The Side Effects of Exploring Grief

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

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I’m pretty sure when a doctor prescribes medication to a patient, they’re supposed to discuss the potential side effects with them.  By pretty sure I mean this seems to make sense to me but I’m actually not 100% sure what the rule is because I avoid taking medication at all costs.

It just seems like good practice to warn patients about all the weird symptoms they’re likely to experience as a result of a medication, treatment, or therapy.  That way they don’t show up at your office in a week all like “Well, my acid reflux is gone but I haven’t gone to the bathroom in a week.” Or, in the case of emotional exploration and certain therapy, saying “What’s going on doc?  I feel like a basket case!”

My current outlook has me contemplating this and feeling a bit remiss.  Since our inception, we’ve discussed many ways to explore, express, and seek therapy for grief, but we've never provided the disclaimer that sometimes some of these things may initially make you feel worse.

On some level, you probably already understood healing means opening wounds and poking around.  It’s why we avoid thinking and talking about the things which force us to feel the sting of being scared, angry, guilty, hollow, and small.  We avoid the road that leads into darkness because we aren’t sure it will ever open onto a sunny path.

grief side effects

Maybe we should have warned you that, when we asked you to explore your grief, we were really asking you to dive into the pain and keep swimming.  We were asking you to tolerate it, sit with it, and even embrace it.  Perhaps we should have clarified, many of the methods we recommend – journaling, art, therapy, etc. – have the potential to make you feel worse before you feel better.

I remember someone talking about being in couples' therapy, I can’t really remember who, but they said it’s kind of a nightmare.  For an hour, they are forced to open up in a way they never have before.  Theoretically, things like honesty, communication, and truth are positive, but anyone who’s been in a relationship knows they can also sometimes lead to pain.  It makes total sense for a couple to leave these sessions feeling like crap, unable to recognize any progress in their capacity to communicate, empathize, and cope which (in theory) ought to happen in the long run.

The same sometimes holds true with individual therapy. Sometimes you wander down emotionally dark alleys, admit truths, and accept the unacceptable.  Some days you might leave feeling refreshed and invigorated and some days you swear you’re never going back again.  Oftentimes the burn means it’s working.

Then there are the areas of creative, artistic, and expressive coping – journaling, art, writing, photography – these can be just as frustrating.  I’ve had a few people ask me if I think writing this blog has been cathartic and I think ultimately the answer is 'yes'... but, every so often, I feel like the further in I dig here, the worse I feel.

Some days there are just no words or pictures to express how I’m feeling, and some days the words and pictures are right but troubling.  In my journal, I have at least a dozen opening paragraphs on a dozen different topics.  I write a paragraph, I stop writing, I look into space, and I think “No, I don’t have the energy to explore this today."  I’m not a writer, so I don’t know if this is what writers' block feels like, but I am an avoider so I can say with complete certainty that I’m avoiding.  In order to write honestly it means admitting things and right now I’m just not in the mood.  My frustrated self tells me I'm better off lounging on the couch watching The Real Housewives of God Knows Where.... but deep down I know I'm not.

My mother died many years ago and honestly it wasn’t even close to being the first time I felt the pangs of despair and hopelessness.  I’m not new to the game, I’ve experienced several different shades of anxiety and depression since my early 20s.  I know the frustrating feeling of “Nothing I’m doing is working.” I know what it’s like to stand at the bottom of a pit without a ladder.  But I also know the only way to get out is to start digging.  To keep at the things I know to be helpful even when I feel like I’m getting nowhere.

So this is my disclaimer to you: Dealing with grief sometimes comes with a few emotional side effects.  The sting of sadness, guilt, shame, and despair - often these mean it's working.  Don't give up, keep trying, and call me in the morning.

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5 Comments on "The Side Effects of Exploring Grief"

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  1. Jackie  September 25, 2019 at 11:26 am Reply

    After a year and 5 months after my mom passed away from Stage 4 Terminal Lung Cancer, I was encouraged to seek help, and have done so. The first initial appointment with the Grief Counselor with our local Hospice office, left me with a better understanding of the feelings I have been confused about for so long. People told me it would be tough, but they didnt tell me HOW tough. Knowing that my counselor is there, and is willing to answer, any questions I may have, is a huge relief. I guess that I had to really hit rock bottom, and risk pushing people away that I really love, before seeking help. “Whats Your Grief”, has been a huge help as well.

  2. Lynne  September 30, 2017 at 3:53 pm Reply

    After 7 years of giving care to my college age son, he died. He died at home, his Dad and I holding the same terror and feeling the last beats of his precious heart. His younger sister went unconscious and I have very little memory of what happened the rest of that day other than refusing to watch as the mortuary men came and went – with him.
    That was nine years ago. I miss him more every day as his friends create families of their own and settle into careers, houses that my son will never have the option for. He is not having grand mal seizures. He is not vomiting nor is he swollen from steroids or crippled without balance. He is ashes. He is in my closet. I can’t find the perfect place for him to be.
    I do intense psycho-therapy called EMDR. I spend the whole day after therapy bleeding grief and longing. It is not better with time. I am simply more acceptable to my tribe.

  3. Ruth  December 11, 2013 at 11:13 am Reply

    Thank you for this article – just what I needed – reassurance!

    It is 7 months since my dad passed away and I have hit a really bad patch. Therapy has been very helpful for me (I was already seeing a therapist when my dad got ill, for other reasons) but there are times like now when it feels like all the progress I have made in my life and journey is in vain. I most definitely feel like I’m at the bottom of that pit right now.

    Seeing a counsellor has helped me to express myself in a way that is so difficult with other people. She is truly brilliant and I find it a safe place to be. We have built up a good relationship and before my dad was ill I had started to make strides in other areas of my life thanks to her support.

    It is so true when you say that sometimes you come away feeling really refreshed and hopeful and other times it feels like exploring your wounds (and this is where grief seems to bring up all other wounds too) is just too much.

    I figure that to push away my feelings now and to avoid my grief will only lead to problems further down the line (as I had discovered from past experience with other things) but sometimes I just wish it wasn’t such hard ‘work’.

    ‘The sting of sadness, guilt, shame, and despair – often these mean it’s working.’ This is so helpful to me. Thank you.

    • Eleanor  December 12, 2013 at 3:52 pm Reply

      Ruth, Ugh I’m so sorry for your loss and I’m sorry you feel like your at the bottom of the pit. It does sound like you’re doing what you can to work through your grief, which is the most important step you can take. Whether or not our issues are easy or difficult to work through, we’re clearing road blocks nonetheless. I’m glad you found the article helpful and please let us know if there’s ever anything else you’d like to see us address.

      • Ruth  December 13, 2013 at 8:28 am

        Thanks Eleanor (-: I feel much stronger today. I am starting to see how these meltdowns I have and surrendering myself to the rainbow of feelings are actually a necessary part of my healing. Really terrible days (in my personal experience) are always followed by better ones.

        I read something the other day about how going to a counsellor/therapist is like going to a physio or similar when you have a physical injury that needs treating – the treatment can sometimes make you feel sore immediately afterwards and that means the healing process is starting.

        Yes – I am determined to work through it. I have learnt that you do have to go ‘through’ it (not around, over or under it!). I like your analogy of clearing roadblocks too.

        Your site (and a few others) have really helped me recently, as I’m sure it has others. Thankyou.

        I will definitely let you know if there is a topic I’d like you to address.

        In the meantime I will dive in and keep swimming.

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