Grieving is a reaction to the loss of a loved one. However, it is also a natural reaction to having to let go of an idea–specifically, beliefs about our expectations for life. This is especially true with regard to those concerning our basic needs: food, shelter, love, identity, social connection, and security.
Grief is associated with feelings of sadness, depression, guilt, numbness, and anger. However, it is all too common for many of us to try to avoid these difficult emotions, to seek refuge from them through denial, suppression, and minimization. Failing to acknowledge and accept grief may only exacerbate both our emotional and physical pain. Suppressed grief can lead to chronic emotional numbness, low level depression, diminished energy, and an overall reduction in motivation.
Becoming stuck in anger
Becoming stuck in anger may be another resolution to avoid the suffering associated with grief. When angry, we may direct attention outward or inward. In either case, it can serve as a distraction from feeling vulnerable to the sharp sting of loss, and the sadness and disappointment associated with grief. But what we don’t acknowledge controls us—and being held hostage by anger may only postpone feeling the rawness of grief.
I’ve observed this in some individuals who became stuck in anger when faced with the challenges of an illness, an accident, a relationship, the impact of aging, or conflicts in the workplace. Others carried ongoing anger toward their partner for years. In remaining angry, they avoid the potential grief of having to adjust or fully let go of their expectations regarding their partner. For some, anger serves to avoid the anticipated grief associated with ending the relationship.
A grieving woman
Source: 123rf Stock Photo/fizkes
Some of the clients I have worked with spent years in anger, avoiding the grief about a childhood in which a parent was not available to provide the caring, validation, or protection they needed. However, when we fail to grieve and mourn aspects of a childhood that were not as we believe they should have been, we might spend our entire adult lives searching for the parenting we missed. Truly grieving and mourning frees us up to be more present, to savor the care and connection that is available in our present life—from others and ourselves.
Similarly, some clients have reported long-term anger with a supervisor in their workplace. This may occur when they’ve not addressed their grievances or did discuss them, only to be ignored. Fully grieving, rather than being hostage to anger, can lead to accepting things as they are or seeking employment elsewhere.
Then there are the grievances some of us experience in our everyday life related to rigidly held expectations about how things should be. For example, we may be quick to feel slighted by the driver who cuts us off, a cashier who makes a mistake, or when our flight is canceled. In these circumstances, we can let go of the expectations and acknowledge the grief of not having control over such events.
Some individuals are held hostage by anger directed at themselves for not meeting their self-expectations. This is often associated with unhealthy perfectionism as well as depression, both of which might be shame-based. Both mindsets avoid the grief of abandoning rigidly held expectations.
The commitment to grieving and mourning
Mourning expectations doesn’t mean we ignore our feelings. Rather, it calls for truly honoring them and, when possible, striving to have our desires satisfied. But it calls for viewing them as wishes or desires rather than expectations—and letting go of them when we are unable to satisfy them. The capacity to let go of expectations reflects a resilience that fosters emotional well-being. It calls for flexibility in our thinking and feeling.
Only when we consciously engage in grieving related to certain expectations can we free ourselves to move on and become more fully present in our lives. As one of my clients stated, it is then when we can accept that, “it is what it is.”
Grieving and mourning expectations is not a one-time deal. It calls for a commitment to do so even while we are still angry and experiencing grief. It may be supported by the following strategies:
- The first step is being able to recognize when we are bound by unrealistic expectations. Then, determine if you need to adjust them or completely let go of them.
- Acknowledge all of our feelings related to letting go of them, ie; anger, sadness, loss, and grief.
- Be attentive to being stuck in anger that arises from rigidly holding on to unrealistic expectations.
- Identify self-talk that supports grieving and mourning. Find a phrase that best resonates with acceptance and letting go. For example, when I recognize that I have an unrealistic expectation, I say to myself, “Nice theory,” “That’s one idea,” or, “Oh well,”—all said in a compassionate tone.
- I find it helpful to exhale deeply as I say these phrases. I call this the mourning breath, as I let go of the anger as well as the vulnerable feelings, tension, and expectations associated with it.
- Write a letter of self-compassion to our hurting self from our most caring, nurturing, parental, wise self. In it, express our goodbyes and our commitment to let go of the unrealistic expectation.
- Sometimes it’s helpful to engage in what I call “concentrated grieving.” This entails sitting still for 15 to 20 minutes and fully acknowledging your grief. Tara Brach provides a meditation exercise, RAIN, to help you do this (Brach, 2019).
- It’s important to remember that you are not alone. All of us experience grief.
- Cultivating self-compassion has been found to be a powerful approach for developing the resilience to deal with uncomfortable feelings, including grief. Psychologists Kristin Neff and Chris Germer provide a comprehensive program for building such compassion in The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook (Neff and Germer, 2018).
- Seeking the help of a friend or a mental health professional can provide new perspectives and strategies for dealing with grieving and mourning.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.