in remote learning for our kids. Or, perhaps we’ll see a shift in new home design that supports a range of creative work-at-home environments. Certainly, our leaders and medical professionals will be more proactive with efforts to anticipate and better prepare for this type of crisis in the future.
Lastly, allow for thepossibility that we will all come out of this with a renewed sense of purpose for ourselves and our community; a more defined commitment to supporting others who struggle or are in need; and a much deeper sense of gratitude for all that we may have taken for granted before.
Finally, if my thoughts expressed here make sense to you, I encourage you to simply allow yourself to feel every feeling and acknowledge every concern that invades your mind. However, please also allow for the hopes, the dreams, the anticipation, and the possibilities that await us when we are able to move beyond our current circumstances. This too shall pass.
When someone we love dies, we are consumed by an overwhelming and all-encompassing experience of anguish and despair. The simplest tasks become arduous and insurmountable. The suggestion that we could ever enjoyanything, or smile, or laugh again seems incomprehensible. We feel that our grief is now our new identity… forever.
Let me suggest that it is possible to experience momentsof joy amidst our grief. Grief and joy are not mutually exclusive emotions (although we often believe that they are). We are capable of feeling a multitude of emotions all at once. It is this tug of our heart and mind in different directions, amidst grief, that confuses and disorients us.
Then, there’s the guilt. The immediate ‘gut punch’ we give ourselves when we feel anything except our grief. It’s as though we are somehow betraying our loved one because we laughed at a joke, or forgot about our loss for the briefest of moments.
The ability to get outside of your grief momentarily is a healthy coping mechanism; a sort of mini-respite from the despair. It is okay to smile when you hear a baby giggle, to laugh as your dog romps through the snow, to take in the beauty of a sunset, or savor a delicious sweet treat. All of these moments can accompany our exhaustive experience of grief; moments that serve to remind us that grief need not be our entire identity.
There is still beauty in the world around us — even as we grieve.
In my career as a grief counselor, I have never had a client who did not experience some form of regret following the loss of someone they loved.
Something left unsaid, a decision made that they wish they could change, or a situation unresolved. Regret can come as equally with action as it does with inaction. We can regret doing something as much as we can regret having done nothing at all. After a loss these regrets can haunt us endlessly.
Some choose to hang on to regret becausemoving forward can feel like betrayal. Your regrets serve as testaments to the love you have felt. Holding on to regret can feel like it helps you maintain connection. Leaving behind the regret can feel like leaving your person behind.
A few suggestions for coping with your regret include:
Tell someone you trust what you are feeling.
You may need to be reminded that you did the best you could. After the fact, we lose the objectivity to remember exactly how things were or we forget all the things we did right. If the person you trust says, “No, you did all you could,” trust them.
Consider writing a letter to your person.
Expressing how you feel about the unfinished or unresolved issues between you can facilitate healing.
Be open to forgiving yourself.
Look for a lesson that can be learned.
Regret can inspire deeper compassion and empathy for others in pain; or just to say “I love you” more often.
A few years ago, my husband and I bought a home in the country. One of the first things we did was enclose our new yard with a split rail fence along our property line. Although our primary purpose was to keep our two dogs in our yard, our fence represents so much more. It tells the world what we own and what we know is our responsibility.
Emotional boundaries function much the same way in our interpersonal relationships. An individual with healthy emotional boundaries understands what they “own” - and do not “own” - in their interactions with others. Conversely, people with unhealthy boundaries find it difficult to say “no” to others. Their behavior is often described as “enabling” because it allows another to continue to behave in ways that are destructive to themselves or to the existing relationship.
Healthy boundaries allow us to convey our thoughts and feelings in a conflict, while allowing the other person to do the same. We are able to recognize what part of a conflict we “own”—and what part we do not. It’s all about accountability in our relationships, and understanding that repair work requires effort from both sides of a conflict.
If you often find yourself feeling hurt, misunderstood, disrespected, or taken advantage of by others, chances are your emotional property line has been crossed. A professional counselor can help with identifying boundary violations and working toward the development of healthier ways to express yourself and to hold others accountable in your relationships.
A child struggles with school and socializing with friends…
A parent struggles with keeping pressures at work from affecting their mood at home…
A teen struggles with social issues and may be experiencing anxiety or depression…
A family member struggles with substance abuse…
A family suffers the death of a loved one…
A family member suffers from a mental health diagnosis…
The ‘busy-ness’ of everyone’s schedules leaves family members feeling isolated and disconnected. And, the constant preoccupation with technology and social media has further eroded what was once time spent together and engaged in each other’s lives…
The list of challenges that today’s families face is endless, and the dysfunction and upset that they suffer as a result are real and often lasting.
You may wonder at some time in the history of your family—either the one you are raising, or the one you grew up in—if the challenges that you all struggle with could be helped with family counseling? But you also may not have any idea what that would look like, or if it would work?
For those of us in the counseling profession, family counseling is often the preferred approach to a multitude of presenting issues. Yet, the more typical circumstance is that the family will identify the ‘problem person,’ and then give everyone else in the family a ‘pass.’ The problem person is then brought into our office with a request for help.
However, the truth of the matter is that no challenge affecting an entire family is one person’s fault. Far from it, every member of the family system plays some role in the dynamic that perpetuates the problem(s).
The role of the family counselor can offer the family a remarkable opportunity to navigate their differences in an entirely new manner than they likely have experienced before. Some important features of the family counseling setting include:
A safe atmosphere for discussion
The opportunity for EVERY family member to express their feelings and opinions about the issue
Immediate feedback from an objective third party to mediate escalating tensions and emotions
Dedicated time for the entire family to truly ‘hear’ and engage with each other
Education about how the family system works… or is not working
Opportunity to recognize alliances within the family that may be perpetuating the problem
Encouragement for each family member to take responsibility for their role in the problem
Guidance for collective problem-solving
Ongoing accountability to ensure lasting change within the family
There is no doubt, it IS a tall order to bring an entire family into counseling! The sheer logistics of finding a day and a time when everyone is available can be the biggest challenge. However, a collective belief that the family is worththe investment to improve relationships and enhance daily interactions can be the first step to healing long-standing wounds and misunderstandings with the people you love the very most in the world. You might even discover that you can actually enjoy each other in ways you never imagined before!
We are born into a healthy, loving, committed marriage, or a chaotic, unstable, and dysfunctional relationship... or more likely, somewhere in between these extremes. The point is, we don’t get to choose.
Our family of origin experiences have an enormous impact on the trajectory of our lives.
Fathers teach sons how to love a woman and how to lead a family... or they don’t. Fathers teach daughters what they deserve from a man — love, respect, and partnership… or they don’t.
Mothers teach sons to recognize and honor the love of a woman; the importance of her voice of reason and her comfort... or they don’t. Mothers teach daughters how to love, respect and encourage a good and honorable man... or they don’t.
We take what we learn from these experiences into our future as we test the waters of our adult relationships. If we are able to recognize and admit that we are falling short, we often struggle to understand the role of those early influences.
The challenge is to recognize those early influences and to comprehend the impact they have had on our current choices; to be able to identify and choose a different course of action than might have been modeled by those whose behaviors initially influenced us.
The guidance of a caring mental health counselor can provide the safety and opportunity to explore the impact of the family we grew up with on our thoughts, values, and beliefs about ourselves as individuals and as partners.