So many of us who have suffered the loss of a loved one have wondered if we could ever smile again, ever feel joy again. As long as we don’t turn away from the Lord, the answer is always a resounding “Yes.”
However, running from our grief, ignoring it, stuffing it, does not serve us.
Why Do We Stuff Our Feelings?
The most common pattern as life’s demands keep coming at us after a loss, is to use activity to escape or displace feelings. Life doesn’t provide “time off” for grief work. Maybe you work full-time or have small children that keep you busy more than full-time. It may not be easy to find even an hour to think your own thoughts and feel your own feelings, but it’s important!
Society doesn’t teach us how to deal with broken hearts. And neither do most families. We have likely been encouraged to bury our feelings. Functioning from the head and not the heart is more “efficient.” Many of us were taught to keep a stiff upper lip, or to act strong so others don’t break down, or to keep busy in the old fashioned work-ethic, so we bury ourselves in work so much that we can’t think about our grief. When we try to unwind at bedtime, we may become overwhelmed and unable to sleep. After a short while, our health suffers from these ineffective old traditions of dealing with emotions.
Technology is anti-feeling and our lives are enmeshed in technology. A recorded voice message doesn’t care how you feel. The computer doesn’t care how you feel. And even most people “out there” don’t have time to care. After a tragedy it’s more comfortable for the people around us if we dont show our emotions or talk about what happened. It’s more convenient and comfortable to ignore our own emotional turmoil as well as that of others and get on with the tasks at hand. We are a very task-oriented society, after all. What I’m calling “grief work” is often seen as a waste of time. But it’s essential for healing parts of ourselves we may not even know are broken.
One reason that grief work is so important is that unexpressed grief can manifest itself as physical ailments (such as immune deficiency diseases, chemical depression, stomach problems or frequent colds) and in behavior changes, such as excessive sleep or TV watching, and social withdrawal. And we can get stuck in grief by ignoring it.
The more grief we stuff, the more it accumulates. We can become like a volcano about to erupt. Stuffed down grief affects our immune systems. Simply put, when not acknowledged, grief undermines both emotional and physical health.
Being willing to feel our real feelings is the key to the breakthroughs. Grief is emotional, not intellectual-we can’t reason ourselves out of it. Grief is cumulative. Grief is emotional energy, and energy is indestructible. When feelings are not acknowledged, they go underground, but they don’t disappear. Some sources say that as much as 80% of our emotional challenges are rooted in grief gone underground.
I have CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) with the attending Epstein Barr virus. Attacks are triggered by stress and emotional turmoil. Needless to say, as I’ve ignored my feelings, the turmoil has increased and I’ve been sick and exhausted a lot! The enormous energy it takes to stuff down, hold in, deny feelings, and act as if everything is fine robs me of the energy I need to function and stay well. It also keeps me from the wisdom that can come from dealing with my trials openly. Oh, how I’ve needed to feel my grief in order to keep my health, to lean into my sorrow by acknowledging it, and working through it, instead of running away from it.
So many tasks, demands, and entertainments distract us from the actual grief that needs to be dealt with. But distraction only works for the short term. We want relief and resolution in the long term. We want to get to emotional truth. How you really feel is your truth. Dealing with your emotions affirms your identity. There is authenticity in pain; ignoring it is ignoring part of who you are.
Wayne Brickey pointed out the need to draw ourselves apart and take time for our grief when he said, “Suffering places us behind a door and hides us somewhat from the view of others. The privacy allows adjustment, renewal, and transformation. The fortunate interruption allows us to break old chains.
(Making Sense of Suffering, 2001, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 10).
Grief presents all of us with grief-work tasks. Emotional health is about choosing to do these tasks, even though it requires time. I can’t over-stress how important it’s been to me to spend time admitting how I feel and being really honest with myself–partly because the idiom “time heals all wounds” is a lie. Time heals nothing. Only doing the grief work and being willing to receive healing from the Lord can heal all things.
Jim Miller has created a web site called Willowgreen that offers online tips and help for those who are grieving. They also sell books, tapes, videos, etc. Look for his list of 48 “Grief Tips”-for those who mourn. He says, “All wounds heal the same way-from the inside out. The best way to handle your feelings is not to “handle” them but to feel them.”
Think about your own patterns. How much do you stuff your feelings? If you do this a lot, is it because you simply don’t know what else to do?
