Unresolved Grief: The Gift That Keeps On Giving (or taking)

Sep 1, 2021 | breakup, falling in love, featured, Getting Past Your Breakup, gratitude, grief

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Author, Attorney, Podcaster, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, and Creator of the World's Most Successful Breakup Program. 

  • Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Hachette Book Group 2009)
  • Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Hachette Book Group 2015)
  • Getting Past Your Past Workbook: The Definitive Workbook to Emotional Healing, Health and Happiness (La Bella Vita Publishing 2012)
  • GPYP Power! Affirmations (La Bella Vita Publishing 2019) 

Backstory to this post:  I wrote this post quite a while ago, but it wasn’t currently published on the blog. I revived it for a client who is in a new relationship, things are going well, and her partner has figured out that she’s holding back emotionally.  After exploring it a bit, it seems that it comes from a very deep wound from a betrayal by a family member.  The unresolved grief seems to be holding her back.  When I dug this article out for her, I realized that it probably  needed a rerun on the blog.  Grief is a main GPYB subject and unresolved grief will limit our lifescope and our lovescope.  We MUST deal with unresolved grief.

Unresolved Grief: The Gift That Keeps On Taking

When I would breakup with someone, I would be okay for the first day and then I would completely fall apart. I would mistake this falling apart for wanting to still be with this person. I would mistake this feeling for having made a mistake in the breakup. And I would feel overwhelmed and crushed by the onslaught of feelings. I would try to put the relationship back together to avoid that avalanche of turmoil.  

It didn’t matter if this person was a complete jerk and I needed to get rid of him, I would feel myself falling apart and wanting to go back even when I knew it wasn’t good for me. I just needed everything to go back to before I felt this crushing sense of loss and emotional pain.

It wasn’t love for this person. It wasn’t evidence that the breakup was a mistake. It was UNRESOLVED grief of other losses (many many) coming to the fore which is what happens.

A loss triggers all unresolved loss which is why it is important to stop and grieve your losses when they happen. If you have a lot of unresolved losses that make a loss unbearable, it is time to resolve those as well.

Unresolved grief becomes our greatest emotional handicap. Unresolved grief is grief work that has not been completed years after a loss occurs.

One big myth is that time heals all wounds. It does not. Repeat after me: TIME DOES NOT HEAL ALL WOUNDS. Time does NOT heal the wound of loss.

The only thing that does is grief work. Unresolved grief results in heightened sensitivity to loss and an inability to work through new losses. Each unresolved loss will impair function for years to come.

Dr. Therese Rando said that grief work that has not been completed is “complicated mourning.” Complicated mourning can lead to depression, anxiety and other issues. It can keep you IN bad relationships because you don’t want to face the pain of getting out because it’s SO much more than just losing this person you were with. It can also keep you from being fully IN a good relationship because you’re on-guard that you don’t want to get hurt. It’s all your losses coming home. It’s an enormous amount of psychological agony.

Unresolved grief can result in the inability to establish new relationships, be fully present in our current relationship, end relationships or move on when the time is right.

Unresolved loss can affect people in many ways from excessive use of drugs to depression and chronic illness to just being fearful about everyone and every thing.

John James says that the pain of unresolved loss is cumulative and limits our aliveness. The more you lose and the less you deal with it, the worse it gets.  If we’ve had one big loss of a person that we loved and thought loved us, it can be SO big that it prevents us from ever truly loving anyone again. We think that we’re doing okay and we’re in a relationship but not truly giving of ourselves because we don’t want to be hurt. Chances are that if we get out now or the person walks now, we’ll be hurt anyway. So we’re really not getting that much protection from our “wall.”  We rationalize that if we don’t give in all the way, we won’t be hurt “that much.”   Because we still will be dealing with a lot of unresolved loss, we’ll be getting hurt a lot more than need be. Not giving to a new relationship with a good person is definitely NOT the answer.  

Elisabeth Kubler Ross called unresolved grief a “destructive horror.” She said grief will happen either as an open, healing wound or a closed festering wound, either honestly or dishonestly, either appropriately or inappropriately, but emotions will be felt.

In other words, grief continues to try to get our attention. Often it gets our attention when we end a relationship, but may also get our attention when we START a relationship – we may either recycle and long for the comfort of our last relationship or we will initially feel good about it and then start to back pedal. If we’ve had a traumatic loss – someone we REALLY loved and trusted hurt us – and we have not grieved the loss – that loss can keep us from falling in love with someone who is right for us.

