Grief Emotions Aren’t Good Or Bad, They Just Are

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams


I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist or an over-achiever, but I have always viewed myself as a person who generally functions pretty well in the world. I was never the smartest kid in school, but I always did well. I was never the most social butterfly, but I always held my own with friends and strangers.

I like being good at my job and trying new things and knowing how to do things myself, without asking for help. When grief turned my life upside down at 18-years-old, I think some subconscious part of me felt a pressure to do that well too. I had no idea what it meant to “grieve well”—despite that being a kind of annoying term that gets thrown around a fair bit. I thought that it only made sense that grief was just another new thing I should try to do well.  

In trying to sort out what it meant, I bought into a lot of myths about emotions that didn’t do me any favors. We have alluded to these myths in many other posts, but we have never really broken them down. Today is the day!

Emotions aren’t good or bad, they just are… But there are a few myths that tell us something different.

Some myths include:

  • There are good emotions and there are bad emotions.
  • We should try to eliminate or avoid bad emotions.
  • You can’t change what you feel.

Alright, let’s do a quick breakdown and then I’ll give some quick thoughts on what actually helped me shift my thinking a bit.


There are good emotions and there are bad emotions.

myth one: There are good emotions and there are bad emotions.

Nope, there are actually just emotions. Emotions are our brain’s natural reaction to external stimuli. Yes, some are easy and pleasant while some are difficult and tough. But that doesn’t mean they are good or bad. Emotions just are. We feel them for a reason and it is important that we are open to that, not running the other way.

I said this in a group recently and someone adamantly disagreed, saying he couldn’t imagine how one could say feelings like anger or guilt weren’t objectively bad, things to be eliminated. I imagine some of you may be thinking the same thing. So let’s do a quick run through of the reasoning:

Emotions developed evolutionarily for a reason—they tell us something about external factors in our life. In many ways, they are actually a tool that can help us out… yes, even the tough emotions. If you’re feeling guilty about something, that is often a reason to consider that you shouldn’t repeat certain behaviors in the future. If you’re angry at someone, this may be a sign that they have done something hurtful and you should be aware of that to keep yourself safe. If we ignore or numb negative emotions about a relationship, a job, or other things in our life, we are less likely to make changes in areas of our lives that might need some changes

The problems arise not when we have difficult emotions, but a) when those emotions turn into behaviors that are problematic or, b) when we get “stuck” on certain emotions and they continue impacting our feelings or behaviors in a way that negatively impacts our day-to-day life. Clear as mud? Don’t worry, there’s more.


We should try to eliminate or change bad emotions.

As human beings, we loooove to avoid things that are difficult and tough to feel. This means we often do everything in our power to stop, avoid, or numb difficult emotions. We keep ourselves busy to ignore them, we use drugs or alcohol to numb ourselves to them, or we find other ways to avoid them. Problem is, when we try to avoid thoughts, the research shows it actually hurts our overall mental health and well-being instead of helping it.

Now, it is important to note here that positive emotions absolutely help and improve our mental health. But that doesn’t mean we should strive to only feel positive emotions while we try to stuff or numb the negative ones. Two researchers at NYU looked at this in a study with clients undergoing psychotherapy, surveying them before each session and asking them to write narratives that were then coded to identify different emotions. They found that those who were able to identify and feel both emotions traditionally thought of as “positive” (e.g., happy, cheerful, hopeful, etc.) and those traditionally thought of as “negative” (e.g., sad, hopeless, dejected, angry, etc.) were more likely to see improvements in their overall mood and well-being in the coming weeks.

There is a whole bunch of other research showing the reasons suppressing difficult or negative emotions can backfire. In one study, people who tried to suppress negative thoughts at night were more likely to have dreams about them. Another study showed those who tried to suppress food thoughts and emotions were more like to engage in over-eating than those who faced and recognized the difficult emotions they were feeling. Yet another showed that people who tried to avoid uncomfortable thoughts ended up having more intrusive, uncomfortable thoughts.


You can’t change your emotions.

This one is tricky because it’s true that emotions are natural reactions—and that they often just come up in response to things happening in our lives. But we can decide what we do with that emotion. We can actively determine how we let it impact our feelings and behaviors. 

For example, when I am extremely angry at someone, I might lash out at them and start an argument, letting the emotion control my behavior. Alternately, I might try to notice that I am angry and make a conscious decision to not lose my temper, still be respectful, and to try to find empathy for whatever they have done that upset me. 

