Making Peace with Difficult Emotions

Photo Credit: Javardh

Photo Credit: Javardh

Grief is rife with difficult emotions, and for many people, anger and guilt are two of the most difficult. Not everyone experiences anger or guilt in grief, but both are normal reactions to the loss of someone important to us. These “normal” emotions don’t feel at all normal, and often cause great distress and confusion. How can we understand what is happening to us and find ways to cope?

ANGER 

Anger is a powerful messenger. It tells us something is not right in our world. And when someone important to us dies, many things are not right in our world. So it is natural to experience anger when grieving — natural, but not easy. For many of us, anger is a very uncomfortable emotion that we aren’t supposed to have, a “bad feeling” that makes us feel like a “bad person,” causing us to push it away.

But if anger is a messenger, we need to pay attention to what it has to say. A messenger knocking at the door will keep banging harder and harder if ignored — and may even kick the door in! Pushing anger aside works only for a short time; it grows when suppressed.  But when we face our anger and attend to what is causing it, we can reduce its power over us.

HOW TO COPE WITH ANGER

Accept the anger as a temporary part of your healing process.

Anger may feel bad, but it is not a “bad feeling”. You are not a “bad person” for feeling anger — even if you are angry with the person who died. Even if you are angry with God.

Allow yourself to feel and release the anger. 

Find ways to freely express your anger without harm to self, others, or property. Talk to a trusted friend or journal your thoughts, make art or music, engage in vigorous physical activity, throw a soft toy, find a private place to stomp and wail. My proper Southern grandmother used to go into her garage, shut the door, and yell at God until her anger was spent and she could return to face the challenges of her new life.

Explore what feelings might be underneath your anger.

Ask yourself: What purpose is my anger serving? If I wasn’t feeling angry, what feeling would arise?” Anger sometimes hides or masks other hard feelings. It might be protective, hiding hurt or sadness that is too painful to feel at the moment. It might a source of energy, the only thing that keeps us going during those times when grief utterly depletes us. Naming what is underneath the anger allows us to shift our attention to what we can heal.

GUILT

When death occurs, it is nearly impossible to grasp the reality that someone important to us is gone forever. Our struggling brains often go over and over the details leading to the death as a way of trying to understand how this could have happened, like a detective trying to put the pieces of a mystery together. This intensive review is like looking through a magnifying glass (sometimes a microscope!) as we search for clues, highlighting our mistakes and spotlighting those moments when we wish we had done something different. Our human faults and weaknesses are enlarged way out of proportion. We are tormented by “shoulda woulda couldas” and readily blame ourselves even for things we didn’t know at the time or that were out of our control.

Some of this guilt is realistic (we were not our best selves) but much of it is unrealistic (we feel responsible for something not in our control.) Knowing how to name our guilt is the first step in resolving it.

We feel Unrealistic Guilt for not having superpowers — when we somehow imagine that we should have beyond-human power to know or change things. Unrealistic Guilt says:  “It’s my fault I couldn’t get him to stop smoking.” “I should have been able to keep her from suffering.” “I should have known it was cancer even though the doctors couldn’t find anything.”  Does this voice sound familiar? 

We feel Realistic Guilt when we were not our best selves, when we did something we knew was wrong at the time we were doing it. This can happen especially in response to the stresses of caregiving. In my case, I lost patience with my agitated father who had dementia with nightly sundowning, and yelled at him the night before he died. I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t stop myself in that fraught moment.

HOW TO COPE WITH GUILT

Unrealistic Guilt

Acknowledge that your guilt is unrealistic. 

It is OK to wish you could have done more, but not OK to blame yourself for something impossible. Free yourself to face and truly heal the underlying emotions causing this guilt.

Ask yourself: What purpose is this serving? Why am I holding on to this? 

Unrealistic Guilt keeps our thoughts busy with irrational self-blame, protecting us from     experiencing unsettling emotions such as helplessness, fear, loneliness, deep sadness, and sometimes even anger at the person who died. 

Unrealistic Guilt can be a way to stay rooted in the time before death changed our world, a way to avoid the painful reality that we must now go on alone. 

Unrealistic Guilt helps us believe that we could have prevented the death, which is more tolerable than facing the fact that death is out of our control.

Realistic Guilt

Ask yourself: What were my intentions?

Was your behavior intentional, on purpose, or was your behavior unintentional, a mistake? Perhaps, like me, you really could have been more patient and attentive in your caregiving. But what were your intentions? Did you choose to hurt this person, or were you occasionally overwhelmed in moments of frustration or exhaustion or fear? Remind yourself that all of us (including the person who died) are human and make mistakes.

