Warning: Grief Side-Effects May Include Building Emotional Walls

We’ve been a little quiet on WYG this week, but hopefully you have been keeping up over on photogrief, where we posted our posted our March challenge!  In that post we challenged you to post your #griefweeds and #griefwildflowers images on photogrief and social media.  If you can’t even imagine what that means, go read about the challenge.  In that post, Eleanor said, “Why are some grief weeds so resilient? My theory is that the strongest and most painful weeds grow from the same seeds as love.”  That may sound related a quote made famous by Queen Elizabeth, who said on the death of Sir Christopher Meyer, “grief is the price we pay for love”.   It’s one of those quotes that grievers on the internet loved and shared.

Until you lose someone, you may not really “get” the love-grief connection thing.  Or you maybe get it intellectually, but you don’t get it emotionally.  Then one day it hits you like a ton of bricks.  You realize that when you love someone so deeply and entirely, losing that person means losing pieces of yourself, and it means your world shattering.  Grief is in many ways the price we pay for love, they do grow from the same seeds, and as beautiful as that can sound, in especially dark moments that connection can be dangerous.

On your worst days the realization that the source of the deepest, most unimaginable pain you have ever felt is there because you loved someone so deeply, can be scary.  Really really scary.  It means that any other deep love can be the source of deep pain and loss.  It is human nature to avoid and protect ourselves from pain, so what are we supposed to do when we realize that opening ourselves to love means opening ourselves up to pain?  The self-protective instinct in us sometimes kicks in and suddenly, standing in the rubble of grief and loss, we just want to protect ourselves from every feeling pain like this again.  We can sometimes start stacking that rubble up around us to a build wall.  It is a wall built on the sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious, thought: if grief is the price we pay for love, it isn’t a price I am willing to pay.  So we start to distance ourselves from love.  This can take different shapes, but some common experiences are:

  1. Distancing yourself from the people who are already in your life that you love and care about.
  2. You refuse to open myself up to new people, for fear you will ultimately just end up being hurt.
  3. You detach from the world around you in general, becoming emotionally numb to avoid setting yourself up to care about something and lose it.

It is human nature to avoid pain, so no judgment if this is something that has been part of your grief.  It doesn’t impact everyone, but it certainly impacts some.  If you realize love can, down the road, be a source of not just a little pain, but A LOT of pain, it is no surprise you may develop an instinct to avoid love.  Just reading those words – “avoid love” – is hopefully an indication of why these emotional walls can be problematic.  Yes, they emotionally protect us from grief.  But this also prevents from connection, intimacy, hope, joy, and so many other things that make the world a place we want to live.  So what’s a griever to do?

Addressing Emotional Walls

Tactic One: Remember, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

You can take it slow.  For example, after losing a baby (or sometimes multiple babies) to miscarriage or stillbirth, it isn’t uncommon to build a wall and say “I am never trying again” from a place of self-protection.  If you have decided to look at walls you may have built, it doesn’t mean overnight saying, okay, I am going to try to get pregnant again.  It may mean saying, I am going to open myself to the idea or possibility.  I am not going to say “I will try”, I am not going to say “I will not try”.  Instead, I will not rule anything out, I will do some self-reflection and slowly ease into decisions on how to move forward to make sure they are not part of a problematic emotional wall.

Tactic Two: Address avoidance.

Sometimes you don’t even realize the reason you have been avoiding people, places, or things is because you have been building walls.  This requires a little self-assessment.  If you have been creating distance between people and things that were meaningful to you before your loss, take some time to reflect on what that is all about.  It isn’t always about an emotional wall, but it can be, so it is important spending some time with the idea.

Keep in mind, avoidance doesn’t always mean you have cut everyone out of your life and are spending all your time alone.  Sometimes we swap out inner-circle people, who we love and care about most, for acquaintances.   This can be a protective way of having contact but with people who feel “safer” because they do not require you to be as vulnerable to love and potential loss.

