Chapter 2


© 1994 Donald E. Watson

Crises introduce changes in our lives, and these changes can bring new opportunities. However, in the immediate aftermath of crises, we blind ourselves to these potential gains. Instead, we focus on our losses, the costs of the crises. Major losses bring pervasive repercussions in our lives. They disrupt our habits, our emotions, our health, our relationships, and our dreams for the future. The damage caused by losses can be so extensive that we may feel that we can't survive them. We may even feel that part of us has died already.

Before we can realize the new opportunities presented by our crises, we must heal psychologically from the impact of the losses. Then we can redirect our attention to our potential gains. Fortunately, nature provides us a way to heal after our losses, a process named grieving. Grieving allows us to survive our losses, to relieve our pain, to revive our dreams, and to proceed with our lives--often stronger than we were before. That's why the words grieving and healing are used interchangeably in this book.

As disruptive as they are, major losses don't make our lives permanently worse unless we prevent our own healing, thereby inviting permanent distress into our lives. Even though grieving is natural, we manage to block it remarkably frequently. This is mainly due to widespread ignorance and false beliefs concerning the healing process. For example, most people know that grieving follows the death of a loved one. Yet, few know that grieving also follows the loss of any of our other treasures: health, money, youth, jobs, careers, social status, opportunities, hopes, and dreams. In other words, regardless of the kind of loss we suffer, we must use grieving skills to recover.

Several other false beliefs about grieving are prevalent. For example, the word grief is commonly used to mean "endless suffering." This is a serious mistake. Fact is, grieving brings relief. It is not grieving that brings endless suffering. Nevertheless, because they mistakenly confuse grieving with suffering, many people deliberately prevent their own healing. That's why it's not surprising that many people suffer from the consequences of blocked grieving: depression, alcoholism, or physical illness. Moreover, most people suffer these chronic conditions without realizing that nature is urging them to heal from their past losses.

Three other neglected facts teach important lessons about healing: First, losses are rarely isolated. They usually occur in clusters, with one loss triggering another. These associated losses may turn minor losses into major catastrophes. For example, losing a job may not, in itself, be ruinous. However, if losing a job leads to losing a home, family, life savings, or self-esteem, it becomes catastrophic. Indeed, the damage from associated losses often far outweighs the harm of the triggering loss. That's why it is important to identify each associated loss. Otherwise, we can unintentionally stall our healing, or block it entirely. The lesson here is this: Don't ignore the associated losses that follow your primary losses.

Second, even desired gains can bring losses. Gaining a new home, for example, typically means losing an old home, friendly neighbors, a familiar neighborhood, and many traditions. The emotional costs of these losses may outweigh the joy of the gains. That's the main reason some people become depressed after moving to their new dream homes. The lesson: To fully appreciate your gains, recognize the losses associated with them.

Third, major losses are calamities to individuals; the importance of losses is not subject to the opinions of others. That's because treasures are highly personal. For example, each of us cherishes particular treasures because they carry great value to us. A divorce may cause more pain to one person than the death of a spouse does to another. Losing a pet is devastating for some people, whereas this kind of loss is of minor consequence to others. Intangibles, too, are personal. A person may shrug off losing an ordinary coffee mug, but cry after breaking one with sentimental value. Further, treasures are certainly not defined by convention. Kinship, for example, does not guarantee love or attachment. That's why a person's death may bring misery to one relative, but little or no distress--even joy--to another. I know a kindergarten teacher whose classroom was destroyed in a fire. She lost the teaching materials she had carefully developed over the years. She was crushed by losing these materials, not because they were intrinsically valuable, but because they represented the accumulated work and dreams of her teaching career.

In other words, whether or not your loss is major depends entirely on your emotional attachment to your lost treasure. You know what you treasure. No one else can dictate to you whether or not you need to grieve. Self-appointed advice-givers may minimize your loss, and tell you to forget it. Or they may tell you to cheer up because your loss wasn't as great as theirs. Remember this: These people are self-centered, and they don't care about your loss or your healing. Avoid them. Find support from those who really care about your sensibilities. When others try to tell you what your feelings "should be," remember this lesson: You are the only expert on the significance of your loss. Listen to your own thoughts and feelings about its significance.

The next two sections of this chapter explore these lessons and several others. The first section, "About Healing," provides an overview of healing from losses. The second section, "Special Treasures," discusses distinctive aspects of several types of losses.

About Healing

In 1967, Drs. Thomas H. Holmes and Richard H. Rahe first introduced their research into the relative intensity of life stressors [Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11: 213-218, 1967.] They developed the widely-known "Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS)." This scale lists 43 types of crises, with the ten most severe stressors being the death of a spouse, divorce, marital separation, a jail term, death of a close family member, personal injury or illness, marriage, fired at work, marital reconciliation, and retirement. The common feature of these crises is loss: Loss of a relationship, loss of freedom, loss of health, loss of livelihood, loss of habits.

