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Learning that Grief is Normal

Learning that Grief is Normal

Grief is very natural- it’s been said that grief is the form love takes once our loved one is no longer present with us. Grief is the psychological pain response to losing a close family member or friend. When we look at it through the lens of attachment theory, we gain greater understanding into what the normative process of grief looks like.

We tend to have a handful of people in life who we have a psychological attachment to- these are people we have close relationships with, people who are invested in us and help us regulate our emotions and physical well being. We turn to them when we need help, comfort, or distraction. We experience a longing for them when we are separated. With attachment comes a disposition towards caregiving. Those we are attached to are who we are naturally driven to care for and most willing to accept care from. Research into attachment theory shows a very biological drive towards these bonds- they are essential to our survival and we are programmed to stay close to our attachment figures!

When we experience loss of one of our key attachment figures, we ache for them.  But beyond that deep emotional pain, we may experience sensations of being displaced or unmotivated, maybe even a loss of our sense of competence and ability to function. Looked at through a lens of attachment, these reactions seem expected. Our predictable system is disrupted, and we are reacting to that difficult disruption.

As our grief progresses, there are typically some changes in our emotions and behaviors over time. When you think of visiting a friend who was widowed a few days ago, imagine what you might expect to find- a bit of chaos in the home environment, weepiness, perhaps a lack of motivation to accomplish much. 

Now, imagine visiting that friend five years down the road- do your expectations differ? You might expect to find the friend still sad over losing a spouse, and certainly still missing that person- but in many ways, living life with more predictability and emotional steadiness. Over time, we never stop missing or loving our lost loved one, but the way we experience grief and even the nature and intensity of our emotions will typically change over time. 

This very normative process results in what we call “integrated grief”. Integrated grief differs from the first year following loss, when we are in a period of “acute grief”. While integrated grief can still have peaks and valleys, it doesn’t interfere with our day to day living the way acute grief does.  

How do we transition from acute to integrated grief? The task before us is to solve the problem of accepting something that is the exact opposite of what we wanted.

As we come to accept the reality of our loss, we oscillate back and forth between paying attention to the painful emotions and reminders of loss and setting them aside momentarily to pay attention to the basic tasks of life. This “Two Pillar Theory” in grief research explains how we bounce back and forth between these two realities at first- it’s impossible to do it all at once in acute grief. Gradually, we become more adept at merging those two pillars, and the reality that our day to day living and future are without our loved one sets in. We find a way to accept something that is the exact opposite of what we wanted.  And in that acceptance, life continues forward.  

Of course, there are times when this normative grief process is interrupted by some “derailer”- complicating life factors may act to sidetrack the normative path grief takes. In the absence of these derailing factors, we can expect our grief to progress to a place of integration.  

Why does this research matter? For starters, we can place so much undue pressure on ourselves and others to speed the process up. In paying attention to our outward appearances rather than our grief work, we can sacrifice the long term integration for short term “having it all together” points. We might begin to avoid grief reminders, important things we need to spend time integrating during our acute grief in order to get those societal gold stars. This pressure can actually act to prolong and complicate our grieving. When we have realistic expectations for ourselves and others in grief, we allow the processes to occur naturally and real integration can happen.  

As with so much of life- what we try so hard to avoid can end up being what eventually sinks our ship. In the short term, it may feel reasonable to run from pain. In the long run, avoidance leads to a continued inability to cope with distress (the darn distress isn’t going to catch a hint and cooperate with our scheme to ignore it!) 

I hope this knowledge empowers you to step towards your grief, to sit with it a bit today and get to know it. Remarkably, I’ve learned that it’s not present to torture you, but to guide you and teach you.  

 

Emotion Through the Lens of the Body

Emotion Through the Lens of the Body

When you stop to think about it, you can probably identify physical manifestations of your emotions. It’s not uncommon to hear people describe the state of being excited as “light” or a “butterflies in my stomach” feeling. When we are sad, we may identify as feeling sluggish or tired. Grief is similar- when we experience profound loss, there are physical symptoms that accompany the intense, dysregulating emotion. Commonly described physical manifestations of grief are things like headaches, stomach pain, back pain, chest heaviness, weakness or tightness in muscles, and changes in breathing and sleep.  (more…)

Healthy Relationships Start With… Me!

Healthy Relationships Start With… Me!

When my children were younger, I tried to instill in them the concept of “kindness begins with me”! When unkindness cropped up among siblings, I would ask the offending party, “Who does kindness begin with?” and most of the time, the child would respond with, “me!”, albeit reluctantly. This practice made it into our family lore on the day that our spunky Gracie, at age 3, was picking on her older brother. I pulled her aside and reminded her, “Gracie, kindness begins with…?” to which she answered angrily, “BEN, you idiot!”  (more…)

Boundaries and Bunnies

Boundaries and Bunnies

It began because of the pandemic. Or is that just my excuse? Anyway, somehow, my kids convinced me that getting two bunnies as Pandemic Emotional Support animals was a good idea. The breeder didn’t know the sex of said bunnies, but somehow I felt confident about rolling the dice and believed strongly that we chose two female bunnies. (more…)

What Star Wars Teaches Us About Family

What Star Wars Teaches Us About Family

As I start to write this, I can hear my family, downstairs, watching Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. I can hear the iconic soundtrack filtering up to where I am writing. I imagine when I simply said, “iconic soundtrack” you started hearing it in your head too.  And maybe like me you notice yourself smiling with associated positive memories of this epic saga.

