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Whether it be, the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, changes in one’s health, or even the loss of opportunities or material possessions, our lives are marked by beginnings and endings, of being together and then being apart, of having and not having.
Grieving is the process through which we resolve losses. While often painful, grieving is a necessary healing process that enables us to live with loss, and to learn and grow from it. Without healthy grieving, loss experiences can be consuming. The pain of grief can overwhelm and constrict us with little or no respite. In the midst of grief, it is not unusual for people to report that even routine tasks, such as cleaning a room or paying bills, all seem unmanageable. If grief goes unresolved over the long term, impairments in physical, social and emotional functioning can persist.
Our culture does not do an adequate job of teaching us how to deal with grief. We live in a "pull yourself up by yourboot straps and get on with it" society. We often don’t know what to say to people who are dealing with loss. Discomfort with our own painful feelings and the feelings of others often pushes a premature and arbitrary ending of what is considered an "acceptable" amount of time for grieving.
There is no one "right" way to grieve. It is a very individual process. Many people have asked how long the grief process lasts? There is no schedule to grief. It takes as long as it takes. Grief is not a linear process. It is more often like a "roller coaster" with unpredictable ups and downs and with shifts back and forth through the different stages or phases.
There is, however, a readily identified "wrong" way to grieve, and that is to deny it. Denial of the thoughts and feelings of grief requires tremendous emotional energy. Incompletely grieved losses can have a cumulative impact with new losses triggering more difficult emotional reactions because of previous loss experiences that have not been completely grieved.
What does it mean to completely grieve? Loss leaves an indelible mark on us. Healthy grieving does not mean forgetting, but rather involves integrating our memories, and honestly dealing with positive and negative emotions in a way that allows us to hold a balanced and more complete understanding of ourselves and who or what we have lost. Healthy grieving allows learning and growth and increases one’s capacity for empathy for others.
Hurting more does not mean we loved more. As grief begins to lift, it is not unusual to experience guilt and fear about feeling better. It is important to challenge the idea that grief is a measure of love. It is not.
Giving ourselves, and others, the permission to experience grief is the key first step in being able to begin to face loss and move through it. While people have different needs when it comes to openly talking about their grieving, do not assume that someone does not want to talk about their loss or that someone is not willing to listen to you talk about your loss. These concerns can be directly addressed in the form of questions such as: "I would like to talk with you about the death of my mother. Would you be open to that?" or "I know that your mother passed away. Would you like to talk about it?"
Just listening to someone talk about his/her grief can be an extremely powerful way of helping. It is not realistic to expect that we should be able to offer words that will take the pain of loss away. What matters most is the willingness to be in the presence of someone else’s pain, and our willingness to have others be in the presence of our own pain. This willingness is experienced through dialogue and attentive listening.
Social support is extremely important for healthy grieving. There are many community support services available. Hospice groups, churches, community mental health programs, and hospitals are just some of the community-based organizations that provide grief support resources. Contact these kinds of groups for specific referrals in your area.
A trained mental health professional can be an invaluable resource as well. Loss can bring up unresolved issues that can be most effectively addressed in psychotherapy. Some signs that you might benefit from work with a therapist would be:
depressed and/or anxious mood that persists, or becomes more severe, several months after a loss.
increase in alcohol or drug use to cope with painful feelings.
sleep or appetite disturbance as well as disinterest in things normally experienced as pleasurable.
persistent feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness.
the sense that your grief is lasting "too long".
Working through our own feelings of grief and loss can give us a greater understanding of our relationships and ourselves. Facing our own grief and loss also prepares us to respond to the grief of other people with compassion and empathy. So while grief can be very difficult and challenging, it is a tremendously meaningful part of life that can be embraced as an opportunity for learning and growth.
Peter Roussos, M.A., MFT, CST
Couple, Individual and Family Psychotherapy Services
AASECT Certified Sex Therapist
(CA Lic MFC 34711)
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