Since the SRRS was introduced, many studies have revealed that, not only do stressors cause immediate discomfort, they can also lead to long term physical and mental illnesses. Other studies have shown that such harmful effects of stress can be reduced or eliminated by coping effectively with these crises. The challenge is knowing how to cope effectively. As it turns out, this is straightforward: It means capitalizing on nature's gift by cultivating the skills of grieving.

Nature tries to protect us from the harm of stress by giving us the ability to heal when we are hurt. Normally, because our injuries heal automatically, they are no more than temporary inconveniences. Unfortunately, however, we can defeat nature's gift by blocking our healing. If we do this, otherwise temporary injuries can become permanent disabilities. This is true for any injury, whether it is physical or psychological.

When we suffer an injury to our bodies, healing proceeds on its own if we leave the wound alone. However, if we continually re-open a wound, it doesn't heal; it remains open and raw, vulnerable to infection and further injury.

Similarly, healing begins automatically after we suffer a psychological injury such as a loss, and this healing also proceeds on its own if we don't interfere with it. However, if we obstruct our psychological healing, we become vulnerable to further harm--anxiety, hostility, alcoholism, physical illness, and chronic depression.

It's important not to blame nature for causing our difficulties in healing. We create our own mischief. Of course, we rarely sabotage ourselves deliberately. Instead, we do so habitually, without giving it any thought. And though it makes no sense to interfere with our healing, like many other self-destructive things we do, blocked healing is not at all unusual. In fact, most cases of depression and many cases of alcoholism result from unrecognized blocked grieving.

One reason we block our healing is that the healing process is painful, and we dislike pain. Whether we lose a loved one, a cherished possession, or a dream for the future, something that was once an integral part of our lives is suddenly absent. This change is followed by intense anger, sadness, and fear. These emotions are so painful that many people try to deny them, hide them, or erase them with alcohol or other drugs. These habits not only prevent healing, they create new problems.

We also block our healing because of harmful beliefs we learn as children. Our society burdens us by teaching us to hide our feelings, not only from the view of others, but from ourselves. A few societies and religions encourage healing by teaching ways to mourn the deaths of loved ones, but even these teachings ignore the need for grieving after losing jobs, health, relationships, and other treasures.

It might be tempting, but it would be a waste of time, to blame the people who teach us to block our healing. They don't want us to suffer. They teach us, not out of malice, but out of their own ignorance of the healing process. They merely pass on the same harmful beliefs they have learned. Besides, regardless of how we learned our bad habits originally, it is now our responsibility to reverse what we've learned. This begins with understanding the healing process--with learning, not only to tolerate the painful emotions of the healing process, but to use them for strengthening our lives.


Symptoms of Grieving

Grieving is not an illness, yet it is associated with symptoms. Since the symptoms listed below occur early after a loss, they are termed the symptoms of acute grieving.

Shock often initiates the grieving process. We recognize shock as feeling numb, stunned, or confused. It is frequently a form of denial; that is, refusing to believe that the loss has occurred.

Frequent crying or sighing usually occurs early in grieving. Some societies, including ours, encourage this symptom in women, but discourage it in men. This may be changing in our society.

Anger is the first emotion of grieving. It is often displaced; that is, expressed loudly toward loved ones, friends, co-workers, doctors and nurses, or the world in general.

Guilt feelings emerge, with self-blame for actions that were committed or for acts that weren't done.

Preoccupation with the lost treasure is the predominant sign of grieving. Previous interests and pursuits are displaced by an obsessive attention to the loss. During normal grieving, this preoccupation temporarily dominates our dreams and waking thoughts. After successful grieving, the preoccupation disappears and we can resume our lives. If grieving is blocked, however, preoccupation with losses, past and future, continues to occupy our unconscious minds. This keeps us from living for the future.

Withdrawal from outside interests and people usually accompanies preoccupation with the loss.

Physical symptoms such as weakness, decreased appetite, sleep disturbances, significant weight loss or gain, and difficulty in concentrating normally appear early in grieving.

Sensing the presence of a lost loved one, sometimes in the form of visual hallucinations of the person, is fairly common. Also, amputees sense the presence of a "phantom limb" after they lose an arm or a leg.

Identification, or introjection, which is adopting mannerisms or symptoms of a lost loved one, are fairly common. For example, a grieving person may develop chest pain if his or her loved one died of a heart attack.