How to Express Instead of Stuff Feelings
Some of the most simple suggestions I’ve received have proven to be powerful healing tools. When I’ve made the choice to feel and express feelings in the following appropriate ways-I also choose to speed my progress.
Here are the techniques I’m going to talk about that have helped me most to express rather than stuff feelings. I hope some of them will help you too.
Cry the tears you need to cry,
Find safe places to talk in support groups, and with those who understand.
Try the Hour of Contemplation-setting aside a specific time to grieve.
Use writing exercises, and physical releases.
Crying the Tears We Need to Cry
I’ve come to believe that the most important thing I can do is feel my feelings. Interestingly, the hardest times have been when I couldn’t cry. There is a cleansing, strengthening power in tears. I usually like to cry alone, but especially in the immediate aftermath of Brian’s death, crying with others–raw sorrow shared-forged stronger bonds of love, and there was some small relief in mutual expression of our grief. Every person I’ve cried with I’ve drawn closer to. I found a sense of being human and alive in my grief as long as I was honestly expressing it and allowing others in to share their grief with me. Tears can keep the pressure inside from building up and becoming unbearable. I still find the need to cry occasionally.
My friend, Mary Smith, beautifully put into words what I have been experiencing in the years since the death of my son: “Grief is like the ocean – calm and peaceful, and then a wave starts to rise [higher and higher until it] breaks over one like a tsunami. The pain, the self-examination, the doubt, the tears all begin again. The wave subsides and so does the power of the grief until the next time. However, each wave gets a tiny bit smaller and the time between waves grows longer until one day you realize you have gone an hour and then two between the pain and the promise.” What is the promise Mary speaks of? I believe it is the power of the Comforter, the light of truth, the power of soul growth.
I was knocked flat by another wave the other night and thought I would never stop crying. But I felt such relief afterwards. Tears are healing; when I can’t cry the pain is much worse – especially in the wee hours of the night when it hits me that all this has really happened.
We all need to find a place to openly express feelings without being judged, or having others trying to fix us. I was referred to a grief support group provided by a national organization called “Caring Connections, a Hope and Comfort in Grief Program.” (See contact information in the Resources section). About five months after Brian’s death, my daughter-in-law and her new little baby accompanied me to six weekly meetings. I was so glad for this outlet! We were given a manual, lots of helpful handouts, and a memory book to write in about our loved ones. Most importantly, we were given a chance to share with others who understood.
A founder of a private support group said, “It was a safe place to express our true feelings and to question. We asked each other “Why?” We shared the guilt we felt that we didn’t recognize the precarious state our loved ones had been in and that we hadn’t been able to protect them.
We shared our frustration at not being able to change things. We shared the thoughts, books, articles and scriptures we each had found helpful. Most of all we listened to and encouraged one another.”
Such groups, often headed by trained grief counselors, offer a safe and appropriate place to meet with others who are in a similar situation who also want to talk and be listened to sympathetically and who can empathize. (If you happen to attend a group that is not supportive and helpful, or talk to someone who puts you down, don’t hesitate to back away and try other resources.)
Banding together with others who have suffered a similar loss eases the dreadful feeling of aloneness. We need to vent, to hear from and talk to others who are still breathing and have survived this awful experience. Telling our story gives context to grief and can decrease both its intensity and duration. Sad and angry feelings need to be appropriately expressed! If you can’t find a support group, at least find a caring family member or friend who will let you talk as long and as much as you need to.
Support from Family and Friends
My childhood friend, Gayla Wise, who had recently lost both her parents, referred me to the Grief Recovery Handbook (see resource list for full information). She also walked me through a lot of the exercises. We cried a lot of tears together and both found the process very therapeutic. Gayla and her caring, loving, sturdy friendship helped me through the grief enormously.
Another friend, Patricia, had lost a brother-in-law to suicide and was always ready to lend an empathetic ear, as was my dear sister Arlene. I don’t know what I would have done without them because within a month of Brian’s death I felt that no one else around me wanted to talk about the whole sad experience-and I still very badly needed to talk!
We need each other! Paul taught, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) I’m so grateful for those who e-mailed me in response to my Meridian articles about Brian. They could not have given me support if they hadn’t known about my plight. We have to let the right people know! I cannot underestimate the helpfulness of feeling supported and not alone in this. Brenda Floyd was one of the first, and she has continued to contact me over the years. Her understanding and support (having been through the ordeal herself) have been invaluable.
