My son died almost 30 years ago. It brought me face-to-face with this “crazy” thing called “grief”. “What was this powerful thing that can knock you down, take your identity away and explode your life as you know it?” How do you maneuver through the maze of intense feelings of despair, anger, longing, fear and the biggest ones of Guilt and Powerlessness without getting stuck?
Grief is two things: Feelings and Changes. Getting though it requires movement and connection.
Everyone grieves differently, but when we know what tasks we need to accomplish to be able to move through it, and when we know the warning signs and guide posts so we don’t get stuck or lost, we can heal. We can even grow and transform on the journey though healthy grief.
Grief walks into our offices in a huge variety of ways, some of which are: death in the family, divorce, life-threatening or life-limiting illness, the end of a meaningful relationship, change in career direction, fertility issues, empty nest, or a major move. Profound Grief is a multi-layered, complex process that can impact every corner of our and our client’s lives. Unprocessed, it can get stuck and become chronic depression, anxiety, anger, substance abuse, family dysfunction, or it can be projected onto future generations.
For the past 25 years I have been exploring Grief, learning from clients, students and my own experience. I built my work on the foundation of a Master’s degree with a Clinical Specialization in Grief Therapy. I have added my own experience and insights gained from working with thousands of children and adults while running a Children’s and Family Grief Program at a local hospice for 8 years, teaching classes on Grief at JFKU, and doing more than a hundred presentations on Grief for Conferences, interns, doctors, churches, health care providers and schools, as well as working with clients in my own private practice.
Over the years many therapists have expressed to me how valuable my concept of “The Grief Closet” has been to them. Grief doesn’t go anywhere unless we have a chance to process it. It just gets stuffed into our “grief closet”. Then, when we have new losses, the “grief closet” door swings open and all the old grief tumbles down on top of us and we feel overwhelmed. Entering a new developmental stage also opens the closet door. Children’s Grief and “National Grief” (Sandy Hook trauma, etc.) can also trigger our old grief that we haven’t had an opportunity to process.
The “stickiest” feeling in Grief is Guilt. Clients can go through layers of guilt throughout the grieving process, often ending with feeling guilty about finishing their acute grief. We most commonly know about survivors guilt, and the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” built on hind-sight. Children find amazing, creative ways to feel guilty. Why? It took me many years of asking myself this question to realize that it was because of “powerlessness”. At least if we’re guilty it means we were powerful enough to cause the death (or other grief), if it’s my fault, then I’m not powerless. But we are powerless over some things, and in death it’s an existential crisis since we weren’t given total control over life and death. The Serenity Prayer is our way out of this dilemma: to figure out what we can and what we can’t do, and the wisdom to know the difference. Then we can take our power and not get trapped (or like one kid said “I beat my head against the wall”) in those places where we don’t have power.
“Grief Closet” copyright 1998
Ninette Larson MFT / Ninettelarson@att.net / Ninettelarson.com