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Episode 58 -- November 2, 2020

Learning to Recognize Grief: Skills for the Holidays...and Recovery

As this year of great change and uncertainty continues, we all need to acknowledge that we are grieving on some level or other. Some of us have lost loved ones; and some of us have not been able to be present or celebrate the lives of our loved ones as they've passed. Some of us have lost jobs, money, or our basic sense of security. Many of us can't see our friends or family. We miss our rituals and routines, our classmates and our entertainment. Those of us who are new to recovery are experiencing a loss of our usual coping mechanisms, not the least of which are substances. All of this brings grief. In his book Help for the Hard Times: Getting Through Loss, Earl Hipp tells us all about grief and what we can do to work through it, all while maintaining our sobriety.

This excerpt is from Help for the Hard Times by Earl Hipp and has been edited for brevity.

It may sound strange, but people who are very aware of the feelings associated with grief are lucky. When you are aware that you have experienced a loss (of any intensity) you then have the opportunity to consciously choose your response. You can make the positive choices to take care of yourself during your healing process. By consciously making positive choices, you are more likely to actually grow through your loss instead of being wounded by the experience.

The problem is that most of us haven't had much training about grief and loss. Without awareness and understanding of what we are experiencing, small losses—and even some big losses—can pass through our lives relatively unnoticed. We keep the feelings inside, hidden, underground, unconscious. If the world on the outside ignores our losses, we may also try to "just get over it." Driving grief deep inside is never a good idea, but if we don't understand the experience, if we don't know how to take care of ourselves, we have almost no choice.

Signals a Person Is Grieving
To help you become better able to recognize grief, consider the following list of symptoms common to grieving people. The signals that a person is grieving vary greatly from person to person, day to day, and by the importance and intensity of a loss. Symptoms can come and go quickly. You can have one, a few, or all of the symptoms in any given moment. See if this list reminds you of anyone you know.

  • Feeling embarrassed and unsure
  • Making mistakes
  • Hopelessness
  • Loss of energy, motivation, and optimism
  • Being really tired all the time
  • Physical problems
  • Quick mood changes
  • Anger at people, traffic, God, the Universe...
  • Loss of appetite or eating all the time
  • Wanting to sleep all the time
  • Behaving weirdly or inappropriately
  • Inability to think of anything but the loss
  • Sadness—sometimes overwhelming
  • Losing interest in daily activities
  • The "Whys?"—Why me? Why now? Why them? Being obsessed with trying to figure out why things happen the way they do
  • Sudden feelings of desperation or hopelessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Wetting the bed
  • Nightmares

As difficult as these symptoms sound, they are examples of what a normal person might experience when going through loss. Think of loss as a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wound. These symptoms are the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual expression of the pain. If you don't know when you are grieving, you won't know how to take care of yourself.

If you have many of the symptoms on the list, you might be going through a grief experience. There could be other causes, but at the minimum these symptoms indicate that self-care is in order. You may want to reach out for help to understand your feelings and behavior and to get some support. Remember, your experience of grief is normal for you, and that is all that counts, so don't judge yourself. If you reach out for help and understanding, you will learn and grow from your experience.

A Thousand Ways to "Go Away"
Avoiding grief doesn't fix things. It only temporarily distracts you from the sadness and discomfort. Some people spend a whole lifetime running from the feelings associated with major losses. But you can't get away from who you are. It is like that old saying "Wherever you go, there you are." When and if you stop running from your grief, it will still be there to deal with, no matter how many years it takes. Sometimes our grief is so overwhelming that we make a conscious decision to just put it away.?Whatever the reason, "going away" from grief is a common choice.

For better or worse, there are a thousand ways people can avoid the difficult grieving process. But remember, they are all temporary.

Denial—Pretending It Didn't Happen
Some people are so unable to deal with their losses that they have to shut down totally. They pretend nothing has happened and that things are like they have always been. They don't want to hear or see anything that refers to the loss, and they work very hard at ignoring the physical and emotional signals associated with grief.

People who are in denial about a loss are very vulnerable. They have to be very threatened by the loss to go to all the effort of holding off the reality. If you come in contact with someone in denial, remember this person is very fragile.

After a big loss, everyone has some degree of protective denial. It shields us from the full impact of all the changes the loss will create until we are ready to take them on. Denial can last for a few days or for weeks. In some cases, people never acknowledge the full impact of the loss. The feelings are stuffed, temporarily avoided, but carried around forever.

Masking Feelings with Chemicals
Another way to try to avoid complicated and uncomfortable feelings is to use chemicals to make you less aware. The problem is that the bigger the feelings you are running from, the more of your drug of choice you have to use to escape. It creates a terrible and vicious circle, and eventually you have to sober up or come down and face your life again. When you do, all the stuff you've been running from will be there waiting for you (plus a lot more because using drugs always creates problems).

Minimizing the Loss
Another way to avoid grief is to pretend it's not as important or as emotionally powerful as it really is. Sometimes parents will put on a tough front when a child's pet dies, in a mistaken attempt to soften the blow for the child or for themselves. A person minimizing a loss might say something like, "It's just a dog," or "She was old and lived a good life," or "Stop crying and pull yourself together." The message is that the loss is not all that important and you shouldn't be so troubled by it. People who minimize a loss are telling you they are in protective denial; they are making a statement about their inability to cope with their own grief feelings.

If you avoid expressing your feelings about a loss, it means those feelings have to go underground. Stuffing feelings is almost never a?good choice because we need to experience our grief in order to learn, mature, and grow through our losses. Minimizing and completely denying loss are shields that only temporarily let a person avoid the feelings associated with grief.

Masking Feelings with Compulsive Behaviors
People can also get so involved with some small aspect of life that they become too busy to experience their feelings. Some people try to lose themselves in work. Working on something "important" from the moment they get up until late at night and always thinking or worrying about work-related issues is how they go away from their grief feelings.

Taking time out from your grief to be in the world, to do some homework, cook a meal, or wash the floor can actually be comforting. But when you have to wash all the floors in the house, and do it every day, you are caught up in a vicious circle.

There are lots and lots of other ways to compulsively be involved with some piece of life so you don't have to experience and deal with your feelings. You can constantly listen to music, wearing headphones every moment you're away from a sound system. You can become preoccupied with gambling, video games, television, homework, sleeping, shopping, dating, sports, smoking, or drugs. There are even cases of people who became obsessed with washing their hands every five minutes as a way to stay away from the feelings inside of them.

The problem with compulsive behaviors is that the bigger the feelings, the more of the behavior you have to do to stay ahead of your feelings. Being so preoccupied also creates lots of other problems in your life. Running away from grief feelings is harder than finding your way through them... and when you quit running, they are always there anyway.

Ideally, you will develop the understanding, skills, and supports to be able to face your losses and grow through them. It is important to learn how to confront the feelings that come with loss because otherwise you will find a thousand ways to temporarily stuff those feelings.

About the Author:
Earl Hipp is a writer, speaker, and consultant. He works with businesses, schools, parent groups, and other organizations to help people manage life's challenges and get along with each other better. He has written Fighting Invisible Tigers - A Stress Management Guide for Teens, and three pamphlets for Hazelden's Step Meetings for Young People series.

© 1995 Text, Earl Hipp; Illustrations, L.K. Hanson
All rights reserved