Tactic Three: Be mindful of making radical relationship changes quickly. 

I was in a fairly serious, but relatively new relationship when my dad died.  I found my journal from that time recently and read through many thoughts I had about ending the relationship despite the fact that it was a wonderful and supportive relationship.  As I peeled through the layers trying to figure out what was going on, it was clear after losing my dad the thought I could lose this person too was too much to handle.  It felt safer to end the relationship on my own terms at that moment to control my hurt, rather than get further emotionally invested and risk greater hurt. I am very grateful now I worked through that and didn’t end the relationship, but it was definitely an emotional wall I was trying to build.  Even without ending the relationship I did still create an emotional distance that took some time to resolve.

Sometimes grief gives us a new lens to see the world.  Sometimes that means we see relationships, friendships, jobs, priorities differently and we make changes for the better.  But sometimes it is the fear and anxiety lens pushing us to close ourselves off from people or things we actually deeply care about.  It is important to look closely and do a lot of self-assessment about what is going on when you have that inclination to make big emotional changes after a loss.

Tactic Four: Acknowledge the reality of potential loss and hurt.  

Now, you may be screaming, I KNOW the potential for loss and hurt, I have gone through it, and that’s what brought me here!  But when we build these walls we don’t always consciously realize we are doing it to mitigate our anxiety around future pain and loss.  Facing that thought head on and considering the reality of grief and loss is part of being vulnerable and taking steps towards opening back up.  We can’t avoid these anxieties because they will keep creeping up, so at some point we must consciously face them. If you try to face these anxieties and find yourself stuck, this may be an important reason to see a counselor.

Tactic Five: Learn tools for coping with anxiety.

No surprise, coping with anxiety and fear around experiencing hurt again is an important part of opening yourself back up and tearing down emotional walls.  There are lots of general tools and techniques.  We have a post on grief and anxiety here.  But if this is a significant issue for you, seeing a counselor can make a big difference in learning specific coping tools that will work well for you.

Tactic Six: Acknowledge what you are missing.

It is easy to feel like it is safer to stay protected inside the safety of your emotional walls and ignore all the things you may be missing on the other side.  To find the inspiration, motivation, and hope required to take a risk and push yourself outside those walls, it is important to consider what is out there that you are missing by closing yourself off.  Especially in the early days of grief it can feel like none of those things are worth the potential pain of loss.  But as time goes on, you find ways to manage anxiety, and you reflect on things you may be missing through avoidance and emotional walls, it can start to feel easier.  You can slowly begin to open yourself up to love and hope, even with the knowledge that from the same seeds that grow love, grief may someday grow.

Have you dealt with building emotional walls?  Leave a comment with questions or to share how you have coped with this! 

April 19, 2017

15 responses on "Warning: Grief Side-Effects May Include Building Emotional Walls"

  1. For the pass 6 years, ever since my dad died when i was 12 yrs old, i have been building up a wall towards everyone in my life. I felt i had to go through it alone, thinking that would make me strong. but the thing is, i’ve put up a wall on myself too. For the pass 6 years i’ve been trying to push away my pain like how i push the people in my life away. But i realize i can’t keep pushing my pain away cuz that just gonna hurt me more. So this 7th year i decided to let my pain out, although i feel like i’m trying to put up even more walls to push people back even further away. I feel like i don’t even want to get to know new people… and seeing my friends and family going on with there lives makes me push them more away so my pain won’t be able to mess up with their lives. Also i think i’m also pushing them more away this year then any other year is cuz both my aunt and grandma passed away last year so, my pain triples this year more then the pass 6 years. I feel like pushing everyone away… even the people who i really trust right now… i feel like whenever i let some pain go, double pain always replaces it.

  2. Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It if truth be told used
    to be a entertainment account it. Glance advanced to far added agreeable from you!

    However, how could we keep in touch?

