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Looking for Positive and Effective Thoughts and Solutions

Hope, Healing and Reconstruction again, Semantics:

Here, as in so many parts of our grief journeys, each of us experience things differently and solve things differently. Some of the things that were important to me or worked for me may not mean much or make much sense to others. I keep sharing my insights and understandings, however, in the hope that if they resonate with you, you can use them to help you find your way through your own grief journeys.

Early in our grief, we are often “controlled” by our grief.  What we experience is mostly coming from our emotional self and rarely has much of our rational self involved. The thoughts, the feelings and emotions just cascade over and through us and mostly all we can do is “ride the wave” as best we can, let the current carry us where it will until “the tide turns” and we can begin to find ways to re-engage some active control in our lives and move towards the shore of hope and healing.

Since we don’t want to and since we won’t always be actively and painfully grieving, as we talked about last month, when we are ready, we want to begin to investigate ways to take an active part in our reconstructive process.

I think it’s important as we begin the process of actively seeking hope and healing to remember that grief is a complex of a wide range of feelings, emotions and thoughts.

So, this discussion is about semantics, what do the words we use to describe our grief actually mean? Does it matter?

As I was working though my early grief, particularly during the first year, I found that the words I used to describe my thoughts, feelings and emotions needed to be as accurate as I could make them; for example, the sadness and the loneliness parts of grief are different things and need to be addressed differently because they each probably need  different resolutions.

I remember one day during my first year when I was taking a walk and thinking about how I felt and it was one of those deep grief days when you just feel terrible all over, mentally, emotionally and physically and nothing feels right. I started to think about what was actually happening to me and that I would really like to not be feeling this way and what could I do to make it stop or go away. In some ways, this was the beginning of my active reconstruction period.

waves of grief

As is usual for me, I had to ask myself just what was I feeling and how had I dealt with something like these feelings in the past.  At first I thought it was sad that I was feeling and then I thought it was lonely that I was feeling and then, well, I thought it must be grief I’m feeling and then I finally realized it was kind of a wash of all these emotions and more, all together and all coming at me from my emotions and my mind at the same time.

Then I realized that when I wanted to stop feeling sad in the past, I had to do certain things, I had to think certain things, do certain acts. Here’s the interesting part, those things would be very different if, for instance I wanted to stop being lonely or angry or any other emotion. What I learned after thinking about it for a while was: it’s pretty important to know what you are talking about, what you are thinking about, what you are trying to work on and what you are trying to fix or change.

Because, if I’m trying to stop feeling sad, and I start doing the things that make me not feel lonely, then I don’t fix the problem, I don’t fix sad because I’m working on the wrong thing! I can’t stop feeling sad if I’m working on lonely! 

Again, I also came to see that grief is actually not a single feeling and emotion by itself. When we are grieving, there are components of a large number of emotions present, usually at the same time. Our grief is a composite of all these things. 

waves of grief

As we begin to sort it out, as we tease it apart in our thoughts and try to see how we can make it better or at least make it hurt less, as we start on our reconstruction journey of hope and healing, I believe it’s important to try to identify what we are dealing with and working on at any given time. Trying to solve the wrong problem leads to frustration and confusion and thoughts of  “it’s just not working and I don’t know why”… 

For me, from that time onward, I’ve gradually tried to learn to identify which parts of my grief I’m thinking about and working on as closely as possible so I can work on them in a way that actually leads to some level of healing and resolution. I’m always trying to identify as clearly as I can what it is I’m trying to do and it has consistently helped me to better find the healing I’m looking for. 

So what are the emotional components of your grief, what emotions are contained in what you feel, what different things are you experiencing?  Can you make a list that you keep updating of the different emotions you feel?

Smoke screen actions and reactions, what’s really going on here?

Something Andi and I learned many years ago as we were building our lives together was that sometimes, expressions of anger, especially as arguments that were difficult to resolve, were what we ended up calling “smoke screens”. The external expression of anger between us was often not about what we were expressing in our anger or argument at all. We were often arguing about something that set us off or kept us arguing but the real issue was often something completely different. 

