Coping with Grief and Abandonment Part I
GE asked the question below on the Ask AG page:
im wondering if you are wiling to share some of the strategies you used to cope with grief and abandonment feelings when things got rough during your recovery.
As I said in reply over there, this is an excellent question. Since I see grieving our losses as being at the heart of our healing, we should probably learn how to grieve, right? I have been grieving, one way or another, for a large part of my time in therapy, so this might turn out to be a bit of a laundry list, but I am hoping that everyone might find something that they can use in their own journey.
The first, and best, advice I can give about grieving is to not decide the timetable ahead of time. For starters, grieving is a very personal thing, and the length of time someone needs to grieve is idiosyncratic and governed by a complex set of factors. It’s not a straight forward process and sometimes proceeds in fits and starts, with pauses to rest in between intense bouts of emotions. This becomes even more marked when dealing with the many losses accrued during an abuse-filled childhood. You can only grieve the losses of which you are aware. But understanding and accepting our losses can be a long process in which we allow things to surface and become conscious, only to have to grieve based on a just dawning awareness of our loss. We could not grieve as children because becoming aware of our losses was too threatening and the feelings too overwhelming. So as you go deeper in therapy and uncover more material, there is often a need to do more grieving.
I think that most people, at some point, hit a major episode or epiphany of recognizing the deep losses in their childhood when we finally give up on the search for that which we are no longer capable of receiving. That point of surrender (or points, it can be a cyclical or helical process*) is when we face our loss. That part of therapy can be a deep, painful, almost hopeless dark passage as we bring an adult awareness to the nature of our losses while simultaneously experiencing the intense traumatic memories of what it felt like when we were originally experiencing our losses. I think that stage of therapy, more than any other, tested both my resolve to keep going and my resources. It was also the stage during which the most intense healing took place. Things are much better on the far side of that grief. You hit pockets of woundedness that need to be processed. some of which include losses that need to be mourned, but you have more strength, skills and resources with which to face the grief. By then you have learned that you can trust your therapist (not that it still isn’t terrifying to do so) and that there is no longer any need to face the grief alone. Someone can hear your grief and come alongside you to offer compassion and understanding,
So that provides my general sense of the process of grieving in therapy. For a detailed discussion of some of my losses, see What I missed. I’d like to use the next post to talk about practical measures I took to handle the grieving and accompanying sense of abandonment (which was really at the heart of all the losses) with an emphasis on what I did between sessions. The most intense feelings would really emerge when I was with BN, because he provided the containment I needed to tolerate the horrible intensity of my feelings. But as I am sure all of you are aware, the grief does not cease to exist or even shut down upon leaving your therapist’s office. So how do you get through that infinite, endless passage of time until your therapist is once again available to contain you and help you bear the pain? We’ll talk about that in the next post.
*I often think of healing in therapy as a helix: you circle continuously, going over the same ground but boring deeper every time you make a pass.