Do something different going forward. Allow this guilt to help you grow.    

We can’t undo the past but we can create a different future. If you were not your best self, what do you wish to do differently in the future? Perhaps you commit to saying “I’m sorry” or “I love you” or Thank you” more often, or to spending more time with family or friends.

Whether your guilt is realistic or unrealistic, it is helpful to look at the whole picture. 

Put away the magnifying glass and pick up your panoramic camera! Remind yourself that the actions that are haunting you are part of a much larger picture that contains many loving actions. Ask yourself: What did I do right? Perhaps, like me, you can move from “I yelled at my dying father” to “Most of the time, I was a loving, attentive daughter. Often I was the only one who could make him laugh.” 

FINDING PEACE

Anger and guilt are painful, disruptive, and often isolating emotions. A powerful coping tool for resolving these feelings is forgiveness, a word which is frequently misunderstood. 

Forgiveness is not the same as acceptance; it is not saying that what happened was OK.

In the words of writer Betsy Blanton: “Forgiveness is the acknowledgment that what happened, happened, and that you are now ready to set down the baggage, the pain and the fear.” Forgiveness is being able to say: “I acknowledge that this happened, but I’m not going to let it continue to hurt me and hold me back. I am not going to let this memory continue to be an open wound.”

Forgiving the other person isn’t about freeing him or her — it is about freeing you. 

Forgiveness allows you to free yourself of the burdens you have been carrying from the relationship so that you can focus on living in the present instead of in the past. It allows you to take control by withdrawing your energy from trying to achieve what is impossible (undoing past actions) and focusing it on achieving what is possible here and now.  

Forgiving yourself can sometimes be harder than forgiving the other. 

Treat yourself as you would a dear friend — with compassion for your human weaknesses and mistakes. Would you say to a beloved friend the kinds of things you are saying to yourself “How could you yell at someone who was so sick?!” Or would you say: “That was such a hard time and you were so exhausted. Of course you lost your patience at times.”  

Say “I’m sorry.” It’s not too late.

Have a conversation in your mind or in writing, or speak your apology aloud. Accept the forgiveness you know would be there for you. Breathe it in. Finding forgiveness is a powerful key to finding peace, a powerful medicine for healing. a life-changing gift waiting to be opened.

"Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future." 

Paul Boese.

~Thanks to Laura Bradbury, LCSW of Transitions GriefCare for inspiring insights.

It's Normal Not To Be Normal When Grieving

Mélancolie  by Albert Gyorgy, Geneva,Switzerland

Mélancolie by Albert Gyorgy, Geneva,Switzerland

Grief is the universal human response to loss — we all grieve when we lose someone or something important to us. But grief is not universally understood. Most of us are totally unprepared for the intense and confusing reactions that can follow a significant loss. We do not feel (or think or act) like our normal selves while grieving. We feel like there is something wrong with us.

But in reality, our grief tells us something is right with us! We grieve because we love; we grieve because we care. As writer Paul Irion says: ”Life can be the same after a trinket has been lost, but never after the loss of a treasure.”  Loss profoundly changes our world, sometimes even shatters that world; it is natural that we are also changed. It is normal that we are not our normal selves while grieving.

But if grief is natural and normal, why does it make us feel so crazy?

Normal does not equal easy. Times of change (especially unexpected or unwanted change) are times of stress. Grief is a special kind of stress that affects our whole being, causing inner turmoil and unfamiliar behaviors as we struggle to adjust to a very changed world.

Grief is commonly thought of as a time of sadness that we passively endure until it somehow subsides, but it is much more than that. It is a powerful, surprising, demanding body/mind/spirit experience. Grief causes changes in all aspects of our lives and wellbeing: physical, mental, behavioral, emotional, and spiritual.

Physical grief reactions include changes in sleep and appetite, profound exhaustion, chest heaviness, increase in illness and tension/aches. Our bodies grieve.

Mental grief reactions include “brain fog,” forgetfulness, inability to concentrate or make decisions, repetitive thoughts of events leading to the loss or what could have prevented it, disbelief, apathy. Our brains are preoccupied — and sometimes off-line.

Behavioral grief reactions include social withdrawal (or increased social activity), irritability, changes in work performance and self-care, increased accidents and risk-taking. We are surprised by our actions.

Emotional grief reactions in addition to sadness include loneliness, anxiety, guilt, anger, relief (and guilt for feeling relief), abandonment, lowered self-esteem, numbness, shock, fear (or lack of fear, because the worst has already happened.) We often feel conflicting emotions.

