Dealing with Emotions
No sooner had Jane started to talk about the death of her mother than she burst into uncontrollable sobs. She wept for a minute or so, then heaved a big sigh and looked up. “I am sorry,” she exclaimed, wiping her eyes, “I didn’t mean to get emotional.”
Every time that sentiment is expressed, I wonder, “Where did people get the idea that they should apologize for their tears?” Probably it came from those who blithely said, “Try not to be emotional; you mustn’t cry; you have to pull yourself together and be strong.”
Or the ultimate guilt trip, “Your loved one wouldn’t want you to cry.”
Really? Are you sure? I don’t know about anyone else, but frankly I would like to think that after I am gone, someone would miss me enough to shed a tear. Wouldn’t you? I think we have to remind ourselves that tears are not a sign of weakness, they are a sign that we CARED.
Yet, dealing with overwhelming emotions is one of the most challenging aspects of the grief process. Often we feel stunned by the emotional impact of the death, and swamped by an avalanche of uncharacteristic reactions and behaviors that are difficult to understand.
It is important to acknowledge that the focus of grief is not on our ability to understand, but on our ability to FEEL. In other words, grief is not just a thing of the HEAD; it is a thing of the HEART. It is not enough to know about grief, it is something we have to go through by experience.
While each individual’s emotional reaction will be unique and personal, there are a number of emotions which many can identify.
Often after a death, and the initial impact, people feel quite numb. Some might describe this as shock or denial, but it is actually our human defense mechanism which “shuts down” until we can marshal our resources to face the reality of what has occurred.
The problem is that many often confuse “numbness” with “strength”. How many times have we heard people commend the grieving person for “doing so well”, and for” how strong they are”. Then when a few months later that numbness wears off and the grieving person is overwhelmed by their emotions, the same folks can compound the confusion with their well-intentioned yet misguided statements of “what’s wrong with you. We thought you were doing so well,” implying that now the person isn’t doing so well.
After a loss, we can actually feel like we are going crazy, or at the very least, like we are “losing it”
Some of the reactions people can experience in these days may include shock, confusion, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, difficulty making decisions, fatigue, apathy, and there may be others. What are some of the emotions YOU have experienced?
It is important to acknowledge that all these responses are in fact a natural reaction and there is an explanation for them. But while we can normalize these experiences, we must not minimize their importance or indeed their complexity. The individual needs the confidence to know that they will be able to survive (a word taken from two Latin words, literally meaning “to live beyond.”)
People when emotions are sometimes tempted to believe they are losing their minds. But in fact this numbness is what protects us from the full impact of our loss until we are able to cope with it. You are not losing your mind; your mind is simply shutting out a harsh reality which may be too difficult to face right now.
Trust the process. Trust yourself
When the numbness wears off, (and every individual time frame is different,) many people experience what can be described as an explosion or avalanche of emotions. Everything seems to touch the person on the raw nerve. There can be many emotions associated with grief and no one has a comprehensive list.
Emotions can include oversensitivity, over-reacting to everything and everyone; anxiety; fear; vulnerability; panic; impatience; restlessness; irritability; sadness; yearning and searching, and there may be others. What are some of the reactions YOU have experienced?
Sometimes we have to “re-learn” that these emotions are not an enemy that has to be wrestled to the ground and brought into submission, but rather as a friend that is helping us express how we really feel about our loss.
Counsellors, support groups, friends and family all should work towards the goal of enabling people to work with their feelings. Feelings teach us about our reaction to life with the person who died, and our response to this new life without their presence.
Good grief encourages people to work through their feelings allowing them to express their emotions in appropriate ways. This is never easy, for the griever or the helper, yet it is the necessary process which will help them begin to reconcile what has happened.
But here is the dilemma. When numbness is replaced by this emotional avalanche, some of the people who thought you were “strong” (when you were really NUMB!) may now wonder, “What’s wrong? You seemed to be doing so well.” They may imply that maybe there is even something pathological because you are SO emotional. Others may regard showing feelings as a sign that you are not coping, and try to get you “not to think about it”.
But in fact, your emotions are not a sign of growing weakness; they are an indication of increasing strength. Your mind has decided that you are a little more able to come to terms with this unbelievable thing that has occurred, and you are now feeling the pain of your grief.
The reason we need to understand grief is so that we can validate and legitimize the fact that what people are experiencing is a normal reaction. If you understand the “why” behind the emotion, it helps you understand that grief is after all a healing process