“Don’t just sit there, do something.” We hear this a lot in our society.
Many of us are comfortable “doing” things. This is often a recipe for success at school or work where we can solve problems by getting things done.
Therapy also has many action steps and provides plenty of practical tools for achieving better results in most areas of life.But the process of therapy also commonly asks us to move out of our normal comfort zone. Some days therapy might be described like this:
“Don’t just do something: grieve.”
Yes, we can grieve the loss of loved ones but we can also grieve what happened to us as kids or the loss of a deeply held personal dream.
Grieving has the association with death and dying so perhaps that’s one reason we can be uncomfortable with it.
Grieving is nature’s built-in healing technique. It comes naturally to elephants and other mammals, but sometimes the big human brain gets in its way.
In therapy and in life, we can be hesitant to grieve the pain that we’ve collected along the way, especially the pain we collected when we were just kids. There are many cultural forces working against this. For example, we have an American ethos to pursue happiness, and we all feel the pressure to present a happy, extroverted self to the world.
Sometimes we are taught that to grieve what happened in the past is shameful. Or that we should just be grateful for the abundant food and shelter we received. Some people think that to examine the impact of difficult early relationships with parents, siblings, and peers is “whining”.
That’s an example of “black or white”, or binary thinking. I’m advocating for a more inclusive approach. We can deeply appreciate all that we have received AND grieve the places where we got hurt.
This is a practical method because until we can grieve the disappointments we will continue to quietly carry them with us every day. This can lead to feeling depressed, anxious, lost, or less alive.
Fear of Grief
Perhaps some of us fear experiencing grief because as mammals it is advantageous for us to avoid pain. Protecting ourselves from sharp sticks, poisonous animals and cold weather is good for our health and contributes to the survival of our species.
Avoiding pain is good except when it is time to grieve.
Some of us fear that if we experience our sad feelings we will get stuck in them. We believe we could get overwhelmed and it would threaten our ability to successfully meet the challenges of the day.
Ironically, we start to feel better when we actually go into the painful places rather than away from them. It feels counterintuitive. But it permits the natural grieving process to take place, which, when allowed to happen, works quite efficiently and much faster than we think. (The American Buddhist writer Pema Chodron writes about this dynamic if you are interested in more information.)
If you have experienced severe trauma or major depression this process is a bit more complicated and the journey through grief should definitely take place with the support of a licensed psychotherapist.
Many of us are afraid of experiencing sadness. Maybe it would help if grief had its own marketing campaign like Nike (“Just do it”) or milk (“It does a body good”).
How about something like: “Try Grief: A 100% Natural Healing Remedy. Caution: side effects include feeling freer and lighter.”