Tolerating the Intolerable: Beyond Numbing

When the death of a loved one happens suddenly and unexpectedly, it can crack your heart wide open. The shock and pain of the loss is numbing at first because the reality that you will never see your loved one again is intolerable and overwhelming. Numbing feelings in a sense protects you from experiencing them all at once and from the reality of what has happened.

The numbing begins to wear off after the funeral, after family and friends return to their own lives…then the reality that your expectations, hopes and dreams have inextricably been changed forever begins to surface. Once faced with yourself and the pain in your heart, it’s natural and often an unconscious act to seek ways to continue numbing your feelings of grief and loss.

Some of the ways that you might numb feelings include talking on the phone too much, using the internet and social media more often, telling the details of your story over and over again, watching mindless TV, escaping through entertainment, getting absorbed in reading about other peoples lives, and keeping a busier work schedule.

These activities are not bad but they can be areas where you hide from your feelings. On the darker side of numbing are behaviors like overeating, snacking all day, drinking alcohol, refilling addictive medications, doing recreational drugs, or other forms of self harm, like ignoring obligations, not leaving the house, not showering, or isolating. Other signs of numbing can be in finding fault with others, angry outbursts towards people who were close to you before the loss.

There is nothing wrong with wanting temporary relief from difficult feelings and emotions. The duration and denial of feelings or complete submersion into them can become problematic because the behaviors interfere with normal activities. It’s important to be honest with yourself, to notice changes in your behavior and to be realistic about your choices. Make a plan for gradually tolerating your feelings in doses because working through feelings is what actually helps change them.

Finding words that most accurately describe what you feel can help you express your experiences to others. Descriptive words might come from your own experiences, from family experiences, from community experiences or from experiences in the news. Descriptive words can express internal states. Descriptive words often come from acts of nature or accidental causes that are shocking and sudden. For example, feeling like you have been dragged along the bottom of the ocean by a strong current, or like you’ve experienced a tsunami of feelings all at once, or feeling like you were hit by a crashing wave, or that you feel like you survived an earthquake, or like you were standing in quicksand may describe most accurately what you are feeling.

If you carry pain in your body, you might feel like you were run over by a 16-wheeler, or like you were hit by a freight train. I have used some of these descriptions for my own losses. Some I have heard from clients in my private practice. Descriptive words are powerful because they creatively provide us with images and sounds that can match the intensity of the pain and suffering that we are going through. If you have a description that you use to express your feelings of loss, you are invited to share it in the comment section of this posting.

Writing through your feelings can be very helpful. Letting the emotions pour out onto paper or through a keyboard can be cathartic. Similarly, expressing raw emotion through editing photos/videos, adding sound, painting or through using your hands with clay can help you give form to those internal states. Once expressed, you can gain distance and perspective on your feelings and assess how you are doing.

The question is, how do we tolerate intolerable feelings? The answer is that we can learn to tolerate intolerable feelings over time, but in doses. Time itself is not the healer. Processing, expressing and tolerating feelings is what transforms pain into acceptance, growth and self knowledge. By recognizing the coping strategies that you have adopted and lessening your dependence on them over time, you are able to feel and not be completely overwhelmed. For example, if drinking alcohol is part of the way you cope, refraining for a week or more will allow feelings to surface.

Tolerating feelings means allowing them to come up, exploring and processing them through writing, creatively engaging with them or sharing them will help reset your tolerance level and weave your experience into the fabric of your life.

