An Obstacle to The 5 Stages of Grief: Emotional Neglect From Childhood
The better we grieve, the better we live.
I do believe that the quote above is absolutely true. It’s almost impossible to make it through your adulthood without experiencing a loss of some kind.
Being able to grieve in a healthy way requires a series of personality traits and skills that not everyone possesses. I have seen many people go to great lengths to avoid feeling their grief or get stuck in it, unable to look forward from it.
Many of these folks grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Joanne, who lost her husband four years ago is so bogged down in sadness that she enjoys very little in her life, and has problems getting out of bed every day.
Alex, whose sister died of breast cancer two years ago, lives a full and busy life, but feels dull and sad inside every time he stops running around and tries to relax.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her now-famous book called On Death and Dying. In it she described the 5 stages that she frequently saw people going through after receiving a dire medical diagnosis. Since that day the 5 Stages of Grief have been applied more broadly to all kinds of losses, like break-ups or accepting the loss of a loved one. It’s also important to note that these stages are not set in stone; everyone grieves differently, and may experience different feelings in different order at different times.
The Five Stages of Grief
- Denial: In this first stage, you refuse to accept the reality of a distressing situation. “There’s been some mistake,” or “This is all a bad dream,” you might tell yourself. This stage gives your brain time to prepare itself to begin to consider the painful truth.
- Anger: This stage involves becoming angry at the situation, the person who is sick, who died, or who is about to leave, or perhaps the doctor who issued the diagnosis. Your anger is a protective emotion, and essentially sets up a barrier between you and the traumatic truth.
- Bargaining: “If you will make this diagnosis not be true, I promise to never smoke again,” you may offer up to your version of a higher power. This phase represents your attempts to absorb the truth while also fighting it off.
- Depression: As the truth sinks in, you begin to feel its full impact. This can lead to a brief clinical depression as you absorb, and try to accept your loss.
- Acceptance: This final stage represents somewhat of a resolution, where you accept that your life has changed, and are able to begin to focus forward.
In my experience, having helped many clients through many losses, one of the greatest prolongers of each of the 5 Stages is having grown up without enough emotional attention, validation and response from one’s parents: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
When your parents do not respond enough to your emotions as a child, you learn very early and well that your emotions and emotional needs are irrelevant (or even bad) and should be avoided. To adapt, you wall off your feelings and needs so that they will not burden your parents. Not surprisingly, when you are living with your feelings blocked off, it throws major obstacles into your path through the 5 Stages.
How Childhood Emotional Neglect Blocks the 5 Stages of Grief
- Makes it Hard to Move Past Denial: It’s only a short jump from denying one’s feelings to using denial as a general coping mechanism. It’s easy for a CEN person who has lost a loved one to end up prolonging his grief by refusing to feel the painful feelings that need to be accepted and processed. Alex, who stays busy to avoid his sadness and loss is a perfect example of that. Over time, avoiding your feelings of loss does nothing to process them. The result: you are stuck.
- You Can’t Accept or Work With Your Anger: In phase 2, your anger is there to protect you. But if anger wasn’t allowed from you in your childhood home, you may have great difficulty allowing yourself to be angry as a grieving adult. You may be at risk of instead turn your anger inward at yourself, compounding your feeling of loss with even more pain.
- Difficulty Accepting Help and Support: CEN makes you feel guilty or weak for having normal emotional needs. It’s hard for you to ask for help or accept comfort from others even in the best of times. When you’re grieving, there are few things that can help more than the love and support of someone who cares about you.
- Depression Phase is Prolonged: With your emotions walled off, your anger directed at yourself, and the people most able to support you kept at bay, you are at great risk for getting stuck in a depression that won’t let go. How can Joanne move forward to the next phase, accept the painful reality of her loss and heal from it when her brain chemicals are thrown out of balance by depression?
The whole point of the 5 Stages is to move through them. Experiencing one phase, allowing yourself to be in it and face it prepares you to move to the next phase. Moving through the phases allows your brain to process the reality, preparing you for acceptance. Acceptance must happen before you can turn your attention forward to rebuilding yourself and your life.
If this is you, it’s important to re-direct and focus yourself.
- Open up and talk to someone who can give you comfort. Ask for support and accept it. It will help.
- Make a point to feel your feelings of grief, even if only for a brief period every day. Think about the one you’ve lost, and cry if you need to.
- Pay attention to whether you are stuck in anger or depression. Might an anti-depressant give you a kick-start to deal with the genuine sad feelings that are waiting to be processed? Consult a professional, if needed.
- Start addressing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s important to begin to feel all of your feelings, not just your grief. Just as your grief is blocked in some way, so also is your joy. You need to feel all of your emotions in order to heal and move forward.
When you are grieving something, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you only feel grief when you had something great to begin with. So a part of your grief must be appreciation and gratefulness for what you had.
And remember the words of one of the greatest authors of all time:
Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.
― Leo Tolstoy