Paula Shaw, grief expert, author and speaker, talks about why you have to give yourself the opportunity to grieve authentically in order to heal fully.
Returning to regular life after a devastating loss is one of the most perplexing experiences most humans will go through. On the one hand, your heart sears with pain. On the other, it almost feels good to focus on menial tasks that take your mind off what you’ve just faced.
People ask how you are and show sympathy, but you are still expected to accomplish certain goals, especially if you are returning to your place of work. Receiving sympathy and watching others become visibly uncomfortable listening to what you’ve been through is hard. It’s so tempting to put on a smile and march bravely through your day. I I mean really, isn’t it more comfortable to cry in private in the office bathroom, rather than sobbing while sitting across the conference table from your peers?
Most people aren’t comfortable with public displays of emotion, especially in the workplace – but pretending you’re fine when you’re not can actually hinder your grief experience. The reason for this is multi-faceted.
Let’s begin with looking at the way emotions are designed to work: sights or sounds trigger certain brain chemicals to be released, which produces feelings. When we express these feelings, they pass, making room for the next set of feelings. At least, that’s how it should work.
Now let’s look at a more likely scenario. Marnie was recently dumped by her boyfriend of four years. She was so devastated that she had to take three days off work. On her first day back, everyone is mutually uncomfortable. No one is sure whether to talk about it or not. Finally, one brave soul walks over to her and says, “I heard what happened and I’m sorry. That must have been rough.”
This is actually a good thing to say. It’s compassionate and it confronts the truth. However, Marnie, like so many grievers, should have had more than three days off to heal from her pain. Consequently, the I’m fine facade she thought she’d perfected crumbles.
In her panic and effort not to fall apart, Marnie cuts the conversation short with a quick, “I’m fine. He was a jerk, anyway.” With this response, she not only denies herself the therapeutic benefit of a genuine conversation about her feelings, but she uses a lot of her available energy to hold the tears at bay – and she will continue to waste a lot of her energy for days to come. This can become exhausting.
Another disadvantage of the “I’m Fine” face is that if we look like we’re fine, others will forget to be gentle and considerate with us. What too often happens is they buy into our deception and expect the usual from us, at a time when we have limited energy and may be dying on the inside. We then try to rise to the occasion, a feat that can only be accomplished if we consistently deny our feelings and push them away.
Feelings are energy. If we don’t express them, what do you think happens to that intense energy? It goes into a destructive, covert mode. It seeks places to store itself, where it is bound to wreak havoc, emotionally or physically. Cancer, for example, was linked to unexpressed grief back in the ‘70s, by cancer guru Dr. O Carl Simonton. Since then, many others have written about this link. That is but one way unexpressed feelings can fester and cause big problems.
The bottom line is that it isn’t healthy for us to grieve inauthentically. We prevent ourselves from getting our needs met and we set ourselves up to become human petri-dishes in which the components of illness will grow.
So what’s the healthy alternative?
It’s definitely better to be as real as possible. Does this mean throwing yourself prostrate on the office floor, crying and wailing? Of course not. But it does mean when someone offers condolences, you acknowledge it has been rough and thank them for being sensitive to that. It means when you find those safe someones, you open up and talk about your pain.
It isn’t a felony if you start to tear up or even cry when talking about what you’re going through. If we allow ourselves to feel and express the feelings, there is rarely a big dramatic scene. That only tends to happen when we bottle everything up until a huge explosion becomes the only way to get relief. Be brave. Let it out. It is far healthier and takes more courage to be real and tell our painful truth, than to soldier our way through inauthentically.
A word of warning: the holidays are tailor-made for the “I’m Fine” face. Nobody wants to be hurting during the holidays. The very word holiday elicits visions of sugar plums, feasts, parties and presents. None of those sound like elements of a setting for someone who is curled into a fetal ball, crying their eyes out. All the same, don’t deny your pain. I’m not suggesting you stay home wrapped in your blankie and miss out on all the fun, but pace yourself. Don’t do too much, and only do things with safe people with whom you can be your authentic self.
The process of healing is simple:
When another painful feeling arises, repeat these four steps again and again until the day comes when there is no more pain.
Being real and processing your pain can also be aided by journaling, art projects, rituals, meditation and prayer. Anything that allows you to go within can be very helpful.
These steps are merely a suggestion. There is no perfect way to grieve, but there are more productive modes of grieving that will help you reap something beautiful from your pain. I know that may sound counter-intuitive, but grieving authentically can eventually bring us to higher levels of appreciation, wisdom and acceptance. Having these attributes at our disposal can make all aspects of our lives happier and lovelier.
I invite you to share your experiences of wearing the “I’m Fine” face. How did it work for you? How did it hurt you? Don’t forget my Free Webinar on The Most Difficult Time of the Year on December 10th at 6:00 P.M. PST, when I’ll be sharing strategies and suggestions for getting through the holidays without having to put on the “I’m Fine” face.
PAULA SHAW, CADC, DCEP is an author, Energy Psychology specialist, therapist, speaker, Reiki Master and Grief Counselor. For more than 20 years, Paula has been passionate about empowering people who are dealing with profound loss, so they can reap something truly beautiful from their pain. She also helps clients who are going through major life transitions or seeking freedom from self-destructive addictions. She has degrees in Education and Communications from Long Beach State University, as well as graduate counseling credentials from Loyola Marymount University. She is one of the founding members of the Association of Comprehensive Energy Psychology and currently serves on its board of directors. Paula is the auther of Chakras, the Magnificent Seven (2002), as well as the upcoming book When Will This Pain Ever End? Finding Your Way out of the Pit of Despair after Suffering Profound Grief and Loss, which will be released in the spring of 2015.
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PAULA SHAW, CADC, DCEP is an author, Energy Psychology specialist, therapist, speaker, Reiki Master and Grief Counselor. For more than 20 years, Paula has been passionate about empowering people who are dealing with profound loss, so they can reap something truly beautiful from their pain. She also helps clients who are going through major life transitions or seeking freedom from self-destructive addictions. She has degrees in Education and Communications from Long Beach State University, as well as graduate counseling credentials from Loyola Marymount University. She is one of the founding members of the Association of Comprehensive Energy Psychology and currently serves on its board of directors. Paula is the author of Chakras, the Magnificent Seven (2002), as well as "Grief...When Will This Pain Ever End?" Finding Your Way out of the Pit of Despair After Profound Loss.
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