Monday, September 8, 2014

In Grief: Feeling Disconnected From Feeling Bad

[Reviewed and updated June 19, 2022]

To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.  ~ Oscar Wilde 

A reader writes: I have a dilemma that I am hoping you can remedy. Three years ago, my father passed away and two months later my mother was diagnosed with cancer. To make a long story short, my sister and I stayed upbeat and positive for our mother's sake, but she kept having one thing after another until finally she was deemed terminal. We took care of her with the help of Hospice 3 days a week, but were her sole caregivers until she passed away last April. We cried when our father passed away, but quickly stopped grieving when Mom was diagnosed.
          We both disconnected from feeling bad, and when she was terminal we further disconnected to not make her feel bad. We cried when she passed, but hadn't cried since her memorial service. I feel like I can’t hold all of this in any longer. Even though I try to do it where no one can see or hear me, it seems like now I’m crying all the time and can’t seem to stop. I don't know what to do, where to turn, or what to expect. I don't know if my sister cries, we don't talk about that. We talk about all that happened with our Mother, but you can still hear distance and disconnection, and we both feel as though we are stuck in some nightmare and will wake up and none of this has happened. I know we still need to grieve both our parents, but we both seem unable to go through the grieving process at all. My sister and I had talked before our mother passed about how we probably would need counseling after this to be able to grieve, and after she passed, we really just kept so busy, not stopping to even try to reconnect with all of this. What would you suggest would be the best for both of us? At this point I know I am a basket case. I feel like my whole world has been turned upside down and won't right itself no matter what. Thank you in advance for your help.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the significant losses you've endured ~ your father three years ago and your mother just five months ago. You say that although you've been crying recently, both you and your sister find yourselves "unable to go through the grieving process at all." You also say that whenever you begin to feel your feelings and cry, it's usually "where no one can see or hear me."

I don't know what you and your sister were taught as children about outwardly expressing your feelings, but I suspect that in an effort to maintain control and be able to function, you've both been repressing your grief at each of these deaths. To be sure, your intentions were good, but the reality is that when you deny the emotions of your heart, you deny the very essence of your life. Both your parents whom you dearly love have died, my dear, and in your heart you've come to know the deepest pain of loss -- but if you've kept yourself from feeling and expressing that pain, you've set a task for yourself that is impossible. What is more, it isn't healthy. You cannot go around this pain of loss; you must be open to it. You must honor it and be willing to embrace it. It is the key that will open your heart and place you on the path to healing.

You see, my friend, despite your efforts to protect yourself from the pain of losing your parents by postponing your grief, it is the love you have for these precious beings that requires you to mourn for them. We do not grieve for those we do not love. When we do not pay our grief the attention it demands, the pain of it doesn't "go" anywhere ~ it simply lies there, waiting patiently for us to deal with it. And the harder we try to avoid the pain, the more difficult it becomes!

As grief expert Alan Wolfelt says in Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones,
You will learn over time that the pain of your grief will keep trying to get your attention until you have the courage to gently, and in small doses, open to its presence. The alternative -- denying or suppressing your pain -- is in fact more painful. I have learned that the pain that surrounds theclosed heart of grief is the pain of living against yourself, the pain of denying how the loss changes you, the pain of feeling alone and isolated -- unable to openly mourn, unable to love and to be loved by those around you.          Instead of dying while you are alive, you can choose to allow yourself to remain open to the pain, which, in large part, honors the love you feel for the person who has died. As an ancient Hebrew sage observed, 'If you want life, you must expect suffering.' Paradoxically, it is gathering the courage to move toward the pain that ultimately leads to the healing of your wounded heart. Your integrity is engaged by your feelings and the commitment you make to honor the truth in them . . . Be present to your multitude of thoughts and feelings . . . 'be with' them, for they contain the truth you are searching for, the energy you may be lacking, and the unfolding of your healing. Oh, and keep in mind, you will need all of your thoughts and feelings to lead you there, not just the feelings you judge acceptable. For it is in being honest with yourself that you find your way through the wilderness and identify the places that need to be healed (p. 11).
In his beautiful book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss, professor and theologian Jerry Sittser observes that
We refuse to let the pain in and experience it for the hell it is. But the pain of loss is unrelenting. It stalks and chases until it catches us. It is as persistent as wind on the prairies, as constant as cold in the Antarctic, as erosive as a spring flood. It will not be denied and there is no escape from it. In the end denial, bargaining, binges, and anger are mere attempts to deflect what will eventually conquer us all. Pain will have its day because loss is undeniably, devastatingly real (p. 59). 
How do you begin this process of paying attention to your pain? You can:
The good news is that it is never too late to do the work of grief, and you don't have to do it alone or without support. You took the first step by writing to me, and I hope you will continue on this path toward your own healing.

I leave you with these wise words from the renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield:
The grief we carry is part of the grief of the world. Hold it gently. Let it be honored. You do not have to keep it in anymore. You can let go into the heart of compassion; you can weep. Releasing the grief we carry is a long, tear-filled process. Yet it follows the natural intelligence of the body and heart. Trust it, trust the unfolding. Along with meditation, some of your grief will want to be written, to be cried out, to be sung, to be danced. Let the timeless wisdom within you carry you through grief to an open heart.
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