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Working through Pain – #1

It takes time to heal from emotional wounds

Mourning a loss is more than just recovering from the shock and intense sorrow of those early weeks and months. Working through the pain takes both time and energy.

Not everyone will experience the same intensity of pain or time it takes to move forward. For me, the death of my husband was so unexpected that none of us were prepared for what his death might mean.

Working through pain doesn’t mean you sit at home and wait for the pain to end. Just like physical therapy helps the body heal, so being proactive in our grieving process helps the human soul and spirit heal.

Here are some things to consider in your journey.

Grieving is not feeling sorry for yourself

When I was struggling with the enormity of my loss shortly after the death of my husband, a friend implied that I was feeling sorry for myself. As a counselor and teacher, I knew enough about grief and loss to take her comments with a grain of salt. Grievers do not want to stay in their pain – they want to heal and recover.

Grievers want empathy rather than pity. Empathy is “the ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings and difficulties.”

Telling someone who is grieving that they just want pity, can add more emotional trauma to their pain and can drive grief underground making it much more difficult to grieve and heal. 

Energy Loss

During those first weeks and months after a loss, we find ourselves often struggling just to get up in the morning. I was amazed at how depleted my energy was in those early weeks after the death of my husband. For someone who was very organized, energized and proficient in both my career and home life, I found I was only able to work in my office  a couple of hours a day taking care of legal and financial obligations.

I often felt like a zombie, putting one foot forward and robotically doing what was required. But as shock wore off and reality sank in, my loss took on more depth and meaning.  Thats when grieving really  began. 


They say it takes about a year for bones to completely heal. I believe it takes much longer for the heart and spirit to heal from a major loss. Part of the grieving process is integrating that loss into the fabric or story of our life. In a world where you are expected to return to work a few days after the loss of a loved one, it is often difficult for people to have time to grieve.

Martin Seligman, PhD, author of, “Authentic Happiness”, writes that studies show there is little correlation between wealth, gender, race, etc. and long-term happiness. As humans, we have an incredible ability to adapt. He goes on to state, however, that studies show we have difficulty “getting used to” or adapting to “some bad events”, citing the death of a child or spouse dying in a car crash. “Four to seven years after such events, bereaved people are still much more depressed and unhappy than controls.”

While our losses may not fall into that category, they may have a similar impact in our lives. Honor your journey and grace yourself time to work through the grieving process.


Getting intense emotions and thoughts out of our head through writing or talking gives them voice and an opportunity to work through them. Journaling is an effective way to give “voice” to what we are experiencing.

Journaling does not have to be a grandiose or complex affair. Just get a spiral notebook, choose a time that is good for you and start writing what you are thinking and feeling. Journaling can give us a way to mark important touchstones or milestones, memories and reflections.

Don’t worry about grammar or correct speech, complete sentences or even paragraphs. Just write. Don’t be concerned about too much or too little. Nobody has to read your journal except you.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC


Anger can be a constructive force or a destructive one.  We choose.

Working Through Anger in Grief

Anger is a survival mechanism,  triggering our flight and fight response to danger.  When people feel angry, they want to lash out or attack in some way. Often attached to our anger is a hurt of some kind.

Venting or acting out may release some of anger’s energy in the short term, but it will not take away our anger.

Losses can trigger anger as we protest against the injustice of it all. It may be the untimely death of a loved one, the loss of a job or marriage. In the process, we often build and maintain a grievance that robs us of peace, joy and happiness.  

Three things to remember about anger

 It is okay to be angry

 It is NOT okay to hurt yourself, someone else or anyone’s property

 You are responsible for what you do with your anger

Some constructive ways to deal with anger and grief 

 Admit you feel angry. Denying or pushing it away will only cause it to resurface 

 Find a healthy way to release the immediate tension of anger. Pound a pillow or go to the gym and work out. Run. Walk. Move until the anger energy is released or reduced. Remember that while anger energy may be reduced, the anger itself still needs to be addressed.

 Talk about it. Find a supportive friend, pastor, or other nonjudgmental person who can help clarify your jumble of thoughts and feelings with feedback and validation. Sometimes talking it through will be enough to lay it to rest.

Hanging onto our anger and grievance may feel good in the short term, but is destructive in the long term. Challenge and change how you think about your stituation. Reframing what has happened gives us the opportunity to let go of it.  Healing from grief and anger requires acceptance at some point as we come to terms with the senselessness, unfairness and injustice of life.    

