When Healing Doesn’t Happen Fast Enough: Dealing with Complicated Grief and Loss

We all have days where we want to give up. Days that just seem too hard, too long, and too painful. For some of us, these days come at what we would consider appropriate times, after we have experienced the loss of something important such as a meaningful relationship, a job, or a loved one. It is through these events that we feel justified in our inability to get things done, or to even get out of bed. But what happens after the dust settles? What is the appropriate amount of time we are allowed to cry, rage, disconnect, or numbly stare at the wall? At what point am I supposed to stand back up, and get on with things? What if I can’t get back up? What if I am broken?

At some point, many of the people I have worked with through complex grief and loss, will begin to ask these questions. As if they are not already struggling enough to move through overwhelming emotional pain, many begin to judge themselves (while also enduring judgement from others) for not only what they are going through, but also for how they are getting through it. Although I remind many of my clients that there is no specific timeline for grief, telling them that shock can settle in for months, that healing takes time based on who we are and our prior experience, and that quite simply, it takes as long as it takes, many still get caught up in self-condemnation. “I shouldn’t still feel this way.” “I should be over this by now.” “What is wrong with me?!” These are just a few of the statements that are familiar to many (if not all) of us, as we struggle to shed our own unique grief experience. What makes grief and loss even more difficult is when grief is ongoing, complex, and the result of ongoing trauma.

What is complex grief and loss? Although there may be some different definitions out there, I define complex grief as a form of loss that is multilayered, difficult to comprehend, or chronic. For example, someone who lives with a perpetrator, exposed to ongoing abuse, can develop complex grief and loss because their trauma was complex. And if their abuser was a caregiver, they may also stumble to make sense of how the person who loves them is the same person who hurt them. Similarly, survivors of suicide loss, can get stuck on their grief journey, as they work to comprehend how someone they love could have died in such a tragic way. These types of experiences can slow the grief process due to their multifaceted nature. Although it makes sense that complicated grief and loss can require us to take the longer road, many people still struggle to give themselves permission to take it.

What is happening is a big deal, and it may take some time before you are able to stand completely upright.

Perhaps you were already struggling with loss before the pandemic hit. Perhaps you were already feeling overwhelmed with painful emotions before you witnessed the countless murders of black Americans on screens across the world. Perhaps you have been hit with multiple losses all at the same time as a result of current events. Regardless of how you have been personally impacted, it may feel overwhelmed by the amount of injury you are dealing with at this point in time. Your experience counts, and this is complicated.

Healing from complex grief, loss, and trauma requires compassion from those around you, but most of all it requires compassion from you…to you. What is happening is a big deal, and it may take some time before you are able to stand completely upright. To beat yourself into submission, to shame yourself for feeling messy, helpless, or whatever you are feeling, will only ensure that you are going to be down even longer then you would otherwise. Accept that grief is messy. I want you to heal, but it is going to require some serious intention, along with an ability to embrace the mess. There are multiple thinking errors that can effectively slow your own healing, and increase the chances of falling into the “shoulds” as you make your way. Here are a few potholes that are fairly common, along with some thoughts about how you can avoid them.

Pothole #1: You Believe You Are Not as Good as Others

Oftentimes people will talk to me about how others around them seem to be doing so much better then they are in regards to healing from grief and loss. The truth is you will never know what it is like to live in someone else’s shoes, and many people wear masks when they are dealing with profound sadness, depression, and loss. Additionally, people tend to put these masks on social media as they work hard to appear put together. They are undoubtedly experiencing the mess in their own way, you just are not seeing what happens when the camera is off. Focus on yourself, and your own personal experience by chronicling your progress in a journal. Look for the cracks where the light comes in, they are most certainly there.

Pothole #2: You Believe That You are Alone in Your Grief

More, now then ever before, people all over this planet are experiencing profound grief and loss. Whenever you feel alone, remember that there are people everywhere that are feeling what you are feeling at the exact same moment. Feeling alone is a common experience through grief. Remember that you are absolutely part of the human race, and to be human means you have either experienced loss, or you are going to. Change is the one constant, and the longer you live on this planet the more change you will experience. Get or stay connected to your community.

Pothole #3: You Believe That You Will Never Heal

If this is you, chances are you are looking into the future through a skewed lense. When we feel out of control of our circumstances, we can experience overwhelming feelings of helplessness and despair. Remember that you will not always feel this way. Look into your past, and harvest the memories that are there as proof that you have not always felt this way. Remember the first time you fell in love, saw a sunset at the beach, that first moment you looked into your child’s eyes. It is not all bad, and remind yourself again that change is coming.

Clear Reflections

What are some of the thinking errors that you tell yourself. Choose one from the examples above or write about another one that tends to stop you in your tracks.

What are the feelings and behaviors associated with the thought you wrote about?

What can you do to practice compassion for yourself when you have this thought?

Healing takes time. Every step counts.

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