Grief recovery is a topic not often discussed or understood, yet is so important in healing people and the lives they touch. Losses can include any type of lifestyle change, such as: loss of safety; security; family; friends; uniformity; sense of freedom of movement; safety in our airways or in our places of business. The losses associated with all types of addiction (i.e., alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual addiction, eating disorders, work addiction, compulsive spending or gambling, nicotine addiction, excessive exercise, or any behavior that runs the person’s life) may include: freedom of choice; willpower; friends; family; career; personal freedom; and physical wellbeing. The affected family members’ losses may include: loss of freedom and choice resulting from the addict’s behavior and his recovery; sense of safety; security; home; family; religious or spiritual convictions; and the like. Other losses include time spent in jail.
Then there are the losses associated with trauma, abuse, incest, rape, war and its aftermath, that can include: relapse; death; separation; divorce; loss of innocence; loss of sense of self; loss of hope, trust, safety; loss of self-respect, self-esteem; and amputations.
Life changes that occur for most people can include: onset of terminal disease; natural loss of children because they grow up, move out, get married, divorce, become addicted, separate from family; death of a pet; loss of a dream; going to school; graduation from school; completion of a goal or not completing the goal. The list goes on and on.
Many clients who have been in therapy or a 12-step program for a long time still struggle with unresolved pain and suffering due to the losses they’ve experienced. For them, their therapists and programs did not seem to have a handle on how to help them release and let go of the pain in their past. In studying this powerful natural process for releasing pain – particularly with incest survivors, survivors of other trauma, addiction, and people in 12-step programs – clients reported they did not have an effective method of resolving their issues. They had uncovered the painful memories, and then became stuck in the anger or depression over the events. They were still in relationship with their historical reaction to the event.
Albert Ellis, in his Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy approach, states that life events have specific meaning to the one the event happened to, but by themselves have no meaning. So when working with grievers, it’s important not to take the position of authority, assuming you understand their process. Instead, approach clients knowing you have no idea how they internalized the event, then attempt to create a safe space for them to explore their own meaning. This process opens up the possibility for them to find out who they are now in relationship to the event. Healing allows them to change this relationship to the past event.
Terry Kellogg, in his book Broken Toys Broken Dreams, states, “We acknowledge that a loss or painful event has occurred. We acknowledge that we have feelings about the event. We then embrace these feelings. We then share these feelings. We now move to acceptance and forgiveness. We are now free to decide what type of relationship we are going to have with the event and the people involved in the event.”
Friends, ministers, and counselors will be most helpful if they support the griever’s reality and not try to excuse it or make it go away. Grievers are not broken; they just need a safe environment to tell their truth without judgment. Some helpful communication skills that give the griever freedom to express their feelings are statements such as, “I have no idea how it feels. Could you tell me about it?”; “What happened?”; “I can’t imagine how painful it must be”; “What was your relationship with ________ like?”. Open-ended questions allow the griever to express his or her feelings. Hurtful or unhelpful comments such as, “Get a hold of your self”, “You can’t fall apart”, “Keep a stiff upper lip”, “Be strong for the children”, “At least you had them this long”; or if a child died, “Be grateful that you can have other children”, create many problems and need to be avoided at all costs.
In order for there to be a successful recovery, the griever needs to be aware of some core beliefs that block his or her recovery. These blocks tend to be established in childhood and persist into adulthood. Myths such as “grieve alone”, “just give it time” (nothing heals in time), “don’t trust your feelings”, or just wanting things to be different, better, or more, stop the grief process and need to be recognized, confronted, and changed before the griever can move through his or her healing process.
Recovery means choosing a new path, which first requires a commitment to recover. As grievers move to resolve their losses, it’s helpful that they do not involve themselves in any behaviors that negate their feelings (i.e., excessive sleep, addictive behaviors, isolation, excessive work, illness). These behaviors block the feeling associated with the loss, and feelings are necessary for healing. Grievers can then become aware of any undelivered communications and express them. The final step is saying goodbye to the pain associated with the remembrance of the loss. Grievers, their friends and loved ones need to realize that grief is a normal, natural reaction to loss. Grief is pain with a purpose. Healing means letting go of the pain associated with memories of the past, and with how we interpreted the events, so we can truly give up living in survivor mode and begin to incorporate vibrant living skills instead.