Grief is Vital For Healthy Relationships
Grief hits us all and it’s important that we feel it
Grief can come up on you slowly watching a magical romantic connection fade as you become aware that your partner has a cruel streak – or it can come thick and fast when your brand new loved car is totaled in a crash the day after you drive it out of the dealership. Whatever way grief hits you; it is unsettling and destabilizes your self-identity. Who are you without your hair that has fallen out due to stress? Who are you when your kids leave home and you don’t have anyone to fuss over? Who are you if you are a retired school principal with no more status or power? In each case you have undergone a major loss of a core part of you, and if you don’t grieve those losses appropriately life will be awful.
If however you are in denial that your relationship is over, or refuse to accept that your child is part of the LGBT community then you are not acknowledging the loss – you halt the natural grieving process, then you go through life battling that over which you have no control, ensuring that you stay stressed and never find peace.
Acknowledging Grief After Divorce was equivalent to ‘giving up’ on her deepest wish
After a ten year marriage Marianne was shocked when her husband Trevor left her. She got angry but for the next ten years she continued to believe that if she stayed firm and resolute he would see the error of his ways and come back to her because it was meant to be! She couldn’t grieve that loss because she believed it hadn’t gone – it was just on hold – and that’s how she lived her life. She took on the role of a wronged woman – unhappy, depressed and stuck when she came into therapy with me.
Marianne went through a repetitive cycle – missing what was lost and grieving for it – then shifting to anger and resentment in an effort to punish her ex, and make him come back and return what he took away. The vengeful phase halted the process of grief– then grief would trickle out as she returned to feeling the loss – it was unbearable, so Marianne swung back to feeling strong in an angry punitive stance. She was frustrated with this unyielding process and wanted to burst out by finding another relationship that would fill the hole. But each time she thought about dating she compared every date with the good marriage she once had and found everyone unsuitable and crappy. Without fully grieving the loss of her ex-husband and marriage she was destined to sabotage the dating process and complain about being ‘stuck.’
Inch by painful inch Marianne felt safer to let go of her wish to make time stand still and accept the reality of her loss. The length between her cycles of grief and denial became bigger. Basically Marianne couldn’t fully grieve until she was able to both miss her ex-husband and marriage, and note that it was also flawed. Then her tears of anger and revenge turned into tears of loss and sadness. Only then was she able to date and view her dates as prospective partners separate from the comparison with her idealized marriage.
Postponed Grief from childhood roared back in adulthood threatening Elliot’s marriage
At the age of 10 Elliot lost his mother to cancer. He often wondered if it was his fault because he hadn’t helped enough with chores around the house. He flirted with the idea that he was selfish wanting to play with his friend instead of being by her bedside. His father wasn’t the type to show his feelings and encouraged Elliot to do the same. There was no understanding of each one’s loss and Elliot just got on with life as it was, trying to make sure his father was okay so he didn’t lose two parents! As an adult he was in a permanent state of stress, trying to prove that he was good and worthy, while fearful of getting involved with anyone and risk loss again.
But years later, after he married, he started to get very angry and jealous of his wife. She was a cancer survivor and was everything Elliot wanted in a partner. He was mystified and scared by his angry outbursts towards her, fearing that he would drive her away. When he came to my therapy office in an effort to manage the explosions of anger, I noticed that he had never grieved for the loss of his mother, and now with a wife who had survived cancer, all his feelings of loss got stirred up. The anger at his wife was really the first stage of grief for his mother and his helplessness to do anything about it. He hadn’t dealt with the grief of growing up motherless, and the grief of having an emotionally unavailable father. Children often blames themselves for the loss of a parent, and Elliot not only did so, but also had magical thoughts about being bad and unlovable, driving his mother to death. In his marriage it was coming up again – he couldn’t believe that his wife truly loved him, and was terrified that he would make her cancer return and be the death knell once again.
The more we talked about his fear of having to be perfect so that he didn’t ‘cause’ the death of his now beloved wife with his jealousy and anger, the more he started to feel the sadness, the emptiness of having a sick mother and then a mother who left him by dying. The layers of loss were immeasurable. In the safe arms of a sound therapeutic relationship, Elliot started to grieve, and as he did, he realized that he was not to blame for the losses. His guilt and fear of repeating the past subsided, leading to less angry outbursts. Going through the grief counseling took the pressure off him to be perfect in his marriage. It took a while for him to feel that he was worthy of being loved as he was, and that he wasn’t the harbinger of death to loved ones. Grieving set him free.
copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2017
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