Finding My Way Back To Wholeness
A therapist’s journey through the grieving process
Loss, in theory, will be a challenge for anyone. Even with all the mental preparation in the world, we still cannot fathom what we will go through emotionally when we lose someone we love.
I’m a mental health counselor; well versed on issues like anxiety, depression, and trauma. So when I experienced loss firsthand, I thought that I would be well equipped to deal with it. I presumed that my clinical knowledge and training might somehow protect me from whatever was to come.
And then grief slapped me in the face.
Grief is not something I was trained to deal with and the gaping hole that was left in the wake of my loss took me completely by storm. I could intellectualize all my emotions, telling myself “this is how you are supposed to feel” and “soon this should pass” but when the grief didn’t systematically go away like the 5 stages of grief I was taught, I felt lost.
In the thick of it I recognized that I was not healing. I had gone through the denial and bargaining phases, thinking that acceptance would soon be on the horizon. However I seemed to be stuck somewhere between anger and depression. My resources were not helping me to handle this loss but my pride was stopping me from reaching out for help. “I am a therapist,” I thought, “I should be able to handle this on my own.”
By all accounts, it seemed like I was handling the loss well. I had gone back to work with only a day off and could function as a empathic and present therapist to others. I could hold normal conversations with friends and family and only in small moments would I break down to those closest to me. Following those moments I’d be sure to recover well as to not make others uncomfortable by my grief.
I learned that we do not know how to handle others’ pain very well and that most people are deeply uncomfortable when faced with a grieving person. It should not have come as a surprise to me since I was hiding my own grief like a dirty secret you only admit to in the closest of company and then quickly backpedal to find more socially acceptable conversation.
When six months had passed and I was still hovering in the depression phase, hoping to break through to acceptance without actually putting in any work, I began to wonder whether I should see a therapist myself. I was breaking all my own therapy rules: judging my emotions, holding them in, and expecting to make progress without taking any action. Shame and fear of judgement were serving as gigantic barriers to me taking the steps to seek help.
In today’s world where a tragedy might stay in a person’s mind as long as last week’s Game of Thrones episode, it felt like I “should” have been over it already. What would people think if they knew I was still struggling with my grief when they themselves had moved on long ago?
I later learned from my amazing therapist that I was experiencing disenfranchised grief. What’s Your Grief describes this as type of grief that happens when “we feel pressure to grieve in a certain way or for a certain length of time and/or we feel pressure to get over it and stop talking about things that make other people uncomfortable.”
Societal rules and norms are constructs I actively help my clients to push back on. How we are “supposed” to function in life, in work, in relationships can add a slew of pressure to a person’s life when they do not relate to those standards. Inherently I know this and strive to push the envelope on many “rules” that I don’t want to ascribe to. I soon realized I was doing this to myself in my grief.
Fueled by anger and irritation with myself and with these subtle standards of what was considered acceptable in grief, I fought to understand disenfranchised grief better and take steps to find resolution.
Once we understand that something exists and is real, we are given the choice to interact with it differently. My therapist helped me to see that there are people who are actually safe to talk to about my grief and that the old 5 Stages of Grief model is outdated. In learning more about my grieving process, I finally felt I had the tools that would help me make more empowered choices in my coping instead of, you know, ignoring it like I had been.
Newer models of grief like The Four Tasks of Mourning, focusing on the ongoing and non-linear process of grief, and the Dual Process Model of Grief, emphasizing the importance of oscillating between confronting your grief and engaging in restorative activities, were enlightening to learn about. In seeing that there were other frameworks of healing, ones that made sense to me and my process, my journey back to feeling whole was beginning.
As for dealing with the disenfranchised grief, this is an ongoing battle as it requires the constant reminder that my grief is real despite the messages I might get from others. Subtle challenges like being asked whether I’m “still going through that” I now use my therapy-speak to say “yes, I am” without trying to explain myself or feel shame for having hard moments.
Conversations about death are difficult with anyone, but given that part of disenfranchised grief stems from a lack of knowing, I know try to have those conversations with people close to me. In doing this, I can not only educate others about the grief process, but I can pave the way to gain more support and help others in their times of need.
Grieving is no simple journey and doesn’t necessarily have an end point. Through my own exploration I’ve come to understand that wholeness might not look exactly the same as it did before, but healing is possible and a new sense of being whole will come.
Leslie A. Jay, LMHC is a therapist in NYC. She helps people struggling with high stress lives to find balance and avoid burn out through mindfulness and movement. You can learn more at talkingoutsidethebox.org.