Written by: Dr. Alyson Nerenberg
Last December I had a texting communication with a “friend” who had recently lost her father. She was communicating to me through texts about how painful her grieving process was. I had commiserated with her and said that “I so got it”’ and that I hoped the year 2018 would be better for both of us.
She quickly attacked me and said “you didn’t lose your parent so how could you possibly understand grief?” I then received a barrage of texts about how much deeper her pain was than anything I could possibly understand.
There was a lot that was wrong with this communication. The first and most important point, was that it was done through texts and not through verbal communication where tones of voice and contexts could be understood. The second point was that she was no longer a close friend due to many different circumstances and I should probably not have tried as hard to be empathetic towards her. Thirdly, due to the change in our level of intimacy and my own boundaries, she was not aware of the losses I had suffered throughout the past several years.
This brief and unsuccessful communication led me to think deeply about the process of grieving losses. Do only people who have recently lost loved ones have the right to grieve losses? Also, so many of the tremendous losses we experience are kept hidden away from others.
When someone close to us dies, it is often very public. There is a funeral, a burial and a time when friends and family step up and show support for the surviving family members. Friends may bring meals, send condolence cards and share memories about how their loved family member mattered. These losses are devastating, however both the life of the deceased person and the survivor are acknowledged and honored through the sacred rituals of mourning. Friends often check in and see how the surviving family members are doing for months afterwards. In the healthy grieving process there is a sense of closure, as well as support. This grieving process has been widely discussed and understood both in literature and throughout popular culture.
However, there is another type of grief that is much more hidden and insidious. This is the grief that occurs as we experience significant yet not as easily defined losses. Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” to explain the grief that can be experienced from the loss of a loved one, who is still alive, accompanied by a change or death of the relationship. Dr. Boss initially wrote about this phenomenon to describe the grief that occurs when there is the trauma of a missing child or a loved one who is at war. I believe it can be expanded to describe the situation when there is a betrayal discovered in a marriage and there is a huge disappointment to be grieved. If it is a sexual betrayal, it is devastating and can lead to separation or divorce which can be the “death of the dream of an intact family”. If it is an emotional or financial betrayal it can lead to feeling scared and not safe. Also, addiction often contributes to devastating physical and emotional absences even though the family member may still be alive.
There can also be ambiguous grief suffered when a loved one experiences a significant illness and is not functioning in his or her former state. For example, when a parent has experienced Alzheimer’s and is no longer living like her vibrant self, there is often a tremendous amount of grieving that occurs for the whole family. Additionally, there is the grief that occurs when a child is diagnosed with a learning disability or a significant health condition. Often there is the death of the dream of your expectations for that child. There is also the carried grief you have when a close family member or friend experiences cancer. Sometimes all of this ambiguous grief builds up. You are not sharing it publicly due to honoring your loved one’s wishes. However, it is inside you like frozen grief. You may believe that you do not have the right to feel sad and think that you need to be strong for your family members.
When frozen grief is not spoken about, it often turns into shame and a general sense of feeling deficient. Furthermore, it can be somaticized and felt deeply in your body as aches and pains, as well as a sense of heaviness. Sometimes it can lead to depression and anxiety and a feeling of not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. Frozen grief manifests itself differently in everyone, however one thing is for sure, no one gets out of life unscathed or not touched by grief.em
My own myriad of grief experiences in the winter of 2017, may not have appeared catastrophic to many people, but for me they sure felt overwhelming. Grief is relative, and I felt knocked down by my parents’ aging process, my brother’s diagnosis of bone cancer and his subsequent leg amputation, my son’s learning disability and some additional stressors in my marriage. On top of all that, I was trying to provide support to two close friends with cancer, as well as being a steadying force for my daughters as they dealt with some of the inevitable disappointments that occur during the teenage years. However, to the outside world, or anyone who was friends with me on Facebook, my life looked flawless.
It is important to remember that no one knows how much grief another is carrying. We all need to be kind and realize that there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t experience significant pain. As a psychologist, I am not immune to grief, however I do have the benefit of knowing how to work through it. During this past year I increased my own selfcare: which included playing a lot of tennis, journaling, reconnecting with close friends, as well as attending a Growth and Transition Weekend Workshop based on the teachings of Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Additionally, I changed my diet and let go of a lot of extraneous commitments, so I would have more time to relax.
For those of you reading this blog post, please know that you are not alone in your grief. If you are struggling with handling your pain and want a safe place to process it, please feel free to contact our practice and connect with a therapist who is skilled at helping assist you cope with losses. We are all in this together and can hold each other up as we move through our darkness into the light.
Sending You All Love and Light,