It was often something that had been kind of hidden inside, something not expressed or acknowledged that was building up and that was what was really bothering us and really why we were arguing. The actual trigger event and what we thought we were arguing about was not really the important part of what was going on at all. 

waves of grief

We called these things “smoke screens” because they were hiding the real issues. If we became angry with each other and started going at it about some seemingly minor problem, when it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere, when we weren’t finding resolution, one of us would finally ask, “what’s the real issue here, what is this anger a smoke screen for”.  

“Can we stop arguing and find out what it is that we are really angry about and work to resolve that instead of going on about and not resolving this much less important thing we are superficially angry about”. 

This almost always led us to taking the time and finding the real issues and because we had stepped away from the anger, we could open up and talk much more reasonably about what was really bothering us and that made it so much easier to find real resolution and move on.

With that to set the stage, lets talk about…

Experiencing, expressing and dealing with anger during our grieving (anger can often be a smoke screen in its own way for a frustrated lack of control, fear or pain):

Not every one feels or expresses anger in grief, not everyone has issues with anger while dealing with their often very fragile emotions when they are grieving. If you do feel any of these things, because they come and go and can sometimes show up when least expected, I’ve included this discussion here for us to talk about.

I didn’t really think that I experienced a lot of anger that I expressed or recognized during my grief, although while writing this, I do remember some things now that make me believe I was indeed holding some anger inside myself without realizing it in the early parts of my journey. 

But, I have heard many people talking about their anger in the support group meetings I’ve attended and in conversation with other widows and widowers over the years so I’m guessing that it is probably there at some level in most of us. And we probably really do have things we feel angry about considering what has happened to our lives and our loved ones.

There can often be a lot of lack of control involved in bereavement and lots of unresolved questions we may be asking like: Why, why me, why now, this is so unfair, why did you let this happen, how am I going to go on, why did you leave me here alone, how can I deal with all this, why did you say that, why don’t you understand and many other questions like these. 

These things can lead us to frustration and pain and that can sometimes turn into anger and sometimes may make us want to verbally or sometimes physically act out or even strike out in some way to release some of our frustration at what has happened to us and to our loved ones and to our lives and futures. 

Are any of these questions things that have run through your mind or your emotions? How do they make you feel? 

So back to anger:

Anger in our grief, if we experience it, seems to come from many places within us and the situations we find ourselves in. People have talked to me about frustration associated with lack of control, of things happening that were outside their plans and certainly outside their ability to change or effect. Some talked about fear of what the future had to bring and how they would handle it alone. How could they make good decisions without having the shared decision making process they had grown to depend on in their marriage. Most of these were probably the underlying causes of the frustrations and lack of control as well as the pain of grief that sometimes either caused or were masked by anger.

Are any of these feelings/thoughts things that sound familiar to you? How do/did they make you feel? Do any of them make you feel angry? Are there any other things or emotions you could add to this list? 

waves of grief

Frustrations and lack of control may also occur at a deeper level than our every day thoughts and feelings during our bereavement. They can often be submerged below our grief. As it can when we don’t let ourselves express or acknowledge our grief, they too may build up, may grow inside of us without us being aware of it. Sometimes the first indication of their existence is when they break through to the surface and we find ourselves having an angry reaction to something seemingly not that important (a smoke screen). 

Anger, at ourselves or others, can be a way to release some of the tension our frustration may cause. And when we turn it on ourselves or on things or people that only seem to be the cause, the anger may really be a “smoke screen” in its own right. It can be a smoke screen especially for things we really can’t do anything about but maybe are what the real issue is. 

I believe that whenever possible, if we find ourselves getting angry, we should consider trying to stop and ask ourselves why we are angry, what is it about a situation, about something that happened or what some person said or did that makes us angry and more importantly why does it make us feel that way! 

