It takes time to heal grief. Grief is the slowest of all the emotions to heal, slower than anger, slower than fear. But sometimes we get stuck in a grief that time doesn't heal. "Complicated grief" as this is sometimes called is often rooted in past events that we stepped over or avoided in some way. Our past experiences affect our present and our reaction to what happens to us in the present. This article is about how to heal grief, especially life long grief from early pain.
When we are confronted with difficult events that cause us emotional pain, how we respond to it or react to it is based on what we learned. None of us are exempt from our history. Our past shapes our thoughts, the way we view each other and the world, as well as the way we see our own self.
Each of us lives our life through a story that we've constructed over the years. Our story comes from our responses to what happened to us growing up in the world and is somewhat updated as we grow older. For many of us the story is filled with grief and loss.
This story informs us in numerous ways:
For most of us, our early childhood story doesn't change that much as we get older. Traumatic situations like death of a loved one or a serious car accident can change it, as can positive experiences like falling in love or getting married. But if we start out with a sad, lonely story, it often stays with us our whole life. It was that way for me until I found the grief and loss retreats that I now also lead. These retreats transformed did heal my grief and transformed my old story.
Adults with early life trauma can feel overly sensitive and vulnerable in social situations all their lives. Healing new grief, working through new losses, can be difficult because the old grief has never been mourned.
Our story is quite resistant to change, partly because it goes back all the way to our early formative life experiences.
To change the story of our life we often need to reach back to this early developmental, core level of our beliefs and change them. There are lots of methods that try to do this...from positive thinking and affirmations, to various talk therapies, to different types of meditation. etc. They can all be somewhat helpful, but usually don't get to the core story that must change for us to live a life of peace and joy.
I've tried a bunch of these methods and thought that my story was never going to really change because the trauma was just too deep, or because I was just too flawed. I could get a temporary lift, but not change the way "I" felt.
And then I discovered deep emotional work at a variety of retreat centers. As I worked through the old grief and pain, my old story changed, especially when I went to Shalom Mountain. After 4 or 5 retreats there I entered their training program and now my focus is to heal grief with others. I lead about 10 retreats a year, mostly in Massachusetts, but also in Florida and California.
The core healing method I learned and now offer in our retreats is to re-enter our old story, our old pattern of thinking, feeling and perceiving and work it through to a new, healthy and empowering conclusion.
To do this it's most important to go below the level of thoughts where most of us live, into the feelings below. It can be very slow going to just work with our thoughts and ideas as the power of our story is primarily held in the feelings below them.
What limits many methods of healing is that they don't go deep enough. In our approach we open space up so that participants can journey all the way into their feelings and let them transform.
For example, if we have a story going that we are inadequate or "too sensitive" what is holding the story together is not so much our very real thoughts about who we are but the feelings of anxiety, fear and vulnerability below those thoughts.
We try and try to change the thoughts (I certainly tried!) when it can be much more effective to change the feelings which energize those thoughts.
At our retreats we access these feelings. Where are they? They are in our bodies, in our tight shoulders and chest, in our tense nerves, in our digestive tract, and so on. We carry these feelings in different areas of our bodies.
How do we access them? First we help create safety so a person can relax into the work. We do this through a carefully constructed, step-by-step process that includes informational teaching about "Skills of Loving" and group exercises to help everyone feel safe and open.
As participants express their suppressed feelings they feel much lighter and relieved. But more importantly, the feelings can finally evolve...they can't change when we hold them back. So anxiety and fear, as in our example, change to excitement, clarity and insight.
Participants feel renewed energy, have more present moment awareness and fresh perspectives. The old story crumbles, and a new story emerges, one that is brighter, freer, more optimistic and healthy.
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