If we’re still smacked down by someone who hurt us in the long-ago, either a relationship or a family member or some other situation, we become frightened to give ourselves again because the pain was so bad that we had to bury it. This is how grief is expressed inappropriately.  Preventing ourselves from taking a chance on someone who seems loving and kind is how unresolved loss is expressed inappropriately. 

When we think about trusting someone, about opening up to someone, about being with someone and letting them into our heart, it starts to scare us.  That means we have unresolved grief and that unresolved grief is going to take ANOTHER thing from us – our new relationship with a good person that could possibly be the “right one.”  But we can only give so much of ourselves when we have unresolved grief and are scared to truly let go and give ourselves to the new relationship. 

Whether it is a loss after a death or another loss such as losing a job or moving, the most effective block to grief work is our cultural training. Parkes said that as a society we need to accept another person’s need to mourn and treat is as a psychological necessity instead of a weakness.

If you have held back your grieving because you think someone will think you weak or think you SHOULD be over it, don’t let that hold you back this time. Grief is a taboo subject even though, as Therese Rando says, “Loss is a universal experience repeatedly encountered in every person’s life.”  When I was in graduate school, I was horrified by my peers’ client videos when I would watch them steer a client away from grief that was about to be expressed.  You could tell the client was about to have a watershed moment or a cathartic experience and, the counselor-in-training would have a hard time dealing with it and would interrupt with a question or some other tactic to get the client right out of their feelings. 

When I did mine, my clients were practically having nervous breakdowns, and I sat quietly and let them cry as they needed to. I sat in empathic silence to let them know i was there, I was with them, and I cared. My classmates would say, “I can’t believe how quiet you were.” One night the professor said, “That is how you’re supposed to do it.”  I was ONLY able to do it because I had done my own grief work before I even got to graduate school. It was apparent to me that my classmates hadn’t.

This is how you wind up with therapists who aren’t very effective – they haven’t done THEIR work so they can’t help you do yours. This is not to blame my classmates. Most graduate programs DO NOT teach about grief. They simply don’t.  I  had done my grief work and then my grief counseling certification before graduate school and was continuing to research and take academic courses. I continue to do so to this day. 

Psychosocial losses (losses other than death) are seldom recognized by anyone and are not recognized as losses that require processing of feelings, but they are. If you’ve had a loss of a person, you have had secondary losses (psychosocial) as well. If you’ve moved and it has upset your life or lost a job, you have had a loss that you NEED to grieve. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t.

Welcome loss as an opportunity to heal that in you which needs to be healed. All the unresolved loss…all the unrequited love….all of the abandonment…use this as a time to heal all of it so that you may open, one day, to full and lasting love.

Do the work. Do your grief work but also do your affirmations and acceptance statements and mantras. You MUST use your mantras to know that you will be okay no matter what. You have to do the grief work.  You have to do the Relationship Inventory and the letting go letter on this person who hurt you so badly that you are having difficulty establishing intimacy in a new relationship. 

But you also have to affirm, through mantras and acceptance statements that you will be okay no matter what.  Think about all you have been through, all you have overcome, and know, DEEP IN YOUR HEART OF HEARTS, that you will be okay NO MATTER WHAT.  Because you will be!  Please please please please please add this to your list of affirmations and/or mantras…”I will be okay no matter what.” or “No matter what happens, I will be okay.” 

I’ve recounted that after Michael passed I would have grief sessions so overwhelmed with grief that I would melt into the floor and pound my fists on the floor and wail, seriously and truly WAIL with sorrow. But in the back of my mind I would be saying, “I can get past this. I can do this. I will be okay no matter what.” And I knew that because I had done my work and was okay before I met him and knew I’d be okay again despite the grief that was shattering me at that very moment. I did it and you can do it.  You really really can. 

Once you heal your unresolved grief, all that life has to offer can be, and will be, yours. YOU CAN DO THIS!!!

For a new learning experience dealing with unresolved loss and how to resolve it,click on the red link to join us for a new and exciting offering Mourning in Contemporary American Literature and Classic Fairy Tales.

You can also join our traditional holiday boot camp to work through an unresolved loss. We have opened registration for the most popular boot camp of the year. Click here to join the GPYB 2021 Holiday Boot Camp. 

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