NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Holding Onto Grief as a Way to Stay Emotionally Connected to a Deceased Loved One

There are no rules about grief.  Everyone grieves in his or her own way.  At the same time, many people come to therapy because they sense that they're not allowing themselves to let go of their grief and they remain in a lot of emotional pain.  There are many reasons why people hold onto grief.  It's not unusual for people to hold onto grief as a way to stay connected to a deceased loved one, and this type of holding on often has a detrimental effect on the person grieving as well as their loved ones.

Holding Onto Grief as a Way of Staying Emotionally Connected to a Deceased Loved One

The type of grief that I'm describing in this article is a grief that often feels almost as painful now as it did when the loss occurred years before.  This often happens because the person who is grieving is actively holding onto the grief, usually unconsciously.  

Discovering the unconscious reasons for actively holding onto the grief is part of the work in therapy.

The following fictionalized vignette, which represents many different cases, illustrates this dynamic:

When Mary came to therapy, she had lost her father three years before.  She described the emotional pain of her loss as being almost as intense as it had been when she first lost him.

Holding Onto Grief as a Way to Stay Emotionally Connected to a Deceased Loved One

She came to therapy because she knew on some level that there was more going on for her than just the grief that she felt for her father, but she didn't know what it was.

She had been to therapy before to try to deal with this loss, but none of her prior attempts in therapy helped her.

She kept ruminating about the last time that she saw her father in the hospital and blaming herself for not "doing more" to help him.

When asked what she felt she could have done, she had only a vague idea.  Her father was in the hospital because he had a heart attack after years of neglecting his health and not listening to his doctors to lose weight.

Even though Mary tried to encourage her father to adopt a healthier lifestyle, he continued to smoke and eat foods that his doctor told him weren't good for him.

The reality was that there was nothing that Mary could have done to make her father change his ways, but she remained stuck in thinking that she might not have done enough, and if only she had done more, maybe he would be alive today.

Mary knew that, since her father died, she wasn't paying as much attention to her husband and her daughter, but she felt powerless to change how she felt about the loss of her father and about moving on in her life.

During the first year, her husband was very understanding about her sorrow.  But after that, he started complaining to her that he felt she wasn't emotionally present for him and their daughter.  He told her  that he felt this wasn't fair to him or to their daughter.

Mary understood why her husband felt this way, and she felt guilty for not being as emotionally present  for her family.  She loved her husband and daughter very much, and there was a part of her that wanted to be more present.  But there was also a part of her that wanted to continue to grieve for her father.

Holding Onto Grief as a Way to Stay Emotionally Connected to a Deceased Loved One

As an only child, when she was growing up, she knew that both of her parents loved her.  But she and her father had a special bond.  She felt that he understood her in a way that no one else ever would--not even her husband.  

Losing that sense of being loved unconditionally, in the way her father loved her, was one of the biggest losses when her father died.  From the time she was a child and throughout adulthood, she knew she could go to her father with any problem and he would never judge her.  

Even talking about this aspect of her loss was excruciatingly painful, even though she had talked about this many times before in her prior therapies.

In many types of therapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapist would try to get Mary to see that she wasn't accepting the loss of her father and, until she accepted it, she would continue to suffer.

While this might be true in the most practical sense, this counteractive type of approach is rarely, if ever, helpful for someone who is stuck in unremitting grief.  It usually results in the person who is grieving feeling that they're "wrong" for being unable to let go of their sadness or feeling misunderstood.  This often induces guilt and shame.

A counteractive approach, like CBT, attempts to appeal to the rational part of the brain.  But the problem is that these stuck emotions are in the emotional part of the brain, and counteractive therapies, like CBT, which might be good for other problems, don't work as well when someone is stuck in protracted grief.

CBT might help a client understand their problem on a rational level, but the problem persists on an emotional level.

Rather than using CBT or another form of counteractive therapy, we used an experiential therapy, EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, to help Mary process her grief (see my articles: How EMDR WorksExperiential Therapy, Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs and EMDR Therapy: When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough).

Using EMDR, Mary was able to access the unconscious reasons why she had been, until then, unwilling to let go of her grief.  The main reason was that, even though her grief was deeply painful, her sadness kept her emotionally connected to her father.

Holding Onto Grief as a Way to Stay Emotionally Connected to Deceased Loved Ones

If she wasn't feeling her grief as intensely, she wouldn't feel as connected to her father.  But she also experienced during EMDR therapy what an emotional toll this was taking on her, her husband and her daughter and, for the first time since her father died, she was willing to let go.

Processing her grief with EMDR therapy wasn't easy or quick for Mary but, gradually, she felt a reduction in her grief.

For the first time, she was willing to accept on an emotional level that her father was gone and she would never see him again as well as all the implications of that, including that no one would ever love her in the same way that her father did.

But she also knew that she was loved very much by her husband, daughter, close friends and family members, and she loved them.

She became aware that she wasn't as powerless over her grief as she felt originally.  Her willingness to let go was a significant step in this psychological process.

As her grief subsided, she felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her.  She also discovered that she felt more like herself and she was more emotionally available to her loved ones.

Holding Onto Grief as a Way to Stay Emotionally Connected to a Deceased Loved One

Whenever she thought of her father, she still felt sad, but it was no longer the crushing grief that it had been before EMDR therapy.

Grief can feel overwhelming for some people, even years after the loss.

For these people, counteractive therapy, like CBT, isn't helpful in many cases because it doesn't provide emotional relief.

EMDR therapy allowed Mary to discover the unconscious reasons why she was holding onto her grief and she decided that she was willing to let go.  EMDR also helped her to complete the mourning process so that her emotional burden was lifted and she was more emotionally available to her family.

Grieving for the loss of loved one is never easy.  It's common to feel sadness, anger, regret and a host of other feelings about the loss.

The Grieving Process

Many people go through the mourning process and within time they're able to resume their life and their relationships.  This doesn't mean that they're not sad when they think of their loss, but they're able to resume functioning in their lives.

For some people, the grieving process becomes protracted over years and it has a detrimental effect on close relationships and everyday life.

Once these unconscious reasons are discovered, people usually realize that, rather than being helpless over their feelings, they have a sense of agency and responsibility.  They can ask themselves if they're willing to let go of the grief.

Often when the pain of holding onto grief becomes greater than letting it go, most people who are experiencing protracted grief become willing to let go.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have been struggling on your own to overcome your grief, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in helping clients to overcome loss.

Being able to let go of grief will allow you to resume your life and your relationships again.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

One of my areas of expertise is working with grief and loss.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.