The death of a loved one, a breakup or loss of trust, the loss of a job, of a home, or other something fundamental to our well-being can shatter our sense of security and leave us questioning our most basic assumptions. Grief is a multi-dimensional and sacred process that seeks healing from such a loss. It is painful, disorienting and overwhelming for all, but shows up differently for different people and is different for the same person at different times. There is no correct way to grieve or to heal from a loss, but the grieving process is to be deeply respected.
In my work with grieving clients, I’ve seen that the deep, sharp pain of loss tends to diminish over time. While we learn to adjust to our loss as time passes, the sense of loss never completely disappears. For healing to occur, grief requires our attention and our respect. Because it can be very painful, it makes sense that we turn away, even though that does not serve us well in the long run. The modern world also contributes, with its busy fast pace, to our neglect of the presence of grief.
When we push our grief away, it seems to go underground and can affect our lives in many unpredictable ways. Stephen Levine, the well-known author on death and dying, wrote, ‘unresolved grief is like a low-grade fever. It narrows the path of our lives. When we turn away from sorrow, we intensify our pain and close off parts of ourselves.’ Unattended grief can show up in physical ways such as fatigue, headaches, back pain, muscle aches, and a general malaise. It can also manifest in emotional ways such as lethargy, isolation, depression, a general pessimism, unexpected sadness, and underlying anger.
No. I have worked with a couple of clients who experienced the death of a loved one when they were children, and still feel the effects of unattended grief. Grief can stay tucked inside you for a very long time.
Here are some examples of how unattended grief can present itself:
- Rachel was never close to her father, and yet was his caretaker for several months during his decline with cancer. After his death, she put all her energies and focus on her children. A couple of years later she found herself suddenly feeling listless and depressed, seemingly without explanation. She sought counselling when her husband pointed out that she was uncharacteristically isolating herself from him, their children, and friends. Through counselling, she came to see that she had always hoped she would finally be close to her father. Accepting that would never happen now was difficult for her.
- Grief can be the result of loss other than death. Jason broke up with his fiancée of four years right after graduating from university. Although he was the one who ended the relationship, soon afterward he missed her so profoundly and felt he had made a critical mistake. He has never been able to truly accept the finality of the breakup and finds that he is unable to open up to a new relationship. He says he also has trouble with friendships. Jason came to therapy after he learned that his ex-fiancée was getting married.
In my practice, I see clients who are struggling with grief due to a wide range of losses. I have helped them to work through the pain of a loss which took place many years ago but is still limiting their lives and diminishing their vitality. I work with both individuals and groups, gently helping my clients open their hearts to grief, using various approaches, including talk therapy and EMDR (Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing). Art therapy can also be particularly useful, in that it helps clients to connect with deep underlying feelings. Going to the dark places and opening to our grief can be healing, creating a space to begin to live fully again. Many clients have said to me: ‘It was time to do this.’
There are many practices which are good for your mental health in general which would be healing for unattended grief. If you find going to church or temple a balancing activity, then by all means continue or begin attendance. If you enjoy yoga, pilates, hiking, getting out into nature, art, listening to or playing music, exercise, or other activities, all are good for your mental health. Friends who will just hear you out can be very healing as well. Grief support groups can offer great solace. An excellent resource for grief support in Los Angeles is Our House, where I was trained and led groups as a volunteer.
If you ask how long does it take to work through unattended grief, that is difficult to answer because everyone has his or her own process. But if you’ve read this far, it’s a good sign that you’re ready to start focusing on your grief.
Larry Levi offers a blend of talk therapy with visualisation, art and mindfulness approaches. His areas of specialty are grief, anxiety, depression, PTSD and relationship/sexual issues. Levi helped many clients recover from a difficult childhood to live more productive and fulfilling lives. Larry holds an MA degree in Psychology from Antioch University Los Angeles and is a member of Group Psychotherapy Association of Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter @LarryLeviMFT