Spiritual grief reactions include changes in deeply-held life beliefs (for some a religion, for others a personal spirituality or philosophy.) These beliefs can be strengthened, questioned, or shattered. There can be a profound sense of comfort and gratitude, or a profound sense of anger and abandonment.

This list is neither exhaustive or a set of requirements— you may experience additional grief reactions or few of those listed.  Grief is highly personal — each of us grieves differently.  But however we respond to loss, we are not our usual selves when grieving, which is confusing both to us and to those around us. It can help to know that these are natural, normal reactions — even when they don’t feel natural or normal.

Many of these changes are temporary even if they are intense at times, and most people reach a place eventually where they feel much more “like themselves.” But some changes are profound and long-lasting;  some are even positive. Like it or not, grief is a process of transformation.

It is natural to want to be normal again. Right now! But if we can accept that this is normal right now, we can take better care of ourselves in this very challenging time. We can acknowledge our current limitations, seek support for what we need, and treat ourselves with patience and compassion as we find our own way forward toward healing.


This blog first appeared in the Cognitive Psychiatry of Chapel Hill blog.

Podcast: Grieving a Difficult Relationship

Photo credit: Ian Chen

Photo credit: Ian Chen

Most of the time we speak of grief — when we do speak of it, that is! — we refer to the person who died as the 'loved one'. We assume the relationship was one of love, and that the person left behind is saddened by the loss of that relationship. But sometimes the relationship was not a loving one. Sometimes it was even toxic. What is it like if your 'Loved One' was not someone you think of with love? What if a central figure in your life was not necessarily a loving figure?

Click here to listen. 11 minutes

Podcast: "Moving On" After a Loss

Photo Credit: Adrien Tutin

Photo Credit: Adrien Tutin

Most people in the throes of grief long for the day when the pain and confusion will lessen, when grief will 'loosen its grip' so that they can experience happiness again, even when they can’t really believe that day will ever come.  But when that day does come — the day where you find yourself laughing out loud and really enjoying yourself, where you are looking forward to a new hobby or a special event, where you notice you haven’t thought about the person who died all day — when that longed-for moment finally comes you can be hit with an unexpected wave of grief — in the all-too-familiar but somehow still surprising form of guilt and self-doubt.

Click here to listen. 14 minutes

Grief as a Healing Process

Photo Credit: Ye Fung Tchen

Photo Credit: Ye Fung Tchen

There are many ways to make sense of the sometimes overwhelming, often bewildering experience of grief. We know that grief is a universal human response to loss — we all grieve. We also know that grief is highly personal — each of us grieves differently. We know that grief can be a confusing process, causing unexpected changes both inside of us and outside of us as we struggle to adjust to a very changed world.

Grief can make us feel like we are being torn apart. But in actuality, grief is a healing process, the way we knit ourselves back together after being torn apart by the loss of someone important to us. Loss is the wound; grief is the healing of that wound. It does not feel like healing — it feels much more like a threat.  But if we can come to understand grief as a healing process instead of a threat, we can stop fighting it and find ways to aid our healing.

Many grieving people describe their loss as “losing a part of me”, a kind of amputation. If this amputation was physical, the body would respond with natural, built-in healing processes to help protect and mend the wound. So it is with grief.

Does your loss feel like a kind of amputation?  If so, it might be helpful to think about the ways that the healing process of grief is similar to physical healing:

  • Healing is painful at times, and often takes longer than expected.

  • Healing rarely means feeling “a little better each day”; it is natural for pain to recur along the way.

  • Healing is frustrating: many things that used to be easy are now hard or impossible.

  • Most of these changes are temporary while healing is in progress, but some are permanent

  • Healing doesn’t mean we go back to our old life; it means we learn how to live with what is different.

  • While we can’t control or rush the process, there are ways to help our healing.

  • Similar to undergoing physical therapy, we must sometimes work through the pain. Equally important, we must sometimes avoid or rest from what is causing the pain.

  • While we are healing, we have limited abilities but increased needs. We would not expect ourselves — and others would not expect us — to run a marathon while recovering from an amputation. Likewise, respecting our current limits and caring for ourselves as we would care for someone dear to us is vital to our healing.

Yes, healing from a serious physical injury leaves scars, and does not guarantee that we will never feel pain again. We are forever changed. But by allowing ourselves to grieve, and taking good care of ourselves while we are healing, the pain of the wound lessens and we can reengage in life, finding what is still meaningful and possible. As we knit ourselves back together, as the wound of separation heals, we discover that what seems lost forever is now part of us forever.

The only cure for grief is to grieve.
–Earl Grollman




This blog first appeared on the Transitions LifeCare bereavement blog.