Stuffing Emotions Isn’t a Good Grief Strategy

When we’ve lost someone we love, grief is a journey we can’t avoid.  But that doesn’t stop many of us (particularly men) from trying.  Perhaps we’re afraid that such intense emotions will overwhelm us.  Or maybe we hope that if we pretend to be okay, that fantasy will somehow come true.

While mourning the loss of my wife, intense waves of sadness would often crash down upon me, threatening to wash me away.  A photograph, a song on the radio, a fragrance, a random thought…  the triggers were everywhere.

I wanted to shelter myself from these emotional tsunamis and I thought that keeping busy would do the trick.  I took on extra work projects and sought whatever distractions I could find to fill whatever gaps were left after taking care of my daughters and assuming the housekeeping duties my wife used to handle.

The problem with denying or avoiding grief is that it doesn’t work for long and ultimately backfires.  Anyone who has ever seen a horror movie can tell you that when you bury something prematurely, it has a nasty way of coming back.  And when it does, it’s usually a lot uglier and does a lot more damage.  Burying our emotions has the same result.

Finally, after a three-month, nonstop frenzy of activity, I stopped and took a look around.  The landscape hadn’t changed.  Julie was still gone, I was still alone, and my prospects for the future were no brighter.  I may have delayed some pain, but I hadn’t avoided any.  To make things worse, overwork combined with loneliness began causing some emotional stress fractures.   I found myself growing irritable and impatient, consistently over-reacting to relatively minor annoyances.

The time had come to release my grief.  Still I resisted, just as I do when I know I have to throw up.  Despite the fact that my stomach is telling me what will inevitably happen, I lie very still, breathe cool air and put a cold washcloth on my forehead.  I know that once I get it over with, I’ll feel much better.  Yet I tell myself, “Put it off and maybe it will go away.”

The unavoidable truth is that sooner or later, the sickness inside us needs to come out, whether it is physical or emotional.  So, I let the tears come.  And boy, did they come!

There were lots of times that life would come to a sudden stop while I sobbed until I nearly couldn’t breathe.  I did more crying in that first year than in the rest of my life all put together.

At one point, my daughter actually accused me of going out of my way to make myself feel sad.  But I wasn’t hunting for more hurt; I simply wasn’t hiding from it anymore.  I didn’t like the fact that there were movies I couldn’t see, places I couldn’t go, songs I couldn’t listen to and memories I couldn’t think about without breaking down.  And I knew that the only way to get those things back was to set my emotions free and deal with them as they came along.  Eventually, I learned not only to endure the pain, but to embrace it as an indispensable part of the healing process.

I still cry sometimes; I probably always will.  But now I can treasure all the experiences and all the memories we shared without being totally devastated.  What a reward!  Granted, the journey through grief is miserable.  But until we complete it, we’re not going anywhere.

Steve Harris

More Articles Written by Steve

Steve Harris wrote and produced "About Tomorrow" (available at www.GrowingThroughGrief.com), a 66-minute CD designed to help people get through the first few months after a loss by reassuring them that their emotions, experiences and reactions are normal, and that there is hope ahead. The project was born after Steve’s wife lost her battle with breast cancer in 2005. After emerging from several months spent lost in grief, Steve interviewed over 20 people who had lost someone they love. Their ages, background, and cultures varied. Their circumstances were diverse. Some had lost their spouse; others lost parents or children. Some of the deaths followed protracted illness; others were sudden and unexpected--a routine surgery gone wrong, an accident... even a murder. Some had healthy relationships with the people they lost; others had complications. Clips from those interviews, along with Steve’s own recollections and insights, were combined with a compassionate and reassuring narrative, an original music soundtrack and two carefully-chosen, fully-orchestrated songs. Steve has been involved in the area of creative services since the late 1970s when he began producing promotional programs for a non-profit youth organization. Since that time he served as creative director for two radio stations, an ad agency, and an organization that produces a nationally-syndicated radio broadcast heard on over 1400 stations worldwide. He co-created a popular dramatic radio program for children called Adventures in Odyssey, which has since spawned a series of animated video features and a successful line of related products, along with a network of well over 1,000 stations across the U.S. and Canada. In 1990, he launched Creative Edge Communications, a full-service audio, video and print production company and advertising agency that serves non-profit organizations, other ad agencies, and numerous corporate clients. To Listen to Steve's Radio show

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  • Your story is sad and we all will go through that one dya when we loose someone special. Only you know what you have been through and what the journey through grief looks like. At the same time you have learnt to live through her memories and that is perhaps the best thing to do.

  • matt says:

    I just lost my oldest and dearest friend. My touchstone. Of 30 years. For a really stupid reason. It is the little things that get you. A smell, a song, something we shared in our youth. We can only continue living.