Another example: If I am sad and isolated, I can decide to decline an invitation to have coffee with a good friend, letting my sadness tell me I just don’t have the motivation or I wouldn’t be good company. Or, I can acknowledge my sadness and that it is going to be hard, but decide that I am not going to let it impact my behavior and I will get together with a friend anyway. (You can read more about Opposite Action here).

As you can imagine, in both of these situations, the initial emotion is going to be there regardless… but the behavior we choose in response to that emotion can then impact and change the emotion.

What do you actually DO with this information?

When I started to see this more clearly, it was easy to abstractly understand concepts like “lean into the pain” and feel all your feelings. 

But how do you actually do that when our instinct and the messages we get from other people are often to avoid, suppress, and ignore those emotions?

Tips for Embracing Emotions

Meditate

Though people often assume meditation is about letting go of thoughts and emotions, meditation can also be used to be present with difficult emotions instead of avoiding them. If you’re new to meditation, the New York Times assembled a great guide to get people started. Sharon Salzburg has some great meditations that involve focusing on painful emotions in the meditation, to help you face instead of avoiding them.

We need the courage to learn from our past and not to live in it.

Journal, Art Journal, or Use Other Creative Expressions

People will often say you need to go to therapy to talk about difficult emotions, but talking isn’t for everyone. Many people find writing or other creative expressions as a better fit, and this can absolutely be a way to face feelings!


Go To A Group or Therapist

This one is tried-and-true. It can help if you feel so overwhelmed by these difficult emotions that you struggle to let them in or find that—when you do—they interfere with living your life the way you hope to. A counselor or group can provide great support for facing and processing difficult emotions.


Be Honest With Those You Trust

It’s easy to put on a happy face and tell even your closest friends or partner that you’re “fine” when you’re struggling… But consider the people you trust the most and push yourself to be honest with them about the feelings you have—even the tough feelings—rather than falling into the trap of avoiding or ignoring them. You may find some amazing support from them that you never expected.


Other thoughts, ideas, experiences, or suggestions about difficult emotions? Keep the conversation going by leaving a comment… And, as always, subscribe to get our new posts straight to your inbox!

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss goes on sale September 27, 2022, but you can preorder at the following retailers:

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8 Comments on "Grief Emotions Aren’t Good Or Bad, They Just Are"

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  1. Broken Heart  December 13, 2022 at 10:44 am Reply

    My comment from 12/12/2022 with some corrections:

    My Beloved Mother, Maria, died during the month of September, 2022 (and my life ended that day too). Several weeks after that, I went to my aunt’s house, looking for a little solace, in the way of talking about my Cherished Mother, remembering her life and all the good things she did for so many people, telling her the great things we did together, and give to my Talented Mother a more than deserved tribute; but that was not what I obtained from that visit. Unfortunately, people like my aunt believe in forget fast about the departed, in stop crying for them after just a few days (like something like that is even possible), in put them in the past and leave them behind, like they never existed, in the expression “It was her time.”, and so many other hackneyed phrases that people repeat without analyzing or thinking. I told her that I would never forget my Beautiful Mother and that she is with me all the time, that I am crying for her because I love and miss her, we were together almost 59 years, that she died due to the neglect from my so called siblings, so I don’t think “it was her time” apply at all, because she could have been saved. She should have enjoyed her Birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas, she deserved to be here enjoying life and the things she loved. Some of my aunt’s children think the same way and I return home feeling a great disappointment, crying desperately, and frustrated. At her house they were talking about Christmas parties, and this and that, and wanting me to go. Was that some kind of sick, stupid joke? Don’t you know that I am mourning? Don’t you know that I am grieving? If you want to party, go ahead and do it, it wasn’t your special loved one who died, but don’t expect me to be in your celebrations because I have nothing to celebrate. I’m sad and angry at their attitude, like I should do what they say and act like they want. Can you live without your heart? No, you can’t and she was my heart. Please, don’t tell me how to feel about my Lovely Mother and don’t try to impose your ideas on me. My feelings are mine and nobody have any kind of rights to dismiss or disparage them or my tears. I cry for her for many reasons, she deserved better and now I can’t do anything for her and with her (we did everything together, I was with her in the goods and the not so goods). She was my life and no one is understanding that (or even trying to), but there’s a couple of things I can do that will make me forget about this whole bad experience: I will never, ever return to that house and I will cut all contact with her and her children. I don’t need them to add more pain to my grief. It was too much to ask for an evening of reminiscence about my Dear Mother? I don’t think it was, she deserves more than that.