  3. It is hard to see others, my family and friends move on with their life. They work, play, go to school, have fun. They are happy, and I’m glad for them. Who wants to feel this way. It has been 2 1/2 years since my husband of 30 years died from cancer. There are days when I feel like it was yesterday. And yet at other times it seems like a lifetime ago. Someone else’s life. I’m sure they don’t want to hear me talk about him all the time. I can’t really blame them. But I spent almost my whole adult life with him. And I really feel so alone. Everyday I put on the good face. I’m just not sure how much longer I can keep this up.

  4. I know exactly what it’s like to ‘shut myself off’. I lost my eldest son to alcoholism 5 years last October, and since then have kept everyone at arm’s length. I feel so sorry for my husband as I can’t stand for him to touch me or show me any affection. I stay on my own most of the time with the doors locked so that I don’t have to interact with anyone. I have an 87 year old mother who lives on her own, and whom my son lived with, and I find it difficult, and a chore, to visit her because I have it in my mind that we could lose her at any time. The only person I can feel close to is my 7 year old granddaughter, because she has no knowledge of the complete picture, has no preconceptions, and loves us for who we are. I feel that if I stay away from people, they won’t miss me when I’m gone, and hurt like I do. Writing this, it seems a selfish attitude to take, but it’s complicated. If I stay isolated then nobody will know-or care-when I’m no longer here. And, yes, I’m just tired…so tired.

  5. I have been well aware of my growing detachment & the walls i safely hide behind.
    I found my dad after he took his life in 2015, he and i were best friends. About 6 or so months later I started looking at my partner & was absolutely petrified of something happening to him. Or that he’d get sick of looking after me & he’d leave me. Unaware I started slowly pushing him away, i eventually left 2 weeks before my dads 1st anniversary.
    I left on the Friday. On what i thought was good terms. He killed himself on the sunday.
    I instantly shut down.
    I detached myself emotionally.
    I went from being really close to my family & having a really great group of friends to the occasional visit for a birthday ect.
    I stay home.
    Keep the kids alive.
    And count down the minutes until i can crawl back into bed.
    Im just going through the motions.
    And I’m comfortable with that.
    It’s safe under my blanket.
    Its safe behind my walls.

    • Georgia I am so sorry for what you have been through. My older brother took his life at the age of 46 in 2003. Suicide of a loved one is hard to go through. So many questions unanswered. He did not leave a note. The guilt is still unbearable at times. My prayers and thoughts are with you. My husband of 29 years passed away 7/16/16. I sure can relate to staying in bed.

  6. I lost my 29 year old son five years ago to PTSD related suicide. He was a young Marine who did 3 tours to Iraq. He struggled every single day with the anxiety, depression and demons. He took his own life on 1/3/12 and I have been in a deep, dark place ever since. His dad and I divorced before our son passed away and he was of no help in planning the funeral arrangements, etc. I did everything by myself. My immediate family and I have always been very close; mom and dad, 2 brothers and a sister. It is now 5 years later and we are completely estranged. They live within 5 to 10 minutes of me. I have walked this journey completely alone and it is not only terrifying but also exhausting. No matter how hard I try to reach out to others, they always let me down. I have always been the one in the family to reach out to others when they need anything but I’m not getting anything back. I am 59 years old and feel like I get up every day hoping that it is my last on earth…..

    • Dear Jody – Your post touched me deeply. My son, a veteran, also died by suicide, 4 years ago. His father did help, and my husband is emotionally available, but my siblings never mention him. They have no idea what I am going through, and I feel distant from them. I think they would rather ignore his death, and my grief, because it makes them uncomfortable – maybe they’ll “catch” it. I feel the need to act fine around them, so as to not disturb them. The worst part is that I feel I’m now building a wall between myself and my husband. He had a stroke and could have died – I assume that is why. I do not want to lose him, but I know now that death is real and can happen to anyone, anytime. How can I be that close to him, knowing how much it would hurt if he dies?