Even though this list of symptoms was obtained from studying people who have lost loved ones, most of the symptoms occur after other kinds of losses. Shock, anger, guilt, preoccupation, withdrawal, crying, and physical symptoms are common responses to any major loss. Some symptoms appear in modified forms. For example, if you have lost your job, you probably won't sense the presence of your former company as though it were a person, yet you might awaken in the morning expecting to go to work.

Each of the symptoms above is illustrated in this book. You will recognize them in the stories that show the various aspects of the grieving process. More importantly, if you have suffered a major loss, you will likely recognize them in yourself.


The Nonsense of "Stages of Grieving"

A popular idea today characterizes grieving as a process that occurs in three, four, or five stages, concluding with acceptance. If you have heard of the stages of grieving, you may wonder what stage you are in. If so, try to forget about stages. Knowing about them may confuse you, and it certainly won't help you heal.

When we grieve, we experience symptoms and emotions, not stages. That's because stages are abstract theoretical ideas that we can think about, but can't experience. Indeed, if we think about stages to avoid the pain of our emotions, we can seriously retard our grieving. Emotions provide the motivation for us to heal, and the energy to accomplish it. Without these mental resources, we are vulnerable to the chronic disabilities of blocked healing.

A theory of stages might be valuable if it could predict future events, but notion of stages doesn't even do this well. According to one fashionable theory, anger is the second stage of grieving. Yet, you will probably notice that your anger waxes and wanes, and doesn't disappear after occurring once. This is normal. In fact, we intermittently feel anger and the other emotions of grieving throughout the healing process.

There are two other reasons the stages theories don't predict our progress in healing: First, each crisis sets its own time table. For example, one person may be laid off from work immediately, whereas another may be given six months notice. In other words, we are never guaranteed the right amount of time to accomplish the tasks of any of the theoretical stages.

Second, major losses typically trigger associated losses, and each of these requires its own healing process. The death of a spouse, for example, usually means losing a lover, a partner, a source of emotional support, and many dreams for the future. It may also mean losing a home, savings, certain friends, or relationships with in-laws. The significance of each associated loss may not become apparent until weeks after the original crisis, and each loss requires its own healing.

It would be ludicrous to think of being in a different stage for each loss in a string of losses. For example, say that Ron's employer laid him off six months ago, and this triggered two associated losses: His mortgage company foreclosed on his home last month, and his wife picked up the kids and left him yesterday.

Today, Ron's friend and confidant, Paul, finds him in a diner, unshaven and rumpled, staring into a cup of cold coffee.

"Hi, Ron. How ya doin' with your grieving?"

Ron shakes himself from his revery, and focusses his squinted eyes on his friend.

"You know, I was just thinking about that. . .

"I figure I'm in Stage 5 for my job, Stage 2 for my home, and Stage 1 for my family. That averages out to Stage 2.67 . . . So I guess I'm doing okay."

Paul looks compassionately at his friend, and shakes his head.

"That's good, 'cause ya look awful."

In short, no one marches through grieving stage by stage. The point is, focus on your symptoms, not on stages. Concerning yourself with stages can distract you from your important healing tasks. Besides, you don't want to stop your crisis healing with acceptance. This would be a job half finished, and a waste of many new opportunities.


Symptoms of Blocked Healing

The symptoms of blocked healing reflect an interrupted or suspended grieving process, and therefore they resemble the symptoms of normal grieving in some ways. The main difference is that the symptoms are modified into chronic, stable patterns. For example, anger can become hostility, denial can develop into alcohol abuse, and sadness can be transformed into depression.

It is helpful to understand how stable patterns of blocked grieving lead to depression. Three symptoms of depression are hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness--unrealistic perceptions that become self-fulfilling expectations.

Rather than realistically focussing on the losses of particular treasures, many depressed people become preoccupied with loss in general. They turn this obsession into a self-defeating attitude: They are afraid to seek or obtain new treasures because they expect to lose anything they value. That's why such people fear success. They act as though they believe, If I possess a treasure, I'll surely lose it. Losing a treasure is so painful, it is better not to have it in the first place. The main reason self-fulfilling hopelessness accompanies depression is this irony: Not possessing a treasure is worse than losing one; it is losing hope.

Self-fulfilling helplessness develops because self-defeating attitudes are unconscious. Since people are unaware that they are obsessed with preventing losses, they don't know how to change their attitude. Until they learn differently, they are helpless.

Self-fulfilling worthlessness appears to people who believe certain superstitions. A common false belief is that their misfortune is a punishment, and that they have been judged to be unworthy of any treasures in their lives. This is particularly true for guilt-ridden people.

If people's thoughts are dominated by hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness, it is easy for them to believe that they have nothing to live for. Indeed, many people afflicted with blocked healing live in despair. Some of them even die by committing suicide. This is depression at its worst.