    Another thing that made me feel even sadder, was observing the way her children treated her, like she was a queen (the way it should be), something that my mother deserved from her older children, but never received. She was a great mother who always put her children first, who worked all day long, so we can live in a happy home (and that wasn’t easy), who fight for us and helped us always, even during our adulthood. She deserved to be living a relaxed life, a peaceful retirement, but she never experienced that, thanks to her older ungrateful children. She too deserved the life that my aunt is having, she deserves to still be here and be really happy. I don’t like their way of thinking and I’m going to keep my distance from them, so I can grief my Wonderful Mother in peace. Like I did with Thanksgiving, the first one without her, I’m going to forget about these days (with her, happy days, without her, horrible days) and treat them like any others. Celebration days do not exist for me anymore.

    How much I wish I can turn back time! I love and miss her so much and all I want is to be with her! Mother, I love you very, very, very much! I’m sorry for everything! 😢💔😭💕

  2. Carol Anthony  March 15, 2019 at 6:37 am Reply

    This all goes along with dialectic behavioral therapy and it works!!!
    I went through a 6 week program n it’s helped me immensely. They should make it a class in high school…

  3. Elena  September 30, 2017 at 4:55 pm Reply

    Hi,i lost my dad 4 years ago,but i usually i feel so sad like it was yesterday. I do things every day normally going to work, talking to people but inside i am so sad and broken. I basically have to lifes,one outside and another inside. Noone knows for my inner world .The reason why i m not sharing is because i know noone can understand that feeling and the only person who would understand it was my dad.He always knew the way i feel,without any words spoken. I know i have to live with this pain but sometimes life just have no sense if you are living it mechanically. ..i know that the person who loved me the most and who would give his life for me is not here with me…if the greatest love is gone from your life what’s the point living it?

    3
  4. Elena  September 30, 2017 at 4:55 pm Reply

    Hi,i lost my dad 4 years ago,but i usually i feel so sad like it was yesterday. I do things every day normally going to work, talking to people but inside i am so sad and broken. I basically have to lifes,one outside and another inside. Noone knows for my inner world .The reason why i m not sharing is because i know noone can understand that feeling and the only person who would understand it was my dad.He always knew the way i feel,without any words spoken. I know i have to live with this pain but sometimes life just have no sense if you are living it mechanically. ..i know that the person who loved me the most and who would give his life for me is not here with me…if the greatest love is gone from your life what’s the point living it?

    1
  5. B. Cameron  September 1, 2017 at 10:47 pm Reply

    Well I found this article helpful. Ty to those who have spoke of their feelings. My mom fullness is knowing that my mom is no longer suffering from Alzymiers or last 3 yrs of breast cancer too. 11 yrs Alzymiers in a nursing home. I am thankful of her passing so no more suffering happens to her. But I’m having a hard time letting go and saying bye? I was with her when she passed ty God for that with both parents not sure how to feel next?

    2
  6. Janice  July 31, 2017 at 8:38 am Reply

    Thanks for this post. I began practicing mindfulness meditation after losing my son a year ago. It has been extremely helpful to me in dealing with, but not avoiding, the very difficult emotions that grief brings. Here are a few things I’ve learned as a beginning meditator. It’s a cumulative thing so if you’re trying it, stick with it for a while …like 5-10 minutes a day for a month or more. And it may help to use a guided meditation available online or through an app. My motivation to learn to cope with my new reality was probably what kept me going when it didn’t seem to have any real effects. Then gradually I noticed a shift in some things in real life, not when I was actually meditating.

    I have an image of myself in grief as the marbles on the old game called Kerplunk. My support system and coping strangles are the sticks and there are lots of them. Meditation is one of my sticks, keeping me (the marbles) from falling.

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  7. Steve Peterson  July 30, 2017 at 9:46 pm Reply

    I think it is natural to avoid pain, and taking flight from sadness and grief by adopting other behaviors or filling your day with distractions is only self preservation. On the other hand, the pain of losing a loved one, opens another door. It’s a door to feeling human emotions that you may have not felt for a long time. Sometimes our human feelings remain kind of dormant as we busy ourselves with every day life. Yes, we appreciate this and dislike that, and get annoyed and upset in addition to laughing and loving one another. However, losing a significant person in your life does awaken intensive emotions, and as I say, you are experiencing the human experience at a Richter Scale of 10. That reminds me of the saying, “It’s better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.” If you have slid down into the valley of despair, it means you have fallen from the mountain top of love. Just don’t lose hope that you can’t live a happy life again or be impatient in your journey back to happiness.

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    • deb  August 1, 2017 at 9:44 pm Reply

      I agree with your thoughts and experience………… we need time to get back to happiness.

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