Coping with the Conflicting Emotions of Grief
How are you feeling today?
It’s a simple question. You’re asked a version of it every day. You know how to respond. Keep it simple. Choose a one to three word answer. Bonus points if you choose something neutral-to-positive that doesn’t require a follow-up question. Don’t say anything awkward or concerning (unless you’re certain the person you’re talking to genuinely cares).
The ‘how are you’ exchange isn’t intended to be complicated, which is kind of weird when you consider how convoluted a person’s state-of-mind is at any given moment. Scientists don’t really know how many thoughts we have per minute, but according to a little Google research, estimates range between 50,000 – 80,000 thoughts per day. Our emotions, which are very closely tied to our thoughts, also tend to vacillate and shift through the day.
People rarely feel just one thing at a time or one way towards a given person, place, event, or thing, so although you may make a habit of saying ‘fine’ or ‘good’ when someone asks you how you’re doing, the answer is probably a little more complex. But I don’t need to tell those of you who are grieving this because grief, well, it makes you feel things! So many different things that life after the death of a loved often comes to feel like one big emotional mash-up.
One emotional experience that many grieving people find particularly vexing is the realization that their thoughts, emotions, and needs occasionally seem to conflict with one another. A very common example of the this is the feeling of simultaneously being happy but also sad. This is something grieving people eventually learn to live with, because after the death of a loved one this bittersweet reality is just unavoidable, but the first time a person experiences happiness or laughter after the death of a loved one they may feel guilty. They may say to themselves,
“If I feel happy, then I can’t be sad, right?”
Wrong, this way of thinking goes back to the false belief that a person can only feel one way at a time; when in reality, people can feel many things at a time. One emotion doesn’t replace or cancel the other out. So in the example above, happiness doesn’t replace sadness, it exists alongside it.
The fact that thoughts and emotions are not either/or is important to remember, because it will come up (if it hasn’t already). Grief is full of puzzling paradoxes! You may have your own examples, but here are a few…
A wife loves her deceased husband, but also needs the companionship and affection of a partner. Her connection with a new partner does not diminish her love for her deceased husband.
A woman has struggled with infertility in the past and her grief over this loss makes her feel a little jealous when her friends become pregnant, even though she is truly very happy for them.
A brother feels that grieving his sister’s death has made him stronger and has given him a greater appreciation for life, but he still wishes the death had never happened.
A daughter feels hopeful for the future, but scared that moving forward will mean having to leave her deceased mother behind.
A husband feel happy at his son’s graduation, but also sad that his late wife couldn’t be there to witness their son’s special day.
Grief is hard work for so many different reasons, but one of those reasons is because it forces you to stretch your heart and mind to create enough space for all your thoughts, emotions, and desires to exist alongside one another. This in turn requires you to be flexible enough in your thinking to accept that it’s okay to feel two seemingly opposite things at the exact same time.
Grief opens your eyes to a world in which the sun and rain can exist at exactly the same time. This reality can be a bit disorienting at first, but in many ways it is a good thing. It means that you don’t have to choose between grieving the past and living in the present. It means that the pain of loss can exist right alongside things like pleasure, happiness, and hope. And above all else, it means that you never have to leave your loved one behind and you move forward in the present.
The What’s Your Grief School’s newest collaborative eCourse, A Guide to Navigating Grief, begins on February 1st. This four week eCourse is is appropriate for anyone impacted by grief and anyone interested in learning more about grief and coping. It is designed to help participants build a foundational understanding of grief and coping with grief by providing a space for participants to process what it means to explore and express their grief, education about grief and practical coping tools, and a supportive online community.
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