Anytime Grief & Loss are in the spotlight, it gets my attention. Yesterday, Dr. Phil did his show partially about Melissa (left), who lost her mother 1½ years ago and has gotten stuck in her pain and anguish. It is affecting her relationship, her work and her parenting, such that she even said that she feels like a burden to her family. Her boyfriend says it has completely changed who she is.
Well, of course it has - Melissa's mom was her best friend and the rock on which she stood. Though Phil only did this topic for half the show, he did make some points that were important, and a few others I'd like to expand on.
Melissa has been framing her internal Self-Talk about her mother's death in a very destructive and extreme way - I feel like I died, too - it killed me - I died that day. And this is SO key in recovery from Grief - if we frame it to ourselves that there is no way out, we set ourselves up for endless pain and suffering. We are such masters at beating ourselves up and being our own worst enemy (I get stuck in this much too often myself). How we language our journey is absolutely key, and our psyche believes every single word we say to it. And when we convince ourselves that we are already dead, we follow the journey that path leads us on. So learning that healing is doable and how to rewrite that Self-Talk is going to be so important for her.
Our culture doesn't help with this either, when we expect people to go back to the way they were before the loss(es). We simply can't, we are not the same person. Demanding that someone do this not only won't work, but is cruel and insensitive. Sorry to be blunt, but this only makes things worse, causes new hurt feelings and invalidates a griever's emotional needs. It's like yelling at a person in a wheelchair to get up.....
This tragic loss of her mother happened over a year and a half ago - and Phil is right that that is a warning sign that something is wrong. If nothing has shifted, then it is time to get help. But I would also point out that most grievers do not know what the issue is, and just keep suffering for years and years. I liken it to a stake that has been put into a tree - if you leave in in too long, the bark grows around it and can do tremendous damage. We bury our grief, hoping it will go away. The pain can lessen, but each loss is different and needs its own attention.
This leads to Phil's next point that was important, which is that when we have a painful relationship with the deceased, we think the processing is easier. Oh, but it is the exact opposite. People often leave a messy legacy behind them - good and bad, joys and sorrows, anger and regret. And the messier it is, the tougher it is to slog through and untangle all the knots of unfinished business, apologies, recriminations and questions that can never be answered. All of that takes time, care and attention - and support.
Finally, Phil suggests that Melissa write in her journal every night, to her mom and about the loss. This exactly what I do with so many of my clients - I have seen it open up worlds of compassion and healing. It is even MORE powerful when you can read aloud and share what you have written - there is a certain reality and truth (and therefore empowerment) when words are spoken out loud, rather than in our own heads. Reading them to another person, who can be a witness to your process, makes it even more real and dynamic! Then you can get feedback and share and the healing is that much deeper.
The sadness on Melissa's face just tore at me...I do hope she gets the support she needs, though Phil failed to mention getting counseling or coaching. He did an important question at the end, though - would your mother want her legacy to be your pain and misery? And of course we don't want that - but figuring out how to get there can feel impossible. But it isn't - in fact, it is so, so necessary to not stay stuck! Your life is going by - today will never come again.... I hope you use it to really live.
Claire M. Schwartz is a Grief Relief Expert offering support and healing in three counties of northern NJ, and around the world by phone and Skype. Her book Putting Out the Fire; Nurturing Mind, Body & Spirit in the First Week of Loss and Beyond is available here. You can email her at YouCanHealYourGrief@gmail.com.