Why Is Grief So Hard?
If you haven’t yet experienced a significant loss, it is a pain like nothing you have ever felt. Often, people are surprised by the intensity of grief and how hard it is to deal with. For years, the “stages of grief” myth has made people believe that grief is an orderly process of moving through distinct emotions that lead to acceptance and peace. The study that produced the “stages of grief” was done on patients who had been told that they had a terminal illness, not people who had just lost a loved one. The truth is that grief is not orderly and peaceful; it is chaotic and painful.
If you have recently experienced a loss, you know what I’m talking about because you’re living it. But you might be wondering why grief is so hard. There are many reasons. Regret is a factor where you wish things had been different than they were and now it’s too late. Uncertainty is another factor as you realize that the plans and dreams you had for the future are now going to be something you hadn’t planned or expected. But there are four top reasons why grief is so difficult.
Grief is hard because we’re unprepared for it.
Your parents, teachers, and pastors taught you how to make good decisions and how to get along with others. They taught you how to avoid bad choices and the negative consequences that follow. Those are important things to know. Parents and teachers also teach the reality of death. Pastors teach how to know for sure that you’ll go to heaven when you die. At funerals, they talk about how to have hope in the face of death and how to grieve with hope. All of that is good and beneficial.
But there is precious little teaching on grieving a loss. And frankly, even if we had been taught about dealing with loss and the experience of grief, we still wouldn’t be prepared. This is because grieving is not intellectual but emotional. Learning facts about death and loss and the experience of grief prepares the logical part of the brain, but when loss actually happens, the logical part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – goes offline and the amygdala, which regulates emotions, takes control. When this happens, the messages we heard or hear from people actually conflict with the emotions we are feeling, which only adds to our pain.
We’re told things like, “Be strong,” “Just have faith,” “Grief takes time,” “Keep busy,” “They’re in a better place,” “You’ll be okay,” “There’s a reason for everything,” “God is in control,” “At least they lived a long life,” etc. There may be validity to those words, but the emotional part of the brain can’t process them. The logical part of the brain does that work but it’s shut down. In the moment, all we feel is loss and pain, which all the well-meaning reassurances and advice can’t lessen.
This causes “cognitive dissonance.” In other words, what we know to be true and how we are feeling come into conflict. For instance, John believes that heaven is real and that his wife is there, but his heart is still broken that she’s gone and he’ll have to get along without her. This makes him feel guilty because if he really believed, he wouldn’t hurt so much. It is comforting to realize that even though Jesus was God, in His humanity He wept when His friend Lazarus died. Even knowing that He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus still wept. For me, this is a tremendous affirmation for all those who grieve that our tears are not a denial of faith but an expression of our humanity and the reality of our pain. After all, the Bible calls death an enemy…the last enemy, a defeated enemy for those who believe in Jesus…but still an enemy. And it would be odd not to be bothered by the presence of such an enemy.
Grief is hard because of the way the brain responds to loss.
When we have a significant loss, the brain becomes overloaded trying to locate the person we’ve lost. We have neurons called the “here, now, close” neurons that help us keep track of people we depend on. When they are suddenly gone, the brain doesn’t stop looking; it keeps looking for them. This triggers the “fight, flight, or freeze” response as the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released to deal with the crisis. This puts stress on the heart as our heart rate increases. We feel anxious, restless, and confused. This can continue for days or months. Even years later, reminders of the loss can trigger the response all over again. Prolonged grief can affect memory, concentration, and decision-making. The overwhelming emotions can make even little decisions difficult and lead to indecisiveness or poor judgment.
Grief is hard because we’re supported less than we expected.
We expect that when we experience a significant loss, our friends and family will be there for us. And to a degree, they will be. But one of the things that people in grief therapy say very often is that they were surprised that they received less support than they expected.
Why does this happen? It’s not because people don’t care, it’s more that they don’t know what to say or do. People are uncomfortable with strong emotions like grief and as a result, they avoid rather than engage. It’s hard to sit with strong emotions and let them just be in the room without trying to fix them or dismiss them. Also, when there is a loss in families, the family members have difficulty supporting one another because they are all feeling the pain of loss in their own way. And friends often avoid talking about the person you have lost for fear that they will upset you. But to you, that feels like they have forgotten your loved one or don’t care, which is probably not the case, but that’s how it feels.
This is when it is helpful to see a Christian counselor who is trained to help people with grief and is not uncomfortable sitting with strong emotions without judgment.
Grief is hard because it opens an emotional vault.
Grief tends to bring up lots of emotions from past painful experiences and losses. If you haven’t processed previous painful experiences, especially with the person you have lost, or if you have unresolved grief over past losses, you might think that you have buried those feelings, but that’s not true. Buried pain has a way of rising from the grave when a similar emotion is stirred. So, what happens is that you wind up experiencing the grief of the current loss along with all the previous losses and hurts.
This is called cumulative grief. Sometimes people get caught in chronic grief where years later they are still stuck in their grief as though the loss happened yesterday. It is important to process the root issues that are driving this pain. Suppressing it will only make it worse the next time something drudges everything up again.
If you have experienced a loss and need help dealing with your grief, the caring Christian counselors at Christian Counseling Associates can help. I encourage you to read more about grief therapy and then reach out to us for a free consultation with one of our counselors.
Dr. Mark Riley is co-owner and Executive Director of Christian Counseling Associates.