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.

  1. September 11, 2013 at 12:31 am

    It really can feel like dealing with grief is unending, can’t it? It has been mingled with most everything for me for at least the last 6 months, if not longer.

    When I was doing the 20 minute phone contacts between sessions, I would just start crying every time because the grief would start to leak out.

    Right now, I am dealing intensely with anger, but in the middle of it, I will double over with gut wrenching sobs, because there is so much grief mixed in. It’s so much harder than feeling one emotion or the other.


    • September 11, 2013 at 5:32 pm

      (((Cat))) yeah, unending does describe it! And you’re right mixing in with anger can give you whiplash. I have been dealing with a lot of difficult material recently (I think I’ll write about it eventually, but frankly, right now it’s too raw), some of which has included a lot of rage. When you move back and forth between them it can feel like there is no rest, only exhaustion. I hope things ease up for you soon. The only thing which keeps me going sometimes is KNOWING that the work is healing. Can be tough to trust the process in the middle of it. OK just realized I need to add trusting the process to my list of coping skills in the next post. 🙂 xx AG


  2. September 11, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    I too am looking forward to the next post for the same reason as xxx, what to do when it comes time to leave therapy.


    • September 11, 2013 at 5:35 pm

      Thanks JWD, as I said to XXX, I’ll do my best to make the wait short. 🙂 ~ AG


  3. September 11, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Totally understand your feelings, since it can be seriously crazy-making. I’ll do my best to have it up sometime tomorrow. The schedule is a bit insane right now, but promise I won’t leave you hang too long. I hope they prove worth waiting for. I am happy to hear that you find hope here, makes it all worth it! ~ AG


  4. GreenEyes
    September 11, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    Dear AG, thank you for writing this post. As I asked this question a few months ago, I (naively) thought “gee maybe I’ll be through the grief process before AG puts her post up” – bwah!!!!!! I look forward to what’s in store in the next installment. Hugs to you xxxxx


    • September 13, 2013 at 3:37 pm

      (((GE)))) You are not alone! We’ve all been naive that way. I think it’s really cute the way I keep thinking I am done therapy. 🙂 Hugs back, and thanks again for your patience. xx AG


  5. Marijke
    September 12, 2013 at 9:01 am

    “… 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 …” Strong stuff AG. I’m crawling out of a desperation episode, to find that I have this kind of person as my T. It’s still hard to get my mind around the concept though, but slowly getting there. Looking forward to part two.
    big hug


    • September 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      ((Marijke)) Those are really tough passages, but I am so glad to hear that you have someone to come alongside of you. And it is a really difficult thing to get your head around. I think it’s one of those things that for as long as you are breathing, the depth and breadth of your knowledge can continue to grow. Hope part two did not disappoint. 🙂 xx AG


  6. Ann
    September 12, 2013 at 11:50 am

    I also look forward to your next post! The hardest thing for me is thinking about not having weekly therapy and hating the attachment I have to my T. He is so good at his job, which makes it harder. I have gotten o.k. between sessions, but if I think about termination I get very sad. We do talk about it a little and he says my feelings are normal.(and after thinking I was crazy for decades, hearing the word normal attached to my feelings is amazingly therapeutic.) You sound busy, but more grounded- which is nice.xoxo Ann


    • September 13, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      (((Ann))) I have spent a lot of time hating the attachment, I feel like there has been a significant shift in that I now I truly welcome it, probably because I am finally learning to trust it (ok, ok, until the next disruption. :)) As far as termination goes, when you get there, you’ll be ready. Still sad, but ready. And you’ll have your T to help you with it.

      And thanks Ann, things are a bit busy. the company is heading in a new direction so there’s a lot of projects, I’m actually switching to a 3 PM- midnight shift for a few weeks to hit a release deadline. i have also been doing some very intense work in therapy, but haven’t been able to talk about it yet as its still a bit raw. But I am noticing differences in myself. I am on very solid ground with BN which really helps. xx AG


  7. Willow..
    April 7, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    ” 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. ….”
    I read this and I wonder why continue, you mention you have more resources afterwards available to you….but worth the loss, the grieving? Not questioning your path, but wondering about mine… always, enjoy your posts…


    • April 8, 2014 at 10:30 am

      It’s fine to ask, its a perfectly reasonable question. First off, I want to say that I truly recognize that the choices I have made are right for me, but that does not mean they would be right for someone else. When it comes to dealing with the pain of trauma, I think a person has a right to decide how far they will go and how much pain they want to face. It might not be worth it for someone. And I am certainly not going to tell someone who has been through that kind of pain that they need to do more. I truly respect and accept what someone decides to do.

      The reason I felt the loss and grieving were worth is, is that I feel like I lived in a cage of my own devising, still trapped in the loss in some ways. Because their was so much unprocessed loss that felt overwhelming to face, that meant that any situation that reminded me of that loss had to be avoided (unconsciously mostly) which meant that my life was circumscribed by what felt safe (which considering my history had a VERY small footprint). I got tired of holding down the pain, and the memories and not being able to live as full a life as I wanted to. So while I stand by what I said about how painful the work is, in my case, the freedom from having to hold down the unprocessed feelings and being able to step out and risk more have been worth it. I see myself so much differently and know myself so much better which provides a sense of efficacy and assurance. The best way for me to convey the feeling is that life used to feel like it was all in shades of gray and now there is a vibrancy of full color. Hope that helps.

      But no matter what you decide, trust yourself to know what is best for you, even if it looks different from other people’s chosen paths (including mine!). It’s your life, and your choice and you have a right to make it. And your worth as a person is the same no matter how you decide to handle it.


  8. Georgia on my mind
    April 15, 2018 at 9:13 am

    Thank you for this post. I feel like it is spot on with what I’m feeling right now. I have a deep heaviness and sadness and it is because abandonment loss from my childhood is surfacing. I appreciate how you put it in the perspective of feeling like the grieving is the heart of healing. It really makes me feel supported. I also agree that it tests your resources and support network. I’ve been in recovery for over year and I feel I’m able to talk to people about how I’m feeling and show up at support groups. I know I can speak to my therapist and friends over the phone. The alone time is a killer because I just wanna sleep to avoid this heaviness and so I am looking forward to hearing more practical ways you with your grief in between therapy.


  1. September 23, 2013 at 7:37 am
  2. September 24, 2013 at 9:15 am
  3. September 26, 2013 at 11:43 pm
  4. October 7, 2013 at 11:10 am
  5. October 15, 2013 at 9:37 pm

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