If we can stop and think about why we are angry, often times we may find that our anger is indeed a smoke screen, we aren’t really angry about the words someone said, we are actually angry that what we experienced, what someone said or did, triggered our own feelings of lack of control, of grief and/or pain. 

Maybe if we just lash out because we can’t do anything about the real reasons, we just “shoot from the hip” at a convenient target. Sometimes after the anger has passed, we may need to apologize to ourselves or to others for things we may have done or said and maybe try to explain what we learned from the outburst. 

Can we can find a way to not let those frustrations express as anger towards ourselves or someone or something else but instead, try to learn what we can do to resolve the unresolved feelings within ourselves by ourselves or in conversation with others who understand our feelings or are trained to help us find solutions for these deep frustrations?

How might we do that? 

Something to think about:

In grief, many of the things we are unhappy and frustrated about our inability to control or change are just that. We can’t do anything about them. They happened. They are unchangeable and nothing we can do will make it any different.

They certainly include in large part whatever it was that happened to our loved ones that we couldn’t stop or change or fix and of course that our loved ones are not here with us any longer. 

Some people have told me that they are actually angry with their loved ones for leaving them alone, for leaving them to do so many of the things their loved ones used to do or that they did together that they now have to learn to do on their own. 

That’s a pretty large package of possible frustrations to deal with, especially when they are loaded on top of all the other emotions our grief causes us to feel.

But it’s also important, at least intellectually to start with, to remember that for many of these things, no one is or was responsible. No one may have caused these things to happen. For many of them, that’s just how it was and in some way, we have to learn to live with them. That is part of what we need to find and learn in our healing and growth within our grief. 

waves of grief

Obviously, some things that happen in our lives are caused by others. Some things were indeed done by other people and we do have good reasons for our anger. It is sometimes hard during our grieving to separate our justifiable anger for wrongs done from the frustrated anger that comes from our lack of control and loss of our futures. 

The anger I am trying to address here is the anger we direct towards ourselves and other people or towards our loved ones or even towards God because of things that happened that were indeed out of our control, that no one was really at fault in. 

Seeing those distinctions clearly and not taking our frustrations out as anger at or on ourselves or others, of not assigning blame when there was no blame either to ourselves or others, is often a very challenging but important part of our healing and of learning to live within and beyond our grief. 

What did you learn from that? 

I read in an autobiography by Carlos Santana (“The Universal Tone”) that one of his friends and fellow musicians would often say “what did you learn from that” when ever anyone would get angry and lose their temper and go off on someone. I like that idea, it has such a sobering feeling to it. It changes the tone of the moment and makes a person think instead of emotionally striking out or arguing back. 

It seems like a very powerful way to get to the core of what we are angry about in ourselves and to look more closely and deeply at the reasons for our anger and in my terms, to see if the anger is a smoke screen for something else. It is also a way to perhaps not let our anger turn outward that way in the future if we can take the time to figure out why we were angry, before or after the fact and what we can find to change in ourselves and what we can work on over time to address the causes of that anger.

I remember a night at a support group meeting in Fort Collins when I told the Counsellor that I was angry about something someone had said and how they were acting. The counsellor looked at me and replied, “What does that say about you! What about or within you is getting angry at someone being and expressing themselves.” 

Sure made me stop and think!

Looking for positive and effective thoughts and solutions:

Early in our bereavements not much looks positive, not many thoughts are uplifting and solutions of any sort seem almost impossible to find. As time passes, as the waves of grief become less strong and come less often, we slowly begin to assume some control of our lives again and with that, it is important to try to look for positive ways to cope with the many things that have changed in our lives. 

The plan for the next few months is to explore positive ways of dealing with the things we are now dealing with both within ourselves and as we journey through the world.

Finding ways to gradually replace our sadness, our pain and our anger with positive, forward looking thoughts and ideas is a major part of finding hope and healing and building our lives as we go forward.