Several months after he lost his wife Mary, my very first grief support client Tony said to me:
The sadness is back - again. I hate this! I wish I didn’t feel this way – I just don’t know what to do with this much sad. I think I’m failing at grieving.
Since then, I’ve heard these words repeated often by other clients. This sense of not knowing how to grieve right is a common response during the mourning period to the unfamiliar experience of dealing daily with difficult loss emotions.
In our ensuing conversation, I asked Tony to imagine a world without emotions – a world in which the love he expressed and felt for Mary, and the joy he found in her companionship had never existed. After a long pause, Tony said such a world was "unimaginable."
"I’m sad," he said. "But I guess I’m glad that world doesn’t exist. Love is the memory. Love is Mary."
Difficult Emotions – A Normal and Healthy Expression of Loss
Like Tony, most of us don’t like emotional discomfort. Discomfort can feel unpleasant, and we often label unpleasantness as bad. Our emotions however are not good or bad, right or wrong, but informative. Emotions motivate our behavior and determine what we care about. Emotions communicate to others what is going on inside of us. And our emotional responses provide us with important information regarding how we are experiencing our lives.
After the death of a loved one, uncomfortable or difficult emotions are a normal and healthy expression of the pain of loss. Understanding such emotions – what they are, why they exist and how they speak to us - can be beneficial in influencing how we experience, express and navigate what we feel in the grieving process.
Emotions - A Definition
Emotions are energy in motion flowing through your body, instantly changing your breathing and the rhythm of your heart.*
When I present workshops on the language of emotions to children and adults alike, this is the definition I provide when asked the inevitable question “what are emotions?”; this simple definition highlights the powerful impact emotions have on the physical body and why some stress-related grief emotions can be so uncomfortable and energetically draining.
Emotions are instinctive or intuitive, as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.** Emotions are what we feel; yes, emotions do inform and influence what we think – but they are not thoughts. When difficult emotions arise, our impulse is often to control what we feel by trying to think our way through what we are experiencing. But thinking our feelings/emotions is not possible. Self-regulating our emotional responses as we move toward acceptance of what has happened and what we feel, however, is possible; learning how to do this is a process that can help us to navigate with greater understanding and self-assurance the bumpy up-and-down road of our grief.
The Five Stages of Acceptance for Meeting Difficult Emotions
After the loss of a loved one, coming to full acceptance of our difficult emotions happens in stages. As time goes on, the stages may repeat briefly over time - with diminishing length and intensity - when anniversaries and other significant dates come around again. Knowing that this is part of the “way grief happens” was very helpful to Tony in going through what he came to call “grief re-occurrences” that he then “prepared for” by engaging in greater self-care.
Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff has identified five stages of acceptance when meeting difficult emotions; each successive stage corresponds to a gradual release of emotional resistance that she says moves us away from suffering and toward self-compassion as we begin to see with greater clarity what is actually before us without holding on to what we think should be or prefer.
- Resisting: “Go away!” Resisting means to struggle against what is; this is a natural first response to the discomfort of grief and other difficult emotions.
- Exploring: turning toward discomfort with curiosity by asking “What am I feeling?” In this stage the simple act of naming or labeling can help lessen the intensity and impact of difficult emotions. For example, when emotional discomfort arises, you might pause and ask yourself: “What am I feeling right now?” In doing this you may be able to identify your emotion; if you cannot, just acknowledging that what you feel is uncomfortable or difficult can be beneficial. Your inner dialogue may sound something like this: “Here is anger – I feel it in the tightness of my chest.”
- Tolerating: being able to safely endure or hold steady with what you are feeling. “I don’t like this but I can stand it.” We can move toward tolerating emotional discomfort by trying not to judge the feelings we have identified and are experiencing as good or bad, right or wrong. Your inner dialogue might sound like: “This is what it is.”
- Allowing: letting feelings come and go: “It’s okay. I can make space for this.” The use of imagery and controlled-breathing techniques can be helpful in the allowing and being with process. I usually suggest clients check-out these websites for resources on creating space around discomfort:: www.self-compassion.org. Kristin Neff’s website has a variety of guided meditations and techniques that can help in building your ability to allow your feelings to come and go; www.heartmath.com and www.heartmath.org. Both of these sites offer techniques, practices and programs for managing the discomfort of depleting emotions.
- Befriending: seeing value in difficult emotional experiences. “What can I learn from this experience?” Emotions alert us to a need. For example, when we are anxious a desire for inner and/or outer safety and security is being highlighted. Sadness may indicate a need for solace or comfort and anger might tell us that something is seeking restoration.
When a loved one has died, grief tells us of the enormity of our loss, and guides us toward honoring not only our loved one but what our loved one meant to us.
Befriending difficult grief emotions asks of us that we see the value in what we are experiencing. In the process of befriending, our inner dialogue may sound something like this: “No I didn’t want this! I don’t like this! But through this experience I have learned to feel more deeply or more deeply see the preciousness of time, as well as the impermanence of earthly life.”
Befriending difficult emotions can point us toward self-care actions to be taken to fulfill whatever our needs are at any time during the grieving process. For example, anxiety can lead us toward resources that provide us with reassurance and a sense of safety. And both anger and sadness can point us toward places, people and practices that provide us with solace and comfort. In that sense, uncomfortable emotions are our friends – our allies in moving forward with our grief.
The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren
Good Morning, I Love You by Shauna Shapiro
Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, Ph.D.
Tolerance for Uncertainty: A Covid-19 Workbook by Dr. Sachiko Nagasawa
**Oxford English Dictionary