SOURCE: John Townsend/Beyond Boundaries
Grief: What It Is and What It Does for You
Grief helps us process the reality of loss. Simply put, grief is letting go of what you cannot keep. Grief requires accepting, both mentally and emotionally, that something you loved and valued is no more. There are many areas of life in which we can experience loss and for which we need to grieve:
• The dissolution of a marriage
• The end of a dating relationship
• Family ties that break down
• Friendships that end
• The death of a loved one
• Career opportunities that don’t materialize
• A relapse into addiction after years of sobriety
• Declining physical health
• Financial setbacks
• A trauma that forever mars an otherwise happy childhood
These represent important and life-changing experiences. However, just the fact that you have experienced losses doesn’t mean you can’t have a great and meaningful life. People endure great losses, like the ones mentioned earlier, and still have lives that are full and rich. The process of grieving losses is what helps you to deal with them and move on. This process is especially important when it comes to relational losses.
Grief helps you redirect your energies and focus on what you can have and what is good in your life. It provides a way to clear out regrets and hurts as a way to make room for the new. And grief converts a wound into a memory. That is, when you learn the process of letting go, the pain you feel in the present moves down your neurological pathways into your memory banks, where the past resides. In the memory banks, you can review the past, understand the past, and learn from the past.
Without grief, the wound never becomes a memory. You remain stuck in reexperiencing the hurt and hard times over and over again. Much like someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, people who fail to grieve experience a cycle of repeated thoughts and feelings, almost like flashbacks, that offer no relief. Grief ends this cycle and recalibrates your mind.
Six Components for Grieving a Lost Relationship
When it comes to the loss of a significant relationship, there are six essential components necessary for grief to do its work.
1. Acknowledge the Attachment
We get attached to people. That is the draw. And without an emotional attachment, there is nothing to grieve. This may seem obvious, but it is important to state it. The greater the grief you feel, the greater the love you have for the person you lost. And you can’t instantly undo the attachment. In the context of a relationship, you can’t simply stop feeling your feelings for someone just because the relationship is severed or changes. As we’ve noted before, the pain you feel is a good thing; it is a sign that you are alive inside.
2. Accept That You Can’t Control the Loss
Grief requires that you give up control of the other person’s decision and admit that you do not have the power to make him or her love you or move toward you. You are accepting a type of helplessness: “focused” helplessness, not the global helplessness of the victim position. It’s focused because you can choose to let go, choose to let your feelings out, choose to let other people in, and choose to even tell the person you don’t want the relationship to end. But in the end, you must accept that the other person is in the driver’s seat of his or her own life and path, toward you or away from you. You are, in that specific arena of life, helpless, because you don’t have permission or power to change the other person’s decisions.
This is a difficult area for most of us. No one wants to feel helpless. It renders us vulnerable and unable to make things happen the way we would like them to. I recently spoke with a woman on our radio program who described how her ex-husband had called her every day for the past four years — after the marriage had ended. He was unable to accept that the marriage was over. Some people think if they have one more talk with the other person and say the right thing at the right time, they can undo the alienation. Others think that if they become more lovable and attractive, that will work. The extreme cases engage in stalking behaviors. All of these behaviors are driven by a failure to accept the reality that one cannot control the loss of a relationship.
We resist helplessness when we don’t want to lose love. However, the sooner you can allow yourself to experience focused helplessness — to admit that you have no control over the other person’s decisions — the better off you will be.
Jesus allowed himself to experience focused helplessness by restraining his own power to make us love him: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37). It is a model for us: if the All-Powerful could restrain his might to let people go, we who are finite in power can do the same.
3. Name What You Valued
When you value someone, you affirm that he or she is important to you. When the connection is over, there are certain aspects of the person and the relationship that you miss the most. These are the values you have to grieve. Here are some examples:
• Warmth: he was accessible and moved toward you
• Vulnerability: she allowed her weaknesses and insecurities to emerge
• Structure: she could focus and get things done
• Intellect: he was smart and interesting to talk to
• Honesty: he could hear and tell the truth
• Spiritual values: she loved God and helped you become closer to God
• Acceptance: she could care about you even with your failings and imperfections
• Personal values: he had similar values about love, family, and relationship
• Culture: your backgrounds meshed well
Sometimes, the value you need to grieve is connected to specific memories as well. It could be a trip you took or a private joke you shared. It might be a time of deep intimacy in which you were very close. Perhaps it was good times with the family.
Why is it important to name the specific things you valued? Because you must say good-bye to the entire person, not simply the negative parts of the person. You cannot walk away from the things you disliked, which may be the things that ended the relationship, without also saying good-bye to the things you loved as well. A half grief is never a healing grief.
Here’s another way to think about it. Chances are you’ve been in a situation in which a friend is sad about a relational loss, and you want to help. So you do the most instinctual and protective thing, which is to trash the other person! You might say things like, “I never knew what you saw in him.” “You are better off without him.” “He doesn’t deserve you.” Such statements are well-meaning and probably encourage your friend for awhile. But it also distances her from what she needs to say good-bye to, which is what she valued.