 Bring it to God. If our anger is directed at God, how do we tell Him about it? If we have had negative experiences talking about anger in our past, we may feel that God will treat us the same way: if we talk about our anger we get punished; if we hang on to it, it continues to fester and grow. 

I believe God is more capable of handling our anger than we are. The Bible reveals a personal and loving God who understands our foibles and frailities; a God who wants us to come to Him with our questions, doubts and expressions of pain and anger. When we do, we find release, healing and peace. 

When we are honest with God, we learn more about ourselves, our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  It becomes a clarifying, humbling and transforming experience. 

If you are uncomfortable telling God about your pain and anger, use the Psalms as a starting place. The Psalmists came to God with all their problems, complaints and pleas.  They also came to worship and praise Him for all the blessings they received. 

The Psalmists believed God was a Heavenly Father who cared about every aspect of their life – the good and the bad – the ups and the downs. They felt comfortable telling God whatever was on their heart.   

If there is a history of anger in your past, a loss can intensify that anger. If anger continues to dominate your grieving, I encourage you to seek a professional counselor to help work through it.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

What Do I do With My Anger while Grieving

Grieving is an emotional journey. Within the emotions of our losses, we discover how important people in our lives are to us. And when we have lost them, we react emotionally.

Some emotions by their very nature may be more difficult to deal with than others. Anger is one of those emotions that may keep us from being rational when caught in its grip. When the world seems unfair and unjust, we respond with anger. That anger, if channeled appropriately, can be the energy and momentum needed to put in place necessary and important reforms.

Most of us struggle with anger. Parents, in teaching their children to act appropriately when angry, may leave the impression that anger itself is not okay. Christian communities also may give the impression that to feel anger is wrong. But if you are feeling angry, what do you do with it? And if it is not okay to feel angry, and you do, now you feel guilty as well.

Like all our emotions, anger has a purpose. It helps us survive.

In grief and loss, anger is one of the emotions people may experience. Why would we feel angry? While we accept death as a normal part of aging, when death comes to someone still in their prime, young or just beginning life, the injustice and unfairness of it all can be overwhelming and we are left with anger and questions.

“Things like that shouldn’t happen.”

Senselessness violates our belief system of expectations and we have difficulty coming to grips with what has happened. Although it is normal to feel anger in our losses, it doesn’t give us permission to do whatever we want just because we feel angry.

If fate has singled you out as a victim of war, or someone’s stupidity or carelessness has caused an unnecessary and senseless death, or you are struck with a crippling disease or chronic illness, anger may be one of the emotions you experience. Why did this have to happen? What good can possibly come from this senselessness? Sometimes we direct the anger to ourselves.

Attached to all our responsive emotions are thoughts and beliefs that create questions. These are legitimate questions that need to be voiced. Otherwise, we bottle up the emotions attached and they can grow in proportion and become toxic.

Life is not only unfair: it is often cruel and heartless as well

We struggle as human beings with injustice and making sense of what is happening to us. When something just seems wrong or doesn’t make any sense, it is difficult to reconcile with what has happened. A counselor, pastor or even a trusted friend can help you articulate and work through these questions and feeling.

Thursday’s blog will address ways to work through anger.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Unresolved Conflict in Grief and Loss

A side of grief we seldom consider is the death of someone with whom we have had unresolved conflict or emotional distress. We may not have had a chance for reconciliation or resolution.

What if you had been a victim of past abuse, abandonment, rejection or injustice; or lived with years of misunderstandings or conflict with this person who has now died. So, when that person dies, it might seem as if death has cheated you from finding resolve. Does all that anger and resentment get buried with the person or will that bitterness continue to be a part of your life?

Death doesn’t automatically release us from our resentment. As with any “grievance” we might have, however legitimate it may be, if we hang onto that grievance, we are the ones who continue to suffer from it.

It can be difficult to work through unresolved conflicts by ourselves and a trained therapist or pastor might be able to assist you. (Upcoming blogs will focus on the importance of forgiveness). 

If you are experiencing conflicted emotions with the loss of someone with whom you had unresolved issues, consider the following questions.

• How did my past involvement with this individual create the pain I am now feeling?

• When did my anger and resentment begin?

• What other emotions is my anger covering up?

• What is preventing me from letting go of my grievance from the past?

• What part of my anger and resentment do I want to hang on to and why?

• How are the losses from my past keeping me locked in continued feelings of resentment and anger today?

• What unanswered questions from the past continue to influence my current feelings of anger and betrayal, rejection, neglect, abandonment or neglect?

