Grief, Like Physical Trauma, Needs More Than Time
In our NYC grief therapy, helping people grieve and heal emotionally after a loss bears many similarities to healing after a physical trauma. A big breakup or the loss of a loved one are like recovering from a serious physical injury. The loss of a child? Like a major car accident.
As with physical trauma, it would be incorrect to say grief merely takes time to heal. Of course, less people say this about physical trauma. A car accident clearly requires serious medical attention. For the most part, however, doctors who repair a body recognize that healing takes place automatically if (and only if) the barriers to healing are removed. A displaced joint needs to be reset, and broken bones need to be immobilized with a cast or a pin. The work of physical healing isn’t to repair the damage since the body does that on its own, but instead, the work is to facilitate that repair–to remove the obstacles and to provide structures that ensure the repair happens in a healthy way.
So too with grief. The therapist’s job–just like a doctor–isn’t the repair. It’s to keep the obstacles out of the way of healing, to help facilitate good environmental and emotional conditions for healing, to keep healing on track and to keep things away that will harm or delay repair. Taking this metaphor, I’ve highlighted four ways that grief therapy helps to ensure emotional healing during grief, just like physical trauma:
1. Removing Obstacles To Healing
A lot of obstacles to healing during grief are related to resistance to feeling pain. Drugs and alcohol all get employed to this objective. In addition to those unhealthy obstacles, mere avoidance and denial is common. You may also have no space to process or people around you are shutting things down. There can be individuals–perhaps those who are also grieving–that can’t handle the intensity of the grief and counsel that it be shut down. Someone else who is in grief may be taking up all the emotional oxygen, so to speak–talking only about their pain and not allowing yours. People who say things like, “It’ll take time” or “You’ve just have to put it out of your mind” can be particularly unhelpful.
In grief therapy, we take an inventory of sorts. What are the grief assets (a helpful friend–maybe one who is grieving or one who isn’t but is loving and close)? What are the grief obstacles, as mentioned above?
2. Aiding the Metabolism Of Healing
Grief needs space. It needs air, in a sense. People who are grieving need space where it’s safe and welcoming to connect with the pain. There’s a notion called “holding space” that comes from Buddhism–the idea of having a partner in grief, someone who may not be feeling the grief itself but who is feeling alongside you through some portion of that pain. Therapy can be the place to hold space for this grieving process, allowing room for the anger, sadness and all the other complicated feelings that come with grief, as well as creating a necessary sense of calm.
It’s also important to note that in grieving a loss there is also a history of grief. When we’re working through a loss–metabolizing it, if you will, we’re using emotional real estate that holds the history of other griefs from the past. Sometimes a contemporary grief activates old grief that may not have healed fully or properly and so this needs to be explored in grief therapy.
3. Avoiding Improper Repair
A broken leg needs to heal in the right place. A cast guides this healing, as well as staying off your feet, to make sure that the break doesn’t heal improperly. With grief, improper repair is often associated with bad advice whether: “You have to put the past behind you,” “No regrets,” or “Don’t live in the past.” These all sound terrific and I think as objectives, they’re great, but it is exactly poor or inadequate grieving that keeps us in the past and allows us to heal improperly. One of the more profound misunderstandings that I see in my therapy practice is the idea that “powering through” and paying the past no mind will somehow help you move forward. I think about grief the way sailors or surfers talk about the ocean–it’s in charge. You can move with it, but you’re not going to overpower it.
Improper repair in grief also means looking for a type of “all better” solution that is akin to stuffing the grief away like a child declaring to a parent that their room is clean when really the mess has just been stuffed under the bed. This is also related to the desire to “return to normal,” which often is a part of what can delay or complicate grief. Of course, “getting back” and “normal” are both problematic ideas here. If something is serious enough to qualify for a conversation around grief, then it can’t be undone, both temporally and emotionally. In grief, we must simply live with, what I call, “that it is.” The loss happened. It may have been awful. We didn’t want it to happen and it hurts “that it is,” but it is. Rather than looking for an “all better” solution or a “return to normal,” we have to allow room for healing and repair.
4. Physical Therapy
After a physical trauma, it’s important to eventually get back in the game by keeping muscles strong and gaining strength through physical therapy. Likewise, serious grief also has an effect of turning all of our insides around. Sometimes grief therapy helps in a way that’s almost literally like helping someone learn to walk again. A patient may wonder: How do I talk to people again? How do I relate to people who aren’t filled with grief? There can even be existential questions like: How can I go to work and do this job that’s so unimportant when I’ve experienced this loss? The therapist’s task isn’t to resolve these questions, but rather to help a patient work through them and realize that at some point, they will find meaning and pleasure in these things, even if they can’t imagine doing so right now.
In grief therapy, we help people decide how strong they really are during circumstances where they’re likely to underestimate that. Perhaps this means helping a patient navigating going back to work, deciding what to (and what not to) tell people, and learning to feel safe. It can also mean learning to date and love again, if you’re grieving the loss of a partner. In an ideal world, work and other obligations would give us all the time we need to grieve. But at the same time, those very demands can compel us to push ourselves back into the world that isn’t consumed by grief.
Grief is a process of adjusting to a world in which this new pain is a part. We don’t “get over” loss and trauma, but rather adjust to living with it. In a sense our bodies–both physical and emotional–grow so that we can handle carrying the grief with us everywhere. Grief is like a new weight that we have to get stronger in order to be able to carry it.