We all experience loss. Loss of a loved one. Loss of a career. Loss of a dream. Loss of a relationship. Loss of ourselves. Grief is a deep sadness and reality-based emotional reaction to loss. When we avoid our grief, it brings additional suffering to an already painful loss and eventually steals our joy.
With my clients and in my own life, I have found that grief is the most debilitating and painful emotion and therefore the most feared and avoided. This is understandably so.
A few times each week I spend my break between clients in my childhood neighborhood, which is less than a mile from my private practice. No matter what changes I go through, good or bad, this neighborhood is always there. It never changes, and this brings comfort. Not that my childhood was all wonderful; it wasn’t. In fact, it was quite painful at times. As I sit on the bench across the street from the house where I grew up, my home until I was fifteen years old, I think to myself that Charles Dickens said it best: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I consistently sought refuge by being outdoors, running through the woods, playing in the creek, riding my bike, creating forts, and catching fireflies. When I wasn’t spending time with friends and siblings, I spent much of my early years alone with my imagination, which lit up in my own inner world. All those quiet times of solitude allowed me to study people, develop a keen intuition, and form my deep creativity. I found security in who I was and accepted myself as being different from most.
Now I walk the sidewalks of my childhood neighborhood and long for something I can’t quite articulate. There is a deep sense of desire, an ache. The seasons of my life come and go despite my yearning for time to stand still in this moment, yet I know in my heart I cannot stay. This is no longer my home.
When I was growing up, my grandmother (Ga-Ga) lived across the street from my house. She was my safe place throughout my childhood and early teenage years before she passed away when I was sixteen years old. They say nobody is perfect, but she was. I still have a handwritten note she left on my dresser one morning: “You are the very best of everything.” When my home life became unstable, I sought refuge at her house and often stayed the night. We had a familiar routine, and I cherished every minute we spent together. After bath time I would change into one of her nightgowns, instead of the pajamas I had packed, because they smelled like her. I would act silly and prance around the house; she never cared what mood I was in. I could always be myself. It was just me, no parents or siblings to interfere during our special times.
I would lie next to her each night after I had my sugar cookies and milk, and she would run her fingers through my hair for hours until I fell asleep. For years she sat in the same spot on her sofa, every afternoon, watching television while I was outside rollerblading, skateboarding, riding my bike, and playing with friends. It gave me such comfort and security to know she was right across the street.
Ga-Ga was diagnosed with liver cancer and her health deteriorated rapidly. I was in shock; a living nightmare. One afternoon as I was preparing to leave for cheerleading practice, I stopped by to see her and had a daunting feeling it would be the last time. As I looked at her in the hospice bed while I stood in the doorway, I debated staying and not going to practice, telling her how much I loved her and sitting beside her. I left instead. She died that evening, only three months after her diagnosis. She still had decades to live. I bottled up my pain while others were grieving around me. I was numb. I sat with my family at her funeral and wondered why I couldn’t shed a single tear.
It was one of those traumas that left a very deep mark on me.
Something died inside of me.
Unknown to me, on the day I left for cheerleading practice, I had flipped the switch to Off. That switch was my emotions. Sadness. Pain. Fear. Anger. It was easier to live in denial and bury my grief.
Soon after, intense guilt crept in, and for years I was haunted by the memory of not having had a last goodbye with her.
I was not able to put a voice to my grief. Therefore, it did not go away.
For years I lost myself. That carefree, imaginative, creative little girl with the pigtails who could live joyfully outside her circumstances was gone.
I never allowed myself to cry, so I never reaped joy. My unresolved grief grew larger and larger as the years passed. I did not notice it for almost a decade, but the sadness did not leave; it was buried and slowly eroded my joy over time. I became numb and I lost myself. After my grandmother passed, my family would gather in our living room and watch old videos of Ga-Ga while they cried and laughed as they relived the memories we shared with her. I would leave the room immediately before they pressed Play. I thwarted my own process of healing, and I never knew God as comforter in my grandmother’s death. I had mastered the art of cutting off my feelings in earlier pain I had experienced as a child.
Grief and Abuse
Before our present grief experience, we learn very early, as children, to cut off our emotional pain and anger when abuse takes place. This is a survival and coping mechanism. When you are told you are at fault, it is not safe to feel and express the pain inflicted by abuse. That is what abuse does to a person; it causes shame. You learn to analyze your abuser instead of feeling your pain. That’s an attempt to prevent the abuse from happening again, even though the abuser is unpredictable.
