If I start crying will I be able to stop?
by Russell Friedman & John W. James of The Grief Recovery Institute
There are many misconceptions about the pain associated with significant emotional loss. Some relate to the reaction of others, for example: "it's not fair to burden them with my pain," or "you have to be strong for others" [mum, dad, kids, etc.]. Some relate to how we think we should be reacting to the loss, for example: "I should be over it by now", or "I have to keep busy".
One of the most hidden and dangerous fears is that if I ever let myself feel the pain that I sense, I will start crying and never be able to stop. It is precisely this kind of incorrect assumption that can keep us locked into a position of unresolved grief, forever. And yet, based on what we have been taught in our society, it is a most logical extension of everything we have ever learned.
We were taught from our earliest ages that sad, painful, or negative feelings are to be avoided at all cost, and if we are unable to avoid them, at least, not to show them in public. Everyone we've ever talked to can relate to these comments: "if you're going to cry, go to your room, and cry alone"; "stop that crying or I'll give you a reason to cry"; "smile and the whole world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone."
Those are just a small sampling of the kinds of remarks that have dictated your reactions to the loss events in your life. Many of our survival habits were developed when we were quite young, and that we may be managing adult lives with the limited skills and perceptions of a child.
If you picture a tiny infant, unhappy about something, you will realise that the infant communicates displeasure at the top of its little lungs. If you think about it, you will recall that infants also express pleasure at the top of their lungs. They make no distinction between happy and sad, in terms of volume or intensity. As children move out of infancy they are socialised to reduce both the volume and intensity of the expression of their feeling responses to life. This might be somewhat acceptable if both happy and sad were merely muted a little and muted equally. Unfortunately, only the sad side gets severely crimped. The happy, joyful, and positive feelings are allowed to stay, and can even be shared with others. The other half of our normal feeling existence is relegated to isolation, separation, and aloneness.
With all of those beliefs and habits as a backdrop, it is almost entirely logical that we might be terrified to show or express any of the normal and natural painful reactions to losses of any kind. It even makes sense that we might believe that if we started crying we wouldn't be able to stop. So, if you have been a little hard on yourself for what you could not do, give yourself a break. You may have been executing your programming perfectly.
It may sound a little harsh and inhuman to say that you were programmed, but if you follow the analogy, you might find it helpful in allowing you to change. At the very least, if you can see how well you executed the incorrect things you learned, you will see that you can also execute correct things with great precision.
We have yet to see anyone not be able to stop crying. However, we have seen too many people not begin the process of Grief Recovery® because of an inordinate fear of any expression of their sad, painful, or negative feelings.
© 2002 Russell P. Friedman, John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this and other articles please contact The Grief Recovery Institute at Editor@grief.net or by phone USA (818) 907-9600 Canada (519) 586-8825