Expressing and Processing Emotions in Grief Therapy Part One

In setting up grief therapy, which focuses on the expression and processing of emotions, it is necessary to look at the blocks to the free and appropriate flow of emotion. We can assume that within each of us there is a struggle to share painful feelings. A part of us wants to and a part of us holds back. The part of us that holds back uses a variety of techniques for blocking expression. As therapists at the Center we ally ourselves with the part of each person that wants to openly look at feelings. The techniques we use to block the awareness of feelings are called defense mechanisms. We are usually unaware that we are using those defenses and it is useless to argue with people about them. However, it is important fo us to help free up the expression of feelings through assisting people in understanding how defense mechanisms operate.

For our purposes, we can divide defenses into two categories: cultural defenses: those that are present in the social environment and that we can assume operate to some degree for everyone; and those that individuals adapt on a personal basis. While there are these two broad categories of defenses, it is important to understand that the mind is an infinitely creative instrument and that alomost anything can be used to serve a defensive purpose.

In grief therapy--especially grief group therapy--cultural defenses should be dealt with early in the program. As part of the initial conceptual material it is useful to address the question, "What makes it hard to grieve in our society?" While there are a number of issues involved, one of the major topics to cover is societal defense mechanisms such as:

1. It's not Okay to express strong emotions publicly.
2. Grief should be short-term.
3. Discomfort, especially psychic discomfort, should be dealt with by a quick fix such as a tranqulizer, headache pill, or a trip to the gym.
4. The expression of strong feelings will overwhelm and make us crazy. Or if you are experiencing intense feelings you must be crazy, therefore, stop quick!

The above social values, function as ways to avoid the awareness and expression of emotions, which we find diffiucult to sit with and to manage. Thus, one of the lessons we can teach is that painful or difficult emotions can be tolerated, managed, looked at and processed and that we don't need to act to supress them most of the time.

One last warning needs to be included in any discussion of defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms must be treated with the utmost respect and care. They are always in place for good reasons and we should not lightly ask that they be abandoned. Only if we are relatively sure that the person can constructively manage the feelings that lie underneath can we push ahead. And even when we point out to people what they may be doing, we can only do this tentatively. We should always leave room for people to disagree with our interpretation and we should always allow the defense to stand if the person so chooses.

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Comment by Darlene on March 19, 2010 at 9:52am
I'm also having problems showing emotions but I never was the type to do that in public, I do cry a lot when alone. My mother passed away and I feel that I've lost my best friend and don't exactly know how to cope with it. My mother lived to be 83 yrs. old and I still feel like she was taken too soon. We were really close. I lost my dad years ago and it was hard, but not as hard as losing my mother. I'm accepting it cause I know I have to but it's rough at times. It's only a couple of months but it still doesn't feel real to me. I think a lot of people just cannot show emotions like others do. We shouldn't be judged by anyone. I loved my mother with all of my heart but I could not just break down like some do. I'm not stone cold either cause I get teary eyed at the drop of a hat. I don't know what I'm dealing with but... I'm me that's all there is to it. We are all different thank goodness. It's our personal way to grieve.
Comment by Hope Reid on March 14, 2010 at 12:34pm
I have trouble expressing the emotions I feel the deepest. When my mother's parents died, I was a basket case. The same when one of her sisters passed away last year. But when my dad's mother died in 1972, and again when Daddy died in 1989, I couldn't cry. Now I have lost my mother, just over a month ago, and it is repeating itself. I can't cry. I feel as if my heart is encased in ice, and some people don't seem to understand. They think I should be as emotionally crazed as I was with my maternal grandparents and my aunt. How do you make people understand that just because I didn't fall apart, I am still feeling just as much pain as with the others, and that because Mom had Alzheimer's I watched her die a little at a time for several years, and I did a lot of my grieving during those years?

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