I see many clients in the grief process. They’ve experienced a recent loss and want someone to talk to who isn’t a friend or family member (who might also be grieving or is worried them). Or their loss happened further back, they feel stuck in their grief and don’t know how to move forward (or even if they should).
Many of my clients have more than one problem. There’s the main problem (either the grief, anxiety, depression etc) and then there’s the other problem, which usually starts ‘I should’ or ‘I shouldn’t’. “I should just get on with it”, “I shouldn’t be feeling so anxious” or even, “I shouldn’t feel happy after everything’s that happened”.
As understandable as these should’s and shouldn’t’s can be (I mean who should feel anxious or depressed?) they burden us with a problem that runs deeper than the original grief. That of deciding what we should be feeling and when. This interrupts the natural process of our emotions and our built-in ability to overcome difficulties and loss, whatever the circumstances. These ‘should’s’ keep us stuck.
So when you’re thinking about how much choice you have in your grief process, I invite you to consider these two perspectives, for the shorter and the longer term.
There are big things in life that can happen to us without warning; someone dies, someone leaves, we lose a job, we get sick. These things are hard to prepare for, even if we know someone we love is dying. It’s usually not until it happens that we feel the full, emotional impact.
In these cases, our emotions can be raw, vivid and sometimes totally unexpected. Instead of feeling pain when someone dies, maybe you feel anger, relief or guilt? These feelings are part of the deeper grief process and can change over time.
The important thing here is to feel what you feel. It’s crucial to give yourself the space and freedom to be with what comes up so it can be released. This can be easier said than done due to our tendency to self-judge (the ‘should’s). So if you’re finding this difficult, know there’s help and support available if you need it.
Our emotional responses following these big life events can be more straight forward than the difficulties encountered in the longer term, particularly if we haven’t had the time or space to grieve. What if you’re feeling down and there’s no apparent cause? Or the cause was a long time ago and rather than releasing those old emotions they seem to have got stuck?
I used to be obsessed by the pursuit of happiness. It was my goal every day yet I realised, through my own therapy, this was more hedonistic than realistic. I’m more balanced now (honest!). And I haven’t given up my love of happiness but my understanding of it has changed.
Now I focus on removing the things that stop me feeling happy and content in life. I started with the outside things first; difficult relationships, jobs that didn’t work for me, the habits that hurt me, that kind of thing. But when I did this I realised something still wasn’t matching up.
Some days I felt good, other days I was in a fog. Not happy or sad but a middle place in-between. Nothing outside me brought this on, so I started to go deeper and explore the day-to- day thoughts I was having. What I found matched the research I was reading: worry about the future, expecting negative outcomes, putting too much pressure on myself, not recognising (and savouring) the good, or being present to enjoy the little things in life… the list goes on and you can probably add a few of your own.
All of these thought patterns can get ‘wired’ into our minds early on in childhood or following a distressing (and unprocessed) event such as a bereavement or trauma. There’s a reason for this – our minds learn through experience and when we have experiences that shake the foundations of our trust, it can be hard to rebuild it. Hard but not impossible if we work at.
And there’s good reason to work at it. Because each one of those though-patterns that’s trying to keep us safe by not getting our hopes up or risking disappointment is actually stealing our happiness. They make us unintentionally ungrateful for the good things in life that could make us happy – if we let them.
The good news is we don’t have to challenge these thoughts directly. If you get to know them it’s easier to step back and decide whether you’re going to let them affect your day or not. Now I smile a knowing smile when I hear those thoughts and say thank you but no thank you. Some days we can’t choose to be happy but on other days we can.
Kirsty is an accredited counsellor with the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. She offers online and in-person sessions from her private practice in Cardiff, UK. She works with clients experiencing a range of difficulties including bereavement and loss. She’s just written an ebook on counselling (due to be published later this year). You can contact her through her website at www.kirstymcgovern.co.uk and sign up to her newsletter to access free resources and updates from her blog.