Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Grief

Emotions are part of being human. We react to situations around us in our thoughts and our feelings, for good or bad. Sometimes feelings are wonderful: joy, happiness, peace. Other times they are very hard to face: anger, sadness, hurt. But this range of emotion serves as guideposts to help us navigate our lives more skillfully. Sadness let's us process a loss and move forward, anger cues us into something not right with a relationship or our jobs. Yet I am asked frequently if I can help a patient avoid emotion altogether, especially in the case of grief. Sometimes the pain is too great, a loss too recent, and I understand the need to cope. But eventually the feelings must be faced. They're still there waiting.
Grief is one of the most difficult processes humans can go through, I'm sure. The loss of a loved one brings up a wave of emotions, ranging from sadness to anger and denial. Many people want to avoid this pain, to move on without moving through the stages of grief. We can be surprisingly successful at avoiding and stuffing emotions for a while, ignoring pain and pretending everything is ok. Eventually the pressure starts to leak through the cracks, though. Little upsets cause big reactions, physical pain and illness becomes more frequent, or current relationships suffer. The emotions are simmering under the surface, demanding attention. Avoidance will not make feelings disappear.
Grief and depression have a lot in common. They are both marked by sadness, loss of appetite and sleep, and lack of focus. But grief does not always lead to depression. There is a culture of awareness of depression, but, unfortunately it causes a lot of people to believe there is a pill to take away every sad feeling. We then forget that grief is a normal process in recovering from a loss. Sometimes the loss is a death of a loved one, sometimes it's a divorce or loss of a job, but the process is similar. Anti-depressants can't catapult us over the emotion and into the next phase of life. Don't get me wrong, there are times when medications are necessary. But that is the exception, not the rule, in cases of grief.
So how do we navigate a loss and move forward? There are many ways to work through grief: counseling, support groups, individual religious or spiritual traditions, to name a few. The important thing is to experience, not avoid, the feelings. So-called negative emotions like sadness and anger are very tough to deal with, but they are part of being human. We can sit with our feelings, recognize them and name them, and notice the bodily sensations that accompany the emotions. We can laugh and cry, sit or run with it, but be fully aware of it all. This doesn't take away pain, but acknowledges it for what it is, and how it's affecting us. Feelings don't weaken or destroy us, but we must face them when they arise, for good or for bad. The experience of grief reminds us that as humans we can form strong bonds and emotional attachments. I am grateful for that, even in loss.

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