Basia Mosinski

More Articles Written by Basia

Basia Mosinski, MA, MFA is an online Grief/Life Coach. Basia is scheduled as a Keynote Speaker at The Compassionate Friends 2018 National Conference. In 1993, Basia’s stepson Logan died in a head-on train collision in the midwest where she and her family lived. Within two years, her marriage broke apart and more losses compounded. Logan’s death took her on a journey through pain to inner healing and growth. Along the way, she participated in The Phoenix Project a 12-week intensive process for healing grief and loss. She not only participated in the process she later became a ritual elder of The Phoenix Project, working with Dr Jack Miller. In December of 2001 Dr Miller invited her and several other practitioners to give a weekend of healing to families impacted by 9/11 in New York. Basia was so moved by that work that when she returned to Chicago, she enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she was teaching to gain a second masters’ degree in Art Therapy. When she graduated in 2005, she relocated to NY where she became the Assistant Director of Mental Health at Gay Men’s Health Crisis while maintaining a thriving private practice, sharing office space with Dr. Heidi Horsley. In 2014, Basia moved to Southern California to live close to her only child, her grown son, Richard, his wife and her granddaughter. 9 months later, Richard died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism on a flight from Chicago to Orange County. In addition to helping others on their journey of healing, Basia is helping herself through the shock of what has happened by using what she has learned along the way and through writing a book about her process and the ways that she and her family are coping with the loss of Richard through texting, photos and ‘sightings’. Basia’s blog is: Basia is the former co-chair of the Technology Committee of the American Art Therapy Association.


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  • pradeep sahajwani says:

    few days ago my son 28yr. died in a road accident…..
    me and my wife are in deppression not able overcome
    in fanct i am trying to finding what to do now…..easiest way of sucide…
    because now no faith in God…..
    many elders saints explained me but now dont want to live….because i have seen my son fighting with brain infection in hospital during 20 days….i am regrating i couldnt did ….best for him…..


    • Pradeep, hang in there. You are in shock. Your feelings are ‘normal’ but you need to stop giving those negative thoughts your attention. Bring thoughts about the unconditional love that you have for your son into your heart and hold it there. You cannot focus on pain and love at the same time. Pain is constricting. Love is open. You get to choose where you bring your focus. Yes, it is a constant battle but your son, if he was anything like mine, would not want you to suffer, like this. Of course you are broken…constant pain does not bring him back. The sweetness of your love for him allows you to feel him.

      I am so sorry for your loss. Go to the The Compassionate Friends website and find a meeting in your area. Choose life. Be with other parents who know what you are going through.


  • Jodi Davis says:

    My mom died in September 2015. I was her caregiver and lost my job due to this. I moved from another city to be with mom just before she was diagnosed with cancer. I had a strong feeling I needed and wanted to spend time with her. At that time we thought she was in good health. She was sick almost immediately after I moved to spend what we thought would good years with her. I am am only child and she was a single mother, so our bond was extremely close. I still have an aunt but that is my only family left. I moved 6 times in less than a year and have lost 8 other people since mom. Most all of them close friends and family. I also have been taken advantage of financially and am living on little and my unemployment ran out. I now live in a city which is not my home, have little support, no job and a completely unknown mode of livelihood. I dread returning to the kind of work I was doing. But may have to. Anyway, I sense all these losses and the mourning will lead to a stronger and more mature me yet it is a painful wilderness right now and I am in need of support and would love to hear journeys of others who have had to warrior through times like this. Thanks for making this available to those of us in need of a reassurance and continued faith.

    • Jodi, it sounds like you have had some real guidance and that you answered the call to move near your mom. That was alignment.

      Not sure why you moved 6 times in less than a year but that sounds incredibly stressful.

      Then those additional losses added more stress. It’s hard to be open to your inner guidance and alignment with so much going on. Home is a state of mind. I have found that ‘home’ is where I can heal.

      Meditating in a park, by a lake, in a beautiful place can begin the connection back to your inner self. People will show up when you are taking care of yourself. Join a grief group or spiritual center, coming together with others can be very helpful.

      Try not to dread a job that may actually alleviate some of the pressure you are currently feeling. #1 is helping yourself to feel better. The path of least resistance is creating a stable environment for yourself, then doing the inner work of understanding more about who you are and who you are becoming.

      Wishing you peace and clarity, Jodi.


  • Jacqueline Mackay says:

    thank you for your words my 19 yr old son died suddenly from terminal aggressive cancer in 4 weeks my descriptive phrase: ” it felt like watching a slow motion car wreck “