Moreover, it sets her back. The ungrieved “good parts” stay inside her mind and heart and haunt her. That is why some people can’t get over a past relationship or why they find other people who aren’t so good for them but remind them of what they missed. It is better to help your friend say things like, “I know he was controlling, but I do miss the good times.” In that way, she is able to begin letting go of the whole person.
You need that as well. When your friends trash your ex, instead of feeling like a righteous victim, tell them, “I know she was all that, but I have been missing the good things, and I need you to let me talk about those too.” It might feel a little humiliating — how can you be so weak that you still have feelings for a person who mistreated you? Go ahead and push through the humiliation. It just means you were attached to someone with both strengths and weaknesses. And you are valuing the good so that you can say a complete farewell.
4. Surround Yourself with People Who Are Comforting
Grief is letting go of something we can’t keep, but nature abhors a vacuum. It is hard to let go of a relationship all by yourself, because there is a vacuum inside where the person used to be. In other words, you will continue reaching out and desiring the other person even though you know the relationship is over. Having people around you who have the capacity to comfort can help to fill the vacuum.
The process of comfort begins with God, “who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). How do you know if someone has the capacity to comfort? By the degree to which they remain present with you when you grieve. Being present means they don’t try to give you advice, cheer you up, or change the topic. That’s what people who are anxious about their own losses do. But people who are familiar with loss know how to just be with you. They give you eye contact, are sometimes quiet, and sometimes are just empathic. Allowing yourself to be comforted by others not only salves your grief, it also greatly reduces the power of the vacuum.
You may have little experience with grief and letting go. I find that many business people, for example, will simply move on from a bad situation or relationship without feeling their sadness. It is important, however, to be intentional about grief and not skip over it. Otherwise, you run the risk of never being able to fully let go of a person or lost opportunity in your past.
5. Allow the Sadness
The emotion of sadness encompasses both longing and mourning. When you are sad, your heart feels downcast. Tears may come. Even though you may have to wait for these emotions to come — you can’t manufacture them at will — there are things you can do that will help you access your sadness.
• Intentionally set aside time to step away from your busy routines and activities and settle into a quiet place.
– Think about the person you lost.
– Recall the negative aspects of the relationship, but don’t allow yourself to stay angry or to get sidetracked by an internal argument about how wrong it was.
– Remember the good aspects of the relationship and the warm times.
• Meet with a friend or counselor and tell him about the things you remember and your experiences with the other person.
• Ask a friend to play the part of your difficult person in a role-play conversation, in which you say what needs to be said: “I care about you, and even though it’s been hard,
I always will. Good-bye.” If you are going to talk to the person, this will help you experience the feelings and fears ahead of time. If you don’t have the opportunity to talk to the person, the role-play can still help you work through what you feel and resolve it.
Some combination of activities like these can help you get out of the doing mode and into the feeling mode. Then you will more readily access the sad emotions that must come. By welcoming your sadness, you allow your feelings to simply catch up with and ally with your thoughts about the reality of the loss.
6. Give Yourself the Gift of Time
Time is like an oven. It takes all the raw ingredients of grief and loss that we’ve talked about so far and cooks them up into something new; it transforms them, creating a new way for you to experience your loss. You cannot microwave grief. However, you can speed up the process by taking time and devoting energy to working through this process. Alternatively, you can also prolong your grief, sometimes forever. You don’t want that for yourself. You want to get it done right so that you can move on.
I once worked with a couple whose adult son, Brian, was a drug addict. He had rejected their help and the relationship they wanted to have with him. He was determined to go his own way and saw no reason to involve them in his life.
Brian’s father mourned the loss of his son over a period of several months and eventually began to invest his energies into other pursuits and family relationships. Brian’s mother, however, hated the idea of sadness — it was uncomfortable, and she did not like the sense of being out of control. So she would allow herself to feel a little sadness and then go through periods of “getting herself together.” She would tell me, “I’m done with this grief stuff. I have accepted that Brian doesn’t want us in his life. That’s his choice, he’s a grown-up. It’s time to move on.” And every time, within a few weeks she became lethargic, had trouble concentrating, and felt weepy about her son. Then she would be a little bit sad again, followed by another round of being “done with it” again.
I felt bad for her. She had come from a professional family in which sadness was seen as a weakness, so the feelings caused a great deal of shame and self-condemnation within her. I told her, “Maybe you’re done, but I doubt it. This is the fourth time you have struggled with your sad feelings like this.” Then I turned to her husband and said, “Why don’t you tell her how you feel about her sad feelings about Brian?” He looked at her and said, “You’re the only other person in the world who understands what we are going through. When you allow yourself to feel our sadness, it brings me closer to you and I feel hope for us.” When she heard that, she began to soften. She was able to stay with her sadness and slowly did make steady progress — instead of the false starts and stops — in letting Brian go.
