The Many Faces of Grief

Partially excerpted from The Soulful Journey of Recovery, © Tian Dayton, 2019, Health Communications. “The Stages of Grief and Mourning from Relational Trauma” reprinted from The Soulful Journey of Recovery.

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“…Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding…. And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; much of your pain is self-chosen. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self….” – From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

There are many kinds of loss that we can encounter in life. However, losses surrounding addiction can be particularly confusing; they tend to lack a clear beginning and end, they are cumulative. A death is something we can understand. As painful as it may be, we know that we have to accept the reality of it. But we lose an addict over and over and over again to their substance, which means that we suffer a rupture over and over again. We hope over and over again. We trust over and over again, and our trust is violated over and over again. We are disappointed over and over again. This is much more complicated than losing someone once. And the feelings that accompany this kind of loss aren’t simple. We may feel guilt for what we could have done or didn’t do. We may feel survivor’s guilt: why are we okay when they aren’t? We resent, withdraw or hate while simultaneously yearning for something that never could quite fully happen.

When we love an addict, we not only lose access to parts of them, we lose access to parts of ourselves. We disconnect with the parts of us that hurt. We freeze, we self-protect, we avoid, part of our inner world sort of shuts down. And we do this, too, over and over again.

Relational trauma needs to be grieved, but that can be easier said than done.

What hurt us most is often what we hide from the most. If we don’t get some healing around our trauma, we can have trouble embracing a more peaceful and positive future. We stay stuck in a time and space from the past, a period in our lives that hurt us the most, so much in fact, that we cannot bear to “go there.” So we don’t. Our grief then hangs lost and still, frozen in space, and a part of us is frozen along with it. When we can’t mourn these kinds of losses in real time, we’re left feeling haunted by feelings and thoughts we don’t know what to do with. If we don’t do something to work through them, they remain with us. Untethered to time and place, they float around, unwelcome intruders.

Disenfranchised Losses

Grief is a mosaic of different feelings. Anger, rage, sorrow, yearning, desperation, loneliness, and, oddly enough, even a kind of ecstasy can all be a part of deep grief. Perhaps this is why grieving is so liberating: it springs us loose of feeling trapped in our own unfelt emotions and puts us in touch with our deeper essence.

Some losses, like death, are clear. Society recognizes them as significant and we have rituals to mourn them. We feel free to ask for support, and more often support comes our way without our even having to ask. But the kinds of losses that surround relational trauma and addiction are not necessarily acknowledged and they do not necessarily get grieved. Because of this, they often remain what is referred to as “disenfranchised.”

Disenfranchised losses can lack visibility and clarity. They can be unseen or misread by others and even by ourselves. There can be confusion as to exactly who or what has been lost or whether there is a loss at all. The loss can feel invisible, causing important parts of us to feel invisible, too. However, not only do these losses exist, the very fact that they remain buried and unrecognized can create blocks in our process of grieving and recovery. These sorts of losses need our compassion and care. Grieving these kinds of losses can bring about change on the inside that leads to change on the outside.

Some examples of disenfranchised losses are:

  • Loss of a connection to self, due to trauma
  • The grief of the inner child who lives inside of the adult
  • For the addict, the loss of potential or a part of their life
  • For the adult child of an alcoholic (ACA), the loss of a sober parent or a period of unencumbered childhood
  • For the ACA, the loss of a functional family
  • For the spouse of an addict, the loss of a trusted and dependable partner
  • Divorce abandonment/visitation changes related to divorce
  • Socially stigmatized deaths (AIDS, suicide, murder, DUI, overdose, death)
  • Adoption — either being adopted or placing a child up for adoption, adoptive parents whose child seeks a biological family
  • Death of a pet
  • Miscarriage, infertility
  • Disabling conditions, health issues
  • Moving to a new home, job loss, retirement
  • Mental illness or cognitive deficit

How Our Unresolved Wounds Bleed and Leak

Grief can hide behind many masks and can pop out in numerous and sometimes surprising disguises. Understanding the many ways that unresolved grief can manifest helps us to trace confusing emotions and outbursts to their source and understand our own triggers. Some of the ways unresolved grief can manifest are:

  • Sudden angry outbursts
  • Rage
  • Excessive rumination
  • Chronic negativity
  • Being easily triggered/overly intense emotional reactions
  • Recurring or long-lasting depression
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Self-mutilation and self-harming
  • Caretaking behavior
  • Excessive guilt
  • Constant crying or feeling weepy
  • Low mood, sad
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Emotional numbness or constriction
  • Shame
  • Codependency
  • Body issues/health-related soreness, stiffness
  • A desire to self-medicate

Treating Unresolved Grief Through Psychodrama

In order to relieve ourselves of the weight of unfelt, unprocessed emotion, our inner world needs to somehow be made manifest. It needs to come out of hiding, and psychodrama makes that very easy because it allows for the full and, if desired, cathartic expression of whatever emotions are in there. Through role playing, it lets us travel to the time and place where it really happened and express our sadness or anger to the actual person it’s directed toward.

One of the issues with unresolved grief is that it can be from a time in the past that is intruding on our present. But this very fact can make it hard to address, we worry that we should be over it, we fear that addressing it with that person (who may even be sober now) will undermine the relationship we have with them today. If it’s a part of our childhood self that we need to talk to, we feel embarrassed or too vulnerable. Again, we ignore that wounded part of ourselves in our present the same way we were ignored as a child in the past.

Psychodrama makes this sort of dynamic much clearer than words ever could. It takes you directly to the moment in time (through surrogates) where a painful complex got set up and creates an in vivo, real time interaction to revisit, relive, and release.

Here’s an example of how that might look: Imagine that a client has been sharing what she carries from the past about her father but is only marginally aware of. I might say, “Would you like to choose someone to play your sober dad today? We’ll keep Dad and your current relationship with him over here, safe. Now choose someone to play Dad when he was drunk or high or abusive, so you can deal with that part of him who is still living inside of you today, okay? And I promise, we won’t tell Dad you are doing this. It’s just for you, so you can heal.”

I try to reassure her that we won’t touch what’s working, that she is fully entitled to protect this dad she is now so close to, and we can then deal with the dad she had in childhood in order to heal her “inner child,” her “inner adolescent,” or whatever inner part of her needs attention and is still carrying pain from the past, either in a shutdown state, or as hypervigilance, anxiety, or depression.

And clients aren’t going there alone; I am with them, as is the group, supporting them, helping them through, and keeping things safe.

The Benefits of Letter-Writing

One way that you can approximate this experience on your own is to write a letter (not to be sent to anyone) to the part of yourself, another person, a time of life, or a circumstance that you’re saying goodbye to, grieving for, or want to work with. When you write it for your eyes only, you can fully express your feelings, and say everything you need or long to say. Let the paper listen to you, and let yourself talk. You may be surprised at how good it feels. Once you finish the letter, you can decide what to do with it. If you want to share it in therapy or with a trusted friend or support group, you can. Or, you can do something to ritualize the letting go process by burying it in nature, putting it somewhere, or tearing it up. It is simply a vehicle for self-expression and not written to be sent to anyone at all.

In the Rio Retreat Center workshop Mending Heartwounds, we do this as a community, which helps both to get in touch with the grief and feel supported and safe in moving through it. Sharing these parts of ourselves that we have relegated to inner silence is an important part of healing them. It somehow opens those parts of our inner world that may be mistrustful of deep and trusting connection to reconnection, both with our own selves and with others. It’s a liberating process that also releases energy that can now be used as we wish. It is relieving and renewing.

This chart gives you an overview of how unresolved grief may manifest in our thinking, feeling, and behavior.

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