The Pull and Tug of Grief

By Carrie Barto, MA, LPC, NCC with Paula Patterson


Grief is the last act of love we have to give to those we loved. Where there is deep grief, there was great love. ~Unknown

In my experience, the journey through grief often brings tremendous internal conflicts. Physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental are some of the most prominent, but there are others as well. There is conflict between the head saying the person is gone and the heart saying no, it’s not possible. There is conflict between moving forward in life, and on the other hand wanting everything to stay exactly the same. There is conflict as one reviews the loved one's illness and death questioning, "Did I do everything possible to keep him/her alive? Could I have done more?" when the truth is everything was done as the healthcare professionals directed. The most distressful conflict for many comes in the form of emotions. Experiencing moments of happiness while feeling sad is a common conflict in grief. Perhaps you have been filled with joy watching a new granddaughter take her first steps while being overcome with sadness that your spouse is not present to share the joy. Or, you find yourself laughing with friends, then feeling guilty for being happy.


Another example of grief's emotional conflict presented itself to me a few months ago. I received a message from my cousin letting me know their twelve-year-old family dog had died. He asked me for advice about how to help his two young sons deal with their grief, as they were both pretty upset. Later, my cousin shared that his five year old said, "I didn't know I could be sad and angry at the same time."


Our society tends to believe that sadness is the only emotion one feels while grieving. If only this were true! Because of this erroneous view, many grievers feel confused by the mixture of emotions they experience. Not only can one feel multiple emotions at the same time, they can experience a variety of feelings many times within a day, or even an hour.


For example, a widow may find herself waking up to overwhelming sadness as she faces another day alone. Then, anger may surface as she struggles to learn how to complete a task that used to be her spouse's responsibility. When she is successful, she smiles knowing her husband would be so proud of her. Then, sadness breaks through again. When evening falls, loneliness settles in as she begins to prepare dinner and faces this sacred time of their relationship alone. She feels hungry and nauseous at the same time. She feels like leaving home, like running away, but knows once she leaves, all she will want to do is return. Then, she hears a song on the radio that they used to dance to and feels like she's been hit by a tsunami-sized wave of grief. As she recovers, a smile crosses her face and she laughs out loud, remembering a funny exchange she and her spouse had not long ago.


And so the emotions surface and change during grief. Being caught off guard and thrown off balance when your emotions change rapidly, intensify, then subside only to return later without warning is scary but normal. As you move through your grief, it is common to feel confused, overwhelmed and exhausted; not like yourself at all. The conflicting emotions that surface in grief can cause you to feel like you are losing your mind. This can often lead to a feeling of loneliness and isolation because you believe no one understands how you feel or even worse, may judge you for those feelings.


Be assured, there is nothing wrong with you. You are not losing your mind; you are grieving. In time, the storm of emotions will lessen as you acknowledge what you are feeling and process your grief. It will be helpful to learn about the grief process through books, support groups or counseling. Allow yourself to feel the many emotions of grief and consider them a tribute to your loved one. Grief is normal and healthy. Don't deny yourself this sacred process. In time, the conflicting emotions you experience will be less painful. You will always sense your loss, but you can feel joy with it, too.


Grief is the last act of love we have to give to those we loved. Where there is deep grief, there was great love. ~Unknown

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