I heard my daughter use the term “frenemy” recently. I immediately had a memory of the “Frenemies” episode on the TV show Sex and the City. My next thought was how the notion of “sometimes a friend/sometimes an enemy” applies to grief (I know it sounds strange, but as a grief educator this is how I think!).
There are some grief responses that can be helpful (i.e. friendly) and lead us toward healing, but sometimes those same grief reactions can be detrimental and prevent us from grieving well (i.e. enemies).
Here are my top four picks of grief frenemies, and suggestions for how we can turn those frenemies into just plain friends.
Many of us like to accuse people of being “in denial” when a loss occurs. We think denial is an impediment to our grief . . . an enemy to our healing. Of course long-term denial can be detrimental. At some point we need to recognize who/what we have lost so we can grieve and heal. But denial can be our friend when it helps protect us from becoming overwhelmed by our loss. It acts as a buffer between hearing of a loss and acknowledging that loss as real. It can serve us well in the early stages of grief when we need space to absorb our new reality.
Guilt seems an obvious choice for an enemy since too much guilt is unhealthy, especially when we feel guilty about circumstances that were beyond our control. Or, maybe we feel like guilt is preventing us from grieving well because we believe it is too late to make amends after a loved one dies.
Feeling guilty for something we did or didn’t do is normal. We all make poor choices sometimes. We hurt someone’s feelings; we regret something we said or did. Healthy guilt reminds us that we can and should make amends. We can apologize. We can start over. Even if our loved one has died, we can write them a letter or talk with a friend or counselor about our guilty feelings. We can use art, music, or poetry to apologize. We can use our guilt to help prioritize our life and make better choices with our loved ones who are still alive. Now that’s friendly and helpful guilt!
Anger is a very common emotion in grief. We might be angry with medical personnel, family members, the deceased, or God. Maybe we are angry at the world. It’s okay to feel angry. Feeling anger is not the problem. It’s what we do with our anger that determines if it becomes our enemy or our friend.
Anger is the enemy when it is expressed in destructive and harmful ways such as road rage or violent outbursts. Anger becomes our friend when we use it in constructive ways and allow it to transform us. Many people have used their anger to help others by starting non-profit organizations, educational programs, or outreach projects that benefit the community.
We may be surprised to feel relief after a loss. Maybe we are relieved that our loved one is no longer suffering . . . relieved now that we can relinquish our role as a caregiver . . . relieved that we don’t have to spend endless hours at the hospital. Or maybe we are relieved because we are no longer part of an abusive or difficult relationship.
We may mistakenly believe that feeling relief means we are a heartless and cruel person. Relief can be our enemy if it leads to shame. Relief can be our friend, however, if it reminds us of our humanity and helps us recognize that relationships and life situations are complex. We shouldn’t judge our feelings; rather we should acknowledge them as real and worthy of our attention.
Did you have a grief reaction that surprised you? What are your grief frenemies?
Grieve Well . . . Live Well