Hour of Contemplation
Russ Seigenberg, an LDS Counselor who lost a daughter to a drug overdose, used his training to develop techniques to help him deal with his pain, guilt, depression and grief. The one he said made the most difference was The Hour of Contemplation. He set aside one hour a day to grieve and focus on the emotions and problems he was dealing with, at the same time making an agreement with himself that the rest of his day he would concentrate on the other concerns of his daily life.
He said, “My subconscious, or inner self, seemed to view the idea of grieving an hour per day as an ideal solution. I had already worked through my guilt feelings and so it was more of a loyalty issue. Setting aside a time to grieveimmediately resolved the conflict I had been feeling between holding onto the grief longer and feeling guilty or disloyal if I let go of it. My depression just vanished. I had never before recognized that emotions were so closely connected to the thoughts of the subconscious.I now tell people that whenever they are feeling emotions not tied to conscious thoughts, that their subconscious is processing something.”
Then Russ shared something else that is important: “We always have the opportunity to share words of truth with the inner self. The ability to use effective self-talk is an essential survival skill!” One of the most important things I’ve learned is to pay attention to what I’m saying to myself. Negative self-talk is debilitating-and always contains lies from the adversary. Positive self-talk is simply choosing to focus on gospel truths and positive words that build instead of pull down. Scriptures are often included in my most effective self-talk. Here’s an example:
I will follow the example of Nephi, who said to his father, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the things which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7).
This situation is difficult, but I will get through it. This is painful, and I’m not certain what is the best thing to do, but I will continue each day to turn to the Lord and keep his commandments. He will guide and direct me and I will make it.
The single most important thing I’ve learned in my recovery is to turn my thoughts to God, to scriptures, to hymns, to truth. I’ve found it enormously helpful to type up pages of favorite scriptures and quotes and uplifting self-talk dialogues. I often read some in the morning, and turn to them when I need a special lift.
Writing about feelings can be therapeutic. I often write feelings I can’t talk about. It helps me express my true feelings instead of running away from them. I like to work things through and process emotions by writing, and since the day of Brian’s death I’ve spent many hours at the computer or scribbling in a notebook. I sat by his casket and sobbed out what I had written to him from my heart when I had some time alone with him before the viewing began. That was important to me.
Writing therapy has helped me to admit, access, and vent feelings. Sometimes I idealize both Brian and the relationship we had, not wanting to remember the downside, and repressing memories of his poor choices. But hiding from the truth creates a fog in my brain.
Whenever I can, I get up early when the world is quiet and the phone is not going to ring, and just write-whatever comes up. Occasionally I ask myself pages of questions; rarely then, but later on, answers may pop into my mind.
I’ve found Cognitive Therapy to be helpful. I write my negative feelings in one column and in the other column what my heart tells me could be more true.
Another form of Cognitive Therapy is to write down negative feelings and sort through them. I see which ones I can do something about, which are irrational and need to be let go in favor of light and truth, and which are in the category of “just needing to be accepted.” The AA Serenity prayer is always worthy of note: “God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Earlier I mentioned doing writing exercises to reframe my relationship to Brian. I’m going to list them again here because I found them to be big keys in unlocking my emotions and dealing with my grief. (You can find them detailed in the book The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman.)
1. Create a loss graph: listing in chronological order what you consider the greatest losses of your life.
2. Create a relationship graph. Draw a line down the middle of the page and along the line write the years of your loved ones life. In the left column jot the saddest things you remember from your relationship and on the right the highlights.
3. List anything you feel you need to forgive or be forgiven for in the relationship with the loved one lost.
4. Write any undelivered emotional messages I wished I had been able to communicate.
5. Write a personal letter to your departed loved one, then read the letter out loud as though you were reading it to him or her.
All these exercises were extremely helpful to me. Writing letters to Brian often feels soul-cleansing. Anything we talk about or record on paper seems more manageable, less threatening. And much of the feeling of having “unfinished business” with Brian dissipated after I had completed these exercises.
Sometimes I rant and rave on paper, then tear that page (or pages) into tiny bits and throw them in the garbage or burn them. I might write a line, then write the next line over it to avoid fear of anyone reading it-even me. I’ve been so angry and sad about so many things about Brian’s death, and admitting those feelings and writing about them has helped drain the anger and grief out of me. Sometimes I specifically ask myself in writing how I’m feeling about Brian’s death and am surprised at the answers I write down.