While some people such as Brian’s mom resist their grief, others can get frozen in a permanent state of grief. They access their sadness, but something breaks down, and they cannot move on. So they continue years of living in loss and have difficulty being happy. Sometimes the breakdown is due to isolation and not having enough safe people with whom to process their loss. Sometimes it is because they idealize the person they lost and can’t imagine anyone could replace them; they build a mental shrine to that person. People whose spouses or parents have died often suffer from this. Making another attachment seems disloyal to the other person’s memory, so they sacrifice their opportunities for a good life in the future on the altar of the life they can no longer have.
If you think you may be frozen in this way, it will help to make a list of the positive and negative qualities of the person and reflect on them. This is not dishonoring to the individual. It is simply a way to allow you to say good-bye to the real person, so that you don’t stay stuck in seeing only the good parts.
These six components have an order and a structure to them. They work. But remember that grief has its own pace as well. One part may take more or less time than you expected. Don’t attempt to force or control your grief process. Give yourself margin within the components. In time, you will be able to let go of the relationship and move on.
Grieving a Living Person
Letting go of a relationship when the individual has passed away is no easy task. However, it can be even harder in some ways when the person is still alive. This was the case with Brian, whose parents had to grieve the loss of their relationship with him. As the saying goes, where there is life, there is hope, and if you know the person is still breathing, it is easy to imagine scenarios, conversations, and tactics that could return and restore the relationship. We all have hope somewhere inside us, the anticipation of a future good. We need hope, because it helps us endure a difficult present, knowing that the future will be an improvement. However, when that capacity for hope attaches to a person simply because he or she is alive — not for any sound reason that makes sense — it is a vain hope.
If this is your situation, you don’t want to waste any more time on vain hope. The only thing it does is slow down your ability to move beyond boundaries and into great relationships. You may need to focus on this issue. Here are a few ideas that might help:
• Tell yourself that you still have a death to deal with: the person is not dead, but the relationship is.
• Write down the evidence you have of the loss and reflect on it: the divorce paper, the person has another relationship, there is no change in the person’s toxicity.
• Ask a friend to tell you why he or she thinks the relationship is over and listen to it from his or her perspective.
Giving up vain hope doesn’t mean that relational miracles don’t occur. I have seen many dead connections resurrected. So be open to the possibility. But let go. You can enter sadness and still leave a door open at the same time. It sounds like it can’t be done, but it can in this way: you are putting your energy and focus into the next steps and the next relationships. But you are not God, and if God miraculously changes the situation, you can respond to that. Move ahead, but let God be God.
But what do you do if the relationship is not over? For example, say you are married, and it is a hard marriage, but you want to keep the commitment and repair whatever is broken, even though it is painful. Is this a matter of grief? Yes, it still is. It is not about letting go and saying good-bye to the person or the relationship; they are still in the picture. But you do have a loss: the loss of the good that was there.
There were good days and times of connection and happiness before things began to go wrong. It may sound strange to grieve the lost, good parts of your relationship and still relate to or even live with the person, but the idea still holds: you have suffered a loss, and it must be grieved. Don’t prevent yourself from grieving just because you are still in the relationship. The loss is still real and important to you.
If the relationship never had a good season, how do you grieve that? For whatever reason, character issues, disconnection, control, manipulations, addictions, and even abuse could have been the norm from the beginning of the relationship. Obviously, you can’t grieve that — there is nothing in the relationship to grieve. That is, except for one thing: the hope. That is, the hope of what you wanted to happen. You grieve your dreams and desires for love, connection, success, partnership, acceptance, or support.
We generally begin a friendship, a family relationship, a business relationship, or a courtship with some sort of hope of a good outcome. Why else would we try to connect in the first place? If you are in a situation in which you feel there is nothing good about the relationship to grieve, you can grieve your lost hopes and what did not happen. Again, I need to say that I have seen relationships that were stillborn and never fulfilling that, with work, began to thrive in health and intimacy. So if the structure of the relationship still exists, I encourage you to continue working for a better future, while at the same time saying good-bye to your dreams of the past.
You Have Nothing to Fear from Grief
Allow me to add a bit of perspective here, especially if concentrating on grief and understanding its nature are new to you. Grief doesn’t have to control or consume your life. Depending on the situation, it can take days or it can take years. How long it takes all depends on how important the relationship was to you, whom you choose to help you along, and how focused you are in the process. But don’t be afraid of your grief. You can have a good life and still let go of that which is no longer yours. Take it from wise King Solomon, “A sad face is good for the heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:3).
Grief is like the weather; it’s always changing and often unpredictable. It is more organic than systematic. So while you are in the season of letting go of the relationship or a part of the relationship, allow yourself to engage in it and embrace it. Your grief will subside, and you can regain joy and positive feelings. Then another wave of grief will likely return. But the process works in such a way that each time you engage in grief, the bottom — the lowest part of the sadness — should be a little less severe and a little less dark. And in time, you will be yourself, actually more than yourself — because you have integrated and metabolized the loss of the relationship and learned from it.
Townsend, J. (2011). Beyond boundaries: learning to trust again in relationships. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.