Emotions are not something that simply stir around in the brain; they invade every cell in the body and affect the immune system. However, they are ingenious in that they not only communicate our inner response to change, but equally important, eventually they provide many messages about how to deal with our current dilemma.
How we perceive a particular loss has a major impact on the emotions that surface. If we believe the loss of a loved one was inevitable, we grieve one way. If we believe the loss is unjustified, we grieve quite differently.
The three most obvious emotions associated with grief are anger, guilt, and depression. Some mourners experience one or more of these emotions, others, none at all.
If you are presently dealing with one of the above, examine the questions these emotions pose for you. Then apply your answers by taking specific actions, and see if the course of your grief takes a turn for the better.
1. Although anger is an okay emotion to have because we are deprived of something valued, it also sends the following messages to carefully listen to. Am I using my anger to cover up other emotions (like fear, frustration, depression, dependency, or guilt)? Is it causing me to refuse to accept the death and prolong my suffering? What do I need to restore in order to let go of my anger? This question is asking you to consider what you should do with your emotional energy, where to reinvest it.
Is my anger thwarting my ability to love? Love is the most powerful coping response you can generate in adapting to your loss because it will open you to a different view of your world—and the role of inevitable loss and change. Am I turning my anger into a grudge by refusing to forgive? The gift of a grudge is the assurance of continued misery.
2. Guilt usually asks the following. Am I acting as though I should be omnipotent? Often when looking back on an event leading to guilt, the mourner becomes a second guesser and says “I should have done this or that?” Guilt also says what do I need to change? Grief perpetually dictates change. And guilt suggests, I can change in the way I see the event causing guilt.
Is this feeling I have true cause and effect guilt or is it neurotic guilt (where the effect is dwarfing any possible cause or no cause at all)? If it is true guilt, how can I make reparation? If it is neurotic guilt, why do I feel responsible for everything? Note that most guilt associated with the death of a loved one, is not true guilt. One way to confront neurotic guilt is to focus on all the many good things you did for your loved one.
3. The mood disorder of depression is not only one of the most common emotions experienced, it is also the most investigated. The following questions are addressed to those experiencing uncomplicated acute grief with reactive depression. What must I let go of? The late psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, defined depression as our inability to give up the old for the new, which is a very normal human response in the face of massive change. What routines, beliefs, approaches, relationships, or old parts of your life do you need to give up?
And depression asks one of the most important questions of all: What do I need to add to my life? What knowledge, skills, abilities, or insights? What everyday spirituality will help me transcend my great loss?
To summarize, you create your emotional responses when a loved one dies based on your beliefs, perceptions, and meanings attached to the loss. A careful review of the factors involved in the depth of your emotions—coupled with the inner wisdom your emotions may present in the form of some of the questions listed above—highlights the unusual resource that lies within you. Let it be used and play out.
Study the questions carefully. They demand much of your time and careful analysis. The result will be that you will better direct the course of your grief work and adapt to your great loss.
Dr. LaGrand is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, the popular Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His free monthly ezine website is http://www.extraordinarygriefexperiences.com.