If you feel hopeless, helpless, or worthless, you may be suffering from blocked healing. If so, it is time to finish the grieving you started when you lost a treasure earlier in your life. You can accomplish this by completing three tasks:

The lessons and examples in this book can help you to accomplish these tasks to overcome depression. In addition, blocked grieving is sometimes expressed as hostility, alcohol abuse, hypochondriasis, psychosomatic symptoms, or physical illness. This book illustrates these signs of blocked grieving in the stories of Wendy, Calvin, Eben, and Mario, and it shows how healing can occur long after the original losses.

You may need to study parts of the book more than once. Beyond this, you may need other kinds of help in uncovering your unconscious beliefs. You may even need medication. If so, don't hesitate to find a helper, as discussed in Chapter 10, "If You Need More Help."

Of course, it is ideal to prevent the results of blocked grieving by healing after each crisis. The primary purpose of this book is to help you with this.


Anniversary Reactions

Grieving is not forgetting the treasure we have lost. On the contrary, part of healing is creating precious memories--new treasures. Remembering our lost treasures on special anniversaries is common, especially after losing a loved one. That's because we link birthdays, holidays, the day of the death, and other anniversaries to our memories of the loved one. As the calendar approaches these days, memories of the loved one automatically come to mind, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Conscious memories can evoke mixed feelings, pleasant and unpleasant. They can also rekindle some of the symptoms of acute grieving. For example, anger may be stirred, followed by sadness. Guilt feelings are also likely if they were prominent originally. Absent, however, is the overwhelming preoccupation that characterized the original grieving. Conscious anniversary memories are normal after successful grieving because they are emotional responses to recalling our loss.

On the other hand, anniversary memories that remain in our unconscious mind may indicate that our grieving is blocked. Unconscious anniversary memories often trigger depression, irritability, physical symptoms, or difficulty concentrating on usual interests. These recurring mood disturbances, termed anniversary reactions, usually seem unexplained because they don't relate to a current loss or crisis.

Anniversary reactions occur frequently during the holiday season, when they are termed "holiday blues." Blocked grieving should always be considered as a possible explanation for the seasonal depression that occurs during November and December.

You may know the significance of the anniversary that triggered your depression. On the other hand, you may have identified periods of unexplained depression in your life, but you haven't connected the dates with specific losses. If this is true, you can search your memory to discover significant losses. Perhaps you haven't healed from these losses. If you haven't, it's not to late to grieve now.

It is important to recognize anniversary reactions and holiday blues as aspects of grieving, for this knowledge allows you to apply your grieving skills to your advantage. You can reach for the memories of your anger at the time of the original loss, for example, and harness its energy to overcome the pain and immobilization of your current anniversary blues.

Whether or not you have healed from your past losses, your anniversary reactions are produced by your unconscious mind as remembrances of important milestones in your life. Savor these memories, for they are meaningful elements of your mental life.


Successful Grieving

The time required for normal healing depends on the degree of the injury caused by a loss. A few seconds may be required after losing a pencil, a few days after losing a wallet, a few months after losing a job, and a year or more after losing a loved one.

Because grieving is a learning process, it requires time to reorganize your perceptions to correspond to a world without your treasure. After you have grieved successfully, your preoccupation with your loss will disappear. With this obsession gone, you can proceed with your life.

Knowing that you can grieve successfully provides you with a profound benefit: You don't have to live in terror of losses. You don't need to fear success. You can plan crises, times of change to enrich your life. You know that it is safe to pursue and to obtain new treasures. You know that you may lose them, but you also know that you can heal from any loss.


Beneficial Losses

Crises are sometimes desirable; that is, some losses help us. For example, a woman who is divorcing her abusive husband is losing a bad marriage. Eventually she can enjoy this beneficial loss, but first, she may have to grieve for several associated losses such as her home, her social status, her financial security, some of her friends, and, perhaps the most difficult loss of all--her long-held hopes and dreams for the marriage.

Adapting to beneficial crises can be satisfying ultimately, yet the short term discomfort associated with them may temporarily obscure the happiness we could be feeling. People who don't know how to heal often find it difficult to cope with any crisis, even beneficial ones. For example, losing an unrewarding career, stopping a self-destructive habit, or ending a ruinous relationship are beneficial, and knowing how to cope with these crises brings happiness. Yet, some people refuse to take these beneficial losses because they want to avoid the pain of facing their associated losses. As a result, they invite another loss: the inability to live their lives fully--which translates to unhappiness.

Obviously, knowing how to heal after a loss is essential to living well. Though healing can be painful, it is important to remember this: The worst reason for retaining anything is to avoid grieving for it.