Grief. No one likes it and no one wants it.
But sadly, it’s a near-universal experience. It’s difficult to get through your life without having to go through some amount of grief.
Much has been written about how grief works, the most well-known being, of course, the writings of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the world-renowned Swiss psychiatrist who identified the 5 Stages of Grief which have comforted and validated legions of people by explaining the seemingly inexplicable feelings and stages that grieving people move through and share.
But right now I want to talk about a different aspect of grief that I see in an extraordinarily large percentage of people who lose someone. It’s not a stage of grief; in fact, it can be so ubiquitous that it’s not something people move through very well even if they are an emotionally healthy person.
Guilt is not a feeling that’s usually associated with grief, even though I observe that it’s very, very common, verging on being ubiquitous.
Since most folks don’t realize that guilt is a common and somewhat natural part of grief, they assume that their own personal guilt feelings must mean that they are guilty of something. To them, their guilt seems true and important.
But, from what I have seen, it’s usually neither true nor important, it’s just a feeling most people get when they lose someone close to them.
Yes, most definitely. Although I have seen that most people are vulnerable to guilty grief, there is a large segment of the population who are far more prone to it and can get more hung up on it.
These are the ones who have a general tendency to take excessive responsibility for things, too often blaming themselves for events and situations outside of their control.
They are usually folks who have a tendency to be hard on themselves and are perhaps even highly self-critical. If you are prone to self-blame and self-criticism, you can get stuck in your guilt instead of moving through it as others would.
And, even if you are not a self-blame prone person you can end up experiencing more discomfort than is necessary. When you are already suffering from a loss, why suffer more than is absolutely necessary?
As an expert on how Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN affects adults I work constantly with people who are out of touch with, and unaware of, their own feelings. So, I find myself saying to multiple people almost every single day, “Pay attention to what you are feeling. It matters!”
Truth be told, most people, whether they are grieving or prone to self-blame or not would benefit from following the steps above. I say this for two reasons: first, far too many people are not aware enough of their own feelings to manage them as effectively as they could. And second, guilt is a feeling that occurs the most to the people who deserve it the least. And useless guilt is draining and, well, useless.
Learn about why Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is hard to remember but so impactful and why it makes people prone to self-blame, guilt, and shame in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Jared has done everything he can think of to make himself feel better since his father unexpectedly passed away two years ago. But he still feels blah and numb much of the time.
Sandra keeps choosing the same kind of guy over and over; alcoholic, angry, and afraid of commitment.
Claudia is irritable and bitter after her painful divorce. She can’t seem to get back to her old self.
All three of these people are stuck in some way. Each is suffering, each is confused. “Why can’t I get out of this?” they all wonder.
Fortunately for Jared, Sandra and Claudia, there is an answer, and it is the same for each of them. It’s a simple answer, yet it requires them to do something they dread.
Grief gets a bad rap, and in some ways, it should. After all, when does it enter our lives? When we’ve lost someone, or something, important. Grief only appears at times of pain and loss. But grief itself is not pain or loss. Instead, it’s a phase of processing pain and loss.
It’s a very natural human tendency to want to avoid pain. And it takes time to process a loss. This is what makes grieving so universally difficult. The three people described above are all stuck because they are avoiding their grief.
Jared is working hard, but to some extent on the wrong things. He’s trying to make himself feel better. But unfortunately, no amount of sporting events, dates, or successful work projects will help him process his loss and pain. He can only really move past his grief phase by going through it, not around it. This means he must accept his loss and sadness. Jared must allow himself to grieve.
Sandra wants to have the kind of healthy relationship that she sees others enjoy. So she keeps trying, over and over and over. Why does she keep repeating the same pattern? Because she has never grieved the father who left when she was 8 years old. “I don’t care about that jerk,” she’s said all of her life. Sandra is protecting herself with anger, because she doesn’t want to face, or feel, the pain of being abandoned by the man who was supposed to love her the most. Because Sandra isn’t allowing herself to feel, process, and work through her loss, she keeps recreating it. She keeps choosing men who will not really be there for her, and who will eventually abandon her.
Claudia was deeply hurt by her divorce from the man she was married to for 12 years, the father of her children. She was shocked and bereft when he signed those divorce papers. To cope, she has placed her focus on her children and making sure they have a life as close to normal as possible. Surely no one could fault her for this. But what keeps Claudia stuck in her bitterness and anger is not her focus on her children; it’s her failure to focus on herself. She needs to accept, feel, and work through her shock and pain and loss. She needs to grieve.
With all this talk of grief, here’s the good news. If you, like Jared, Sandra or Claudia, feel stuck, you may not actually be. You’re not facing a brick wall after all. You may, instead, be facing a phase. A phase that you can work through, and come out the other side. Yes, you know the solution. You need to grieve.
I feel sad
I feel hurt
I feel bereft
I feel disappointed
I feel empty
I feel lost
I feel alone
I feel let down
I feel angry
I am mourning
5. Choose a trusted person and share your feelings. Talking with someone about what you’re going through is incredibly helpful.
6. Remind yourself that grief is a process, and it’s not permanent. It’s simply a phase of adjustment that is healthy and necessary.
7. Don’t put a time limit on your grief. Everyone’s grief is different, and you can’t rush recovery. It will take as long as it takes. Period.
If you’re an emotional avoider or have a tendency to avoid your feelings in general, you’re at a higher risk of avoiding your grief and getting stuck. A tendency toward emotional avoidance is a sign that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens to the child and how to stop avoiding your feelings see the book, Running on Empty.
A version of this article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.