By: Kyle Kermott, Psy.D.
We don’t like the idea of grief.
Just the words—grief, grieving—can make us feel uncomfortable. We associate grief with mortal loss, which is one of the reasons it makes us feel so uncomfortable. You hear that someone is grieving, and you are flooded with these emotions related to loved-ones you’ve lost, and the first reaction is to get away from those feelings. And because of that reaction, we’ve tried to relegate grieving as some extraordinary situation that needs to be experienced briefly and then gotten rid of.
But grieving is so much more than the process we go through when we’ve lost someone. In fact, grieving is a natural, important part of everyday, healthy mental life.
In his 1917 Paper “Mourning and Melancholia,” Sigmund Freud took interest in the similarities between grieving and depression. He noticed that, in both situations, the individual experienced sadness, bad feelings about themselves, bad feelings about the world around them, and hopelessness about their future. This got Freud thinking about the possibility of shared underlying dynamics between grief and depression. And in a stroke of genius he pointed out that, in both situations, the person is experiencing a loss.
At first glance this might not make sense. Many times someone experiencing depression will say that their lives are great on the outside. They might say that, on paper, things should be perfect if it wasn’t for their persistent feelings of depression. They have many of the things they want in life. So what has a depressed person lost?
Just like a grieving individual has lost a person in the external world, a depressed individual has lost a part of their self in their internal world.
Unbeknownst to us, we constantly carry inside of our minds intricate mental representations of ourselves. We are smart, kind, hardworking…we are daughters, godparents, nephews…we are happy, enthusiastic, curious…we are employees, volunteers, neighbors…we are opinionated, quick-tempered, sad…we love and are loveable…The list goes on and on.
But what happens when these representations are challenged?
Something will happen in life, like the breakup of a relationship or the loss of a job, and we are then forced to reevaluate who we are as individuals. Am I as good as I thought I was? It’s a process that none of us are prepared for, and have great difficulty in working through alone. And the difficulty in this situation stems from the fact that we are forced to not only face how we view ourselves, but to possibly alter that view as well.
When life changes – and that’s all it does – we are repeatedly faced with the difficult task of changing along with it. But how do you evaluate and possibly change how you think about yourself? That’s such a difficult thing to do! It is at this point that most people get stuck.
And, for many people, this is what depression is. Depression is someone’s inability to accept that this major life change not only alters their external world, but their internal one as well. Depression is someone’s inability to internalize what this change means for them, and to grieve the loss of their previously held sense of themselves.
Take, for example, the breakup of a relationship. For months or years, this person has defined themselves as a girlfriend, or partner, or wife, etc. They have created a life that, in significant ways, revolves around this important relationship.
But then the relationship ends.
The person will, of course, have to grieve the loss of the physical relationship. They will have to grieve no longer having this partner in their lives. But below the surface, powerful questions are arising about what this breakup means about this person.
For so long they were a part of a couple, but who are they now? Now that the relationship has ended, are they still loveable? Desirable? Are they still good?
Following the breakup, the mind is bombarded with these enormous questions, which often overwhelm the mind’s ability to tolerate them. So instead of addressing these questions, the person brushes them off or buries them. In an effort to “move on,” the person never fully processes what the life-changing breakup means internally, never processes how the breakup irreversible alters their perception of themselves.
In other words, the person never really grieves. They might grieve the loss of the partner, or the loss of the relationship, but they never touch the possible loss of self-esteem, loss of confidence, loss of a sense that they feel loveable. They never completely work through their internal pain so that they can put the painful situation behind them.
And this is what can lead to depression. A depression created from not accepting, processing, and grieving the loss of an internal sense of one’s own self.
But, just like with the loss of a loved one, we know that we can never fully “move on” until we’ve allowed ourselves to grieve. In order to mentally grow from a difficult situation, we have to give ourselves the time and space to grieve what that difficult situation means to us on a deep, personal level. If we ever hope to “move on,” we have to face the painful questions the situation throws at us.
But in those painful questions, there’s growth.
When we lose someone to death, we gain a greater appreciation of life. We see just how important other people are to us, and we grow in our capacity to cherish those around us. In the same way, when we go through a breakup, we learn more about what it means to love, what it means to be vulnerable and open.
Not only does grieving help us “move on,” it also helps us move up. Through the grieving process, we develop better ways of being with ourselves and with others. We learn to be flexible in how we see ourselves, and we learn that we are strong enough to weather life’s storms.
So, the next time you are faced with a painful change or loss in your life, see if you can move towards it, not away. See if you can feel and experience the internal pain so you can start to grieve this loss in your life. Because it’s in the place of grieving loss where new life can be found.
Kyle Kermott, Psy.D. is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Irvine, and serving the surrounding areas of Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Tustin, and Orange County. As a therapist, he specializes in therapy for depression and anxiety.