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The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects

While doing some holiday shopping with my daughters, we found a pretty funny little sign in a local shop.  In red glitter letters, it read, “hope spending time with your family for the holidays doesn’t undo all the progress you’ve made with your therapist”. We all had a good laugh (and yes, that sign made it home with me!) but seriously–family time can be the best or the worst. Sometimes it just depends on the minute.  

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Five Building Blocks of Relationship Culture

Five Building Blocks of Relationship Culture

 My last blog discussed the culture we create within our relationships. If you missed this blog, feel free to check it out HERE.

Making any sort of intentional change in our relationships can be difficult to say the least. Navigating how to balance more than one individual’s emotions, opinions, experiences, etc. can be a daunting task. That being said, establishing a supportive relationship culture that works for you will make it much easier to make decisions, meet one another’s’ needs, and face problems together in the long run. (more…)

The Culture of Relationships Part 1

The Culture of Relationships Part 1

The past few weeks, I have been gearing up to teach my course about culture, families, and diversity at BYU again in the fall (hopefully in person and not just online!) Through reviewing my materials from last year and thinking about how I want to teach going forward, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of culture.

Defining Culture

What is culture? We’ve heard about it and talked about it throughout our lives, but what does it really mean? Culture can be succinctly defined as the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, roles, etc. acquired by a group of people (Samovar & Porter, 1994). Another way to describe culture is simple: culture is the way people do things.

There are several different types of culture. For example, in the business world, companies and organizations often talk about creating a culture for the employees and consumers. Ethnic groups from around the world have distinct cultures that govern their ways of life. In difficult times, we often turn to our culture, whether it be religious, ethnic, corporate, etc., as a way to cope. Leaning on cultural values and ways of living give individuals direction and comfort in uncertainty. For example, a company may lean on its cultural values when faced with a global pandemic as they decide whether to lay workers off or cut pay. A family might lean on their religious culture as they lose a loved one. When faced with oppression or discrimination, an ethnic group may lean on their ethnic culture as a way to make sense of their pain and gain strength.

Relational Culture

The same way various types of culture can provide coping during difficult times, the culture of our relationships and families can do the same. In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown suggests 10 questions that really help us understand culture. As you read through them, think about your family and relationship culture. How do these questions help guide your understanding of your own family and relationship culture? How does your culture help or hinder your individual coping?

  1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
  2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
  3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
  4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
  5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
  6. What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
  7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
  8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
  9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
  10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

(Brown, 2012).

As a marriage and family therapist, I frequently get asked questions about challenges that may arise in marital relationships. A few common questions that I hear are, “What if my partner goes back to compulsively viewing pornography?” “What if my partner slips back into eating disorder behaviors?” “What if my partner’s anxiety becomes unmanageable again?” These are painful and difficult questions that can invoke a lot of fear and anxiety in those asking them. The unknown, especially in a relationship, can feel threatening and scary. Instead of giving a protocol, a solution, or advice, I typically like to reflect my client’s question back to them. What if that does happen? What will you do? How will you handle it together? In what ways are you building your relationship now to be able to deal with the difficulties that will come later on?

Here’s where the idea of relationship culture really becomes important. It’s not so much about what to do in each scenario, but how your relationship tolerates difficulty. When those difficulties come, are you open and honest with one another? What boundaries are set in place about what is appropriate to share outside of a marital or familial relationship? How do you handle emotional disclosures in your relationship?

As a marriage and family therapist I have seen ways in which relationship cultures lift heavy burdens off of the shoulders of individuals, heal broken hearts and wounded minds, and allows individuals to be the most authentic versions of themselves and loved for it. On the other hand, I have seen the culture of relationships inflict pain, multiply shame, and stunt individual growth and vulnerability. The culture of our relationships impacts all individuals involved in those relationships and is vital to consistently work on.

Relationship Culture is Important…Now What?

Now that we’ve discussed relationship culture and why it is important, you may be wondering how to build a healthy, open, and resilient relationship culture within your marriages and families. I think the first step is to get honest with yourself about what your relationship culture really looks like, perhaps by asking yourself the ten questions listed above. As you do so, think about the following: what do you like about the culture of your relationships? What’s not working for you? What have you observed in other relationship cultures that you’ve been a part of that you admired? That hurt you? Next month I will dive into more practical ways to build up a healthy, supportive relationship culture in your marriages and families.

 

References

Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Gotham Books, 2012.

Samovar, Larry A and Porter, Richard E.,1994: Basic Principles of Intercultural Communication. In Larry A. Samovar and Richard E. Porter: Intercultural Communication: A Reader, 7th ed., Wadsworth, Inc., CA:USA.