This is why grieving our present losses is so important; it can connect us to past unresolved pain and shame to bring healing to those earlier memories.
Where your anger resides, there you will discover buried wounds that need to be healed and unresolved grief that needs to be addressed.
Outcomes of Unresolved Grief
When we avoid our feelings of sadness or do not go through the grieving process, sufferings such as anxiety and depression are common outcomes. In addition to creating suffering, unresolved grief sabotages joy. It is not possible to selectively numb our emotions, because when we numb painful emotions, we numb the positive emotions too.
When we do not embrace the grieving process, we lose our joy. For this reason, joy entails vulnerability because we must risk and develop courage to face our fear and feel our sadness.
A fear of happiness also occurs because we are afraid the other shoe will drop and that our happiness must be too good to be true and won't last.
Due to their unresolved grief, my clients live in fear of being hurt again, which drives them to take back control and self-protect by closing their hearts to everyone surrounding them. This defense mechanism prevents them from experiencing truly rewarding and intimate relationships with others.
I’ve discovered that avoiding the grieving process becomes the undercurrent of much pain being manifested in unhealthy relationships, sabotaging behaviors, and addictions. Grief is not an isolated emotion; it carries with it a wide array of pain, such as sadness, guilt, fear, anger, and doubt. Suppressed pain does not disappear. It only grows deeper, and we become vulnerable to developing ways to numb our pain to cope.
The outcome of not experiencing our grief can also drive us to perfect, perform, and please our way through life. Our self-esteem and identity gets tied to our success and we must constantly prove to others we are worthy. This way of life is a self-protection from pain. Managing an image of perfection eventually leads to imposter syndrome, never feeling good enough, and being disconnected from our true self.
At times, avoiding emotional pain can manifest in physical pain within our bodies because at a deep-seated level it can seem easier to locate and feel physical pain rather than complex emotional pain. I have witnessed countless ways my clients avoid grief, but the emotional pain eventually manifests in their bodies as chronic fatigue, migraines, back pain, muscle tension, insomnia, and other unexplained medical symptoms that no doctor can diagnose with a physical cause.
Sometimes we are unexpectedly hit with grief upon making positive decisions, such as ending an unhealthy relationship, leaving a job that no longer brought fulfillment, or moving to a new place we are excited about. Confusion sets in because we are sad about something seemingly progressive and optimistic. We might think to ourselves, Did I make a mistake? If this is something I wanted to do, why am I so sad? We might begin to doubt ourselves and even God. Am I crazy? Did I not hear God correctly?
We grieve when we lose, even if the loss is a good thing.
By facing the reality of our loss, we can grieve what has passed and embrace what we have, wholeheartedly.
Loss is Not a One Time Thing
There is a process connected with grief, because losing someone or something is not an occasion or an event. And it does not happen just once. Grief is like an unwelcomed visitor that comes when you least exepct it. It whispers to us in unexpected ways and moments that take us off guard. There is no right or wrong way to grieve and time does not always heal all wounds. By not experiencing the grief of Ga-Ga's death, it had taken away my joy, too, left me in a daze of numbness. However, by feeling our pain instead of fearing our pain, we can begin to heal.
In my case, decades ago, I had to begin the healing process by accepting the reality that there was more to my life than just pain. I also forgave myself for not saying goodbye to Ga-Ga in the way I had hoped because it was too scary for my teenage self. Slowly the guilt subsided. She would never be forgotten, but I could be forgiven and live my life remembering the power of her love and the mark she has forever left on my soul.
In the waves of grief, there are moments of grace. Allow those waves of sorrow to wash over you and be certain that joy is near and will lift you back up again.
Next week, in the Paradox of Grief, Part 2, I will share my personal journey of overcoming grief and how to turn the sadness of your loss into joy.
**The content for this blog post has been taken from chapter 4 (The Cuckoo of Loss) of Andrea’s book, The Cuckoo Syndrome: The Secret to Breaking Free from Unhealthy Relationships, Toxic Thinking, and Self-Sabotaging Behavior
The photo accompanying this article was sourced from istock and is in the public domain.