  7. My walls are important to me right now. I’ve put myself out there a few times in the past 31 months, and I’ve been told I’m negative, that I need to get a grip with reality, that I don’t seem to “fit” the three main reasons my therapist thinks are why people want therapy. My GP keeps trying to “fix” me with medications I cannot tolerate. People have stopped calling, emailing, visiting. So, I’m down to sometimes two people I can be open with, completely. A third lets me vent, but I know my tears make her uneasy. I’ve connected with two widows on FB, but our situations are so completely different that most times, I can’t relate. I’m physically and mentally exhausted. I stay in a lot. It’s just easier. I’ve never had many friends anyway. Only difference now is that the one person who I’ve counted on for the past 49 years is the loss I’m grieving. I know he can’t come back, but it’s all I want. I know I’m not technically alone, but in reality, I am. Sometimes I feel like every person that’s walked out on me since my husband died has put their own brick in my growing wall.

    • You just explained exactly how I feel. I’ve never been good at putting what’s going on in my head into sentences that make sense but this here is spot on. Thankyou ?

  8. This article does recognize many aspects of my life and I’m sure of others as well. But what it doesn’t recognize is that people are very different and some of us need-require-deep space for understanding and building on the life that has so radically changed. When you say that until you have lost you cannot know emotionally and viscerally what that is, that’s exactly right. So many people including me don’t want to see old friends, the companions of before. They don’t feel what I feel, and yet they try to empathize. Well-meaning but not what I need right now. I am digging very deeply into the events, the feelings, the textures, the qualities of my life. I would never give up what I value and love most just to feel more socially acceptable, just to fill my days with experiences that are far less meaningful. In connection with this examined life I am reading and writing a lot. It is a mind-expanding state of being.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      This is an important point Wendy. Taking a break from people, changing priorities, etc are all things that can be normal, healthy, and welcome. That is very different than building an emotional wall. When things are working for you, then it isn’t necessarily a problematic change. The problems can arise when you remove old things (or people) and don’t open yourself to the possibility of new things (or people). That is the important difference between that positive lens that can come with grief, versus a lens that is seeing the world through a loss of trust that causes an inability to rebuild, adapt, and grow. I hope that distinction makes sense- I am sorry I didn’t make that more explicit in the post, so thank you for the comment! If you haven’t seen these two posts, they may resonate with you and what you’re describing:

      http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/grief-changes-priorities/

      http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/making-grief-friends/

  9. What does one do when an attempt to share grief with a family member is met with hurtful comments, and worse? No offense, but that is a rhetorical question because believe me, that protective wall will never come down.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Hey Cathryn- good question and one we have A LOT of posts about because it is so tragically common! Because I don’t know your exact situation I can’t tell you the most relevant ones, but here are a few to start with:

      http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/making-grief-friends/

      http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/emotional-manipulation/

      http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/family-fighting-after-a-death/

      http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/twelve/

      There are certainly more but hopefully that’s at least something to get you going 🙂

      The reality is (as a number of the above posts describe) sometimes it is healthy to cut people out and have a wall around them. Where problems can come up is if you never let anyone in again, or assume just because one (or five or ten) people are terrible or hurtful, that means everyone will be. Cutting people out can be important, but it is also important to then leave space for new people, using plenty of caution! So sorry your family haven’t been the people you hoped and needed them to be through your loss. ❤️

    • I understand that. I keep hearing even after only a year that I should be over my mothers death. It will be three years March 16, 2017 and I’m far from over it. I pretty much grieve alone. I was the only child. It was just my mom and I all my life. My father also passed away in 2010 he was not in my life. I have two children well one daughter is 23 and one 13 I know that without them I wouldn’t get out of bed so they are truly a blessing. However they do not share my grief and I wouldn’t want them to. They say live life for the living but I find it hard to forget the ones that are gone. ?

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