“Grief is the price we pay for love”. ~ Queen Elizabeth
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 deep love you experience can also 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?
For some of us, the self-protective instinct 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. So we start stacking that rubble up around us until we’ve built a 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.”
Distancing yourself from love 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 you from grief. But they also keep you from having connections, intimacy, hope, joy, and so many other things that make life meaningful. So what’s a griever to do?
Address 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 you have been avoiding people, places, or things. Addressing avoidance 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, I realized that the thought that I might also lose this person 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 about 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!