I often talk to the Lord on paper and find Him answering me. A good spiritual exercise is to write a favorite scripture verse, ask myself how I feel about it, how I could apply it, and see what comes up. I believe that it is not only my subconscious that can speak to me through my writing, but the Holy Ghost, as well. Feelings are often the bridge across which the Spirit must pass to comfort and strengthen us. If we choose to keep our feelings locked inside the castle of our hearts, if we pull up the bridge, and create a moat to keep others out, we may also inadvertently keep the Spirit out.
Writing is a powerful tool and for me has played a major part of regaining emotional and spiritual strength.
Physical releases work better than writing for some people. Hitting a punching bag or pillow can help. Even screaming! I remember reading the suggestion in a book by Lucile Johnson of getting in the car and driving where no one is paying any attention and screaming until the emotion is spent. I’ve even tried that a few times when I’m home alone-and it helps!
Adversity and Grief Are Our Teachers
Since time immemorial, people have suffered not only because of their own wrong choices, but because of the poor choices of those around them. However, there is purpose in every part of the plan, even the pain. Elder Orson F. Whitney taught: “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God, and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire.” (quoted in Improvement Era, March, 1966, 211)
All heaven proclaims, “Thou knoweth the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.” (2 Nephi 2:2) I stand amazed as my comprehension of the “gain” from afflictions increases. I see that only such adversity is likely to motivate me to mighty prayer. I see that my suffering has propelled me to seek the Spirit, repent, experience the power of redemption and a desire to be instrumental in the turning others toward that redemption.
The Lord had purpose in providing for opposition in life’s experiences. I suspect that if joy and sorrow, bitter and sweet, light and darkness could simply be explained to us, our loving Heavenly Father would have spared us the difficulty of experiencing them. But only experience seems to “get through” to us. Perhaps we are inclined to learn so much through difficulty and sorrows because in the midst of them we are so inclined to turn to the Lord. Psalm 128:1 says, “In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me.” Years of talk about sorrow could not teach as much as one minute of experiencing it. Nothing teaches like experience.
I also seem to be recapturing pieces of myself that I had lost long before my son’s death. It’s like I’ve been invited to examine faulty assumptions, and restructure experiences that led me to those assumptions, and recognize how much better life can be when lived in light and truth.
In short, my grief has been the bud that has blossomed into spiritual joy. In 2 Nephi 2:23 we read, “having no joy, for they knew no misery.” I know misery, all right, and have experienced how opposite it is from joy! Note the account of Ammon and his brethren in regard to their missionary work, “their sufferings in the land, their sorrow, and their afflictions, and their incomprehensible joy.” There is a vital link between affliction and joy.
The universality of grief comes largely because of the universality of love. Love and grief are opposite sides of the same coin. One of the best lessons I’ve learned is to tell others today that we love them – we must not wait for a tomorrow that may never be. It’s easy to shower my grandchildren with love, harder to tell my grown-ups, but it’s important to do it. One never knows when a fleeting opportunity to express love could be the last in this life.
Jim Miller has a web site called Willowgreen.com that includes resources for grieving. From him I gleaned the following ideas:
“Your sadness is real, yet it need not be final. While it brings you pain, it can also bring wisdom and strength. From it you will learn secrets about yourself and truths about others. You have known deep joy before; you can yet again. Despite your brokenness, and somehow even because of it, wholeness awaits you. Despite what you have lost, and somehow even because of it, you stand to gain. You hold the possibility of experiencing life with a maturity and a compassion and appreciation you have never known before. So be open. Know that the life which flows through you has been given as a sacred gift. Cherish that gift. Nurture it. Above all else, hallow the preciousness of each passing moment that is yours, for this is where the miracle of life resides, and this is where you must go to find it. Finally, remember that your destiny was predicted by the writer of the Book of Job: “You will forget your misery, you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning. And you will have confidence, because there is hope.” (excerpts from the conclusion to the Willowgreen videotape Listen to Your Sadness: Finding Hope Again After Despair Invades Your Life: by James E. Miller.)
Remember, “Healing does not mean a quick cure. Healing is putting the loss in perspective.” (Dennis and Joyce Ashton, Jesus Wept, 5) We reclaim our lives by feeling our feelings and by gaining glimpses of an eternal perspective in regard to our loss.
Author Note: This article is an excerpt from my new book After My Son’s Suicide: An LD Mother Tells How She Found Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go On, which will be available in August of this year. If you would like to be notified when the book is printed, go to my web site, click on Contact, and send me an e-mail. I will put you on the list.