Tag Archives for " Loss "

The Side of Grief That Nobody Talks About

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.

It’s guilt.

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.

Why Guilt and Grief Go Together

  1. Grief is a powerful emotional experience that fully engages the brain and the body. Grief is, essentially, the body’s attempt to absorb a shock (all deaths are a shock even when you know they are coming). Grief is like a combination of an earthquake and a hurricane both occurring together. In your body, all systems are activated and you are likely to feel many different feelings so it’s not surprising that guilt would be one of them.
  2. The death of a person, being the cataclysmic event described above, is an occurrence that carries great gravity. When we lose someone, it is natural to re-evaluate not only what they meant to us, but also our relationship with them. We begin to ask questions about our role in their life and in their death.
  3. Grief causes us to question ourselves. Was I there enough for them? Did I show enough care, love, concern? Did I miss their last phone call? What if I had done something just slightly differently, would they have felt better or lived longer? Could I have saved them? Could I have made them happier when they were alive? Does my secret wish for them to finally be relieved of their pain make me a bad person? These questions, plus many more variations on them, are ones that I have heard countless, blameless people torture themselves with after losing a loved one.

Are Some People More Prone To Guilty Grief?

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?

What’s The Solution?

An Ounce of Awareness + A Dose of Reality

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!”

  1. The way you treat your feelings makes a big difference in how you experience and move through your grief. So, when it comes to grieving, it is extremely helpful to allow yourself to feel it. Yes, it hurts, and I know you want to escape it. But the more you escape it the more it lingers. It’s a sad fact but a true one.
  2. As you make an effort to feel your feelings, pay special attention to guilt. Watch for it so that you can be aware of when you are feeling it. Being aware of a feeling is half the battle because awareness allows you to manage it.
  3. Actively manage your guilt feelings — yes, you can do that — by tempering them with a dose of reality. I invite you to think about it this way. Wouldn’t we all behave differently if we knew the future? It’s simple. Yes, we would. This is a very important fact because some of your guilt is only happening because of your current ability to observe the past. “If only,” “I should have,” and “I shouldn’t have,” are all based on hindsight. Like the proverbial quarterback on Monday morning, everything looks different after an event than it does while you were living it.

Take This Forward

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.

An Obstacle to The 5 Stages of Grief: Emotional Neglect From Childhood

The better we grieve, the better we live.

— Anonymous

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

4 Ways to Manage Your CEN Through Grief

  • 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

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, and how to accept and process your emotions see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.