John James and Russell Friedman in their book, The Grief Recovery Handbook, laid out a program to work through our past relationship losses so we complete our “grief recovery”. They, along with others, have suggested writing a letter to the individual you no longer have contact with in person. Although we no longer have the opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings in person, we can write them a letter.

Address the letter to that person by name: Dear . . ., and write down all the things you may have wanted to say to him or her. What do you want that person to know? How did that person hurt you? What did you want from that person? Read it several times to be sure you have written everything you want to say.

Ask a trusted friend if they would listen as you read your letter out loud. Tell your friend you just want them to listen and be present as you read. Their nonjudgmental support is all that is needed. After you have read your letter, make a conscious and purposeful choice to let go of all the resentment. Then burn the letter and scatter the ashes to the wind. As you do, “see” your bitterness disappear with the ashes. Experience the peace of letting go.

Now, write a letter to yourself. Address it to you. In this letter, tell yourself why you no longer want to hang onto the grievances of the past. Tell yourself the reasons why you felt angry and bitter and why it is no longer necessary for you to hang onto those feelings. Write down how good it feels to be free of all those toxic emotions. Explore ways you will be able to live a happier and more productive life with this freedom. You are no longer held in the grips of your past.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Guilt and Our What if’s….

When we hear on the news of senseless shootings or tragic accidents where innocent victims are killed, our first thoughts may be “why” or “how could this happen”; often followed with “what if”. What if I hadn’t let my teen go to that party, or what if. . .

Senseless tragedies are emotionally charged events that beg answers to our questions. But in the not-so-charged arena of life, we also ask questions of ourselves about our losses, especially the “what if’s” of our decisions that leave us with lingering doubts, guilt and anger.

Working through guilt

Guilt is an emotion that helps us correct behaviors. It indicates we have done something wrong and we need to make amends. Guilt along with shame helps us say we’re sorry. But when faced with an irretrievable loss, we may be plagued with a guilt that is misplaced, blown out of proportion or not even applicable to the situation.

What if I hadn’t put my wife in a nursing home, would she have died with family around her; what if I hadn’t said such hurtful things; what if my friend lived and I had died; what if I had realized the depth of his despair, would I have been able to prevent the suicide? What if. . . The list is endless.

Coming to terms with our loss means we come to terms with ourselves as human beings. If the guilt is appropriate to the event, such as driving drunk and hurting somebody, then guilt is an important precursor to turning your life around. Hanging on to guilt beyond its purpose, however, will not change the past and beating yourself up will not bring you peace. Forgiveness enables us to take positive action instead of remaining in a past we cannot change.

When we feel guilt disproportionate to any actions we may have taken, or because we couldn’t know the future, guilt can become toxic. Caring individuals often take more responsibility than is either appropriate or realistic for what is happening.

We cannot change the past; but we can change our responses. If you are feeling disproportionate guilt over a loss, ask yourself the following questions.

• Could I really have done something different?

• What information do I have today that I didn’t have back then?

• Am I taking responsibility for things that were out of my control?

• Am I trying to be responsible for other people’s actions?

• Is my guilt a way to ease some of the pain I feel without having to correct something?

• Is it keeping me from grieving my loss, letting go and moving forward?

Making sense of what happened often means coming to terms with what doesn’t make sense. Acceptance means we stop struggling for answers we may never get. Acceptance means we give ourselves permission to let go without answers.

While it is appropriate and necessary to question, sometimes all we can do is accept that we make mistakes, others make mistakes, accidents can be tragic and there may be no rhyme or reason to it. We can use our emotional responses to propel us forward in positive ways. In the end, however, acceptance is the realization we are human and live in a less than okay world.

 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC


Stuck in Grief

Grief and loss can trigger a whole range of complex and sometimes conflicting emotions: anger and joy – sadness and happiness – guilt and relief. Some of the more intense emotions might provoke a barrage of questions: Is it normal to feel this way? And if it is, how do I deal with it.

While it is natural and normal to experience a whole range of emotions, how we respond to them may help or hinder our grief process.

If losses are connected to random acts of violence, accidents, suicide or any unreasonable death we may be left with questions of “why”, “what if” or “if only” followed by intense feelings of anger, confusion, guilt, anxiety, fear and remorse. In the death of a loved one, children often feel somehow that they were responsible and don’t know how to articulate that guilt.

Why? Why did it happen? Why did you allow it God? Why did he/she have to die? Why was I left behind? Why did I survive? Anger can devour us as we try to find answers to unanswerable questions.


While we need to ask our questions, at some point acceptance is required; there may not be any answers or the answers will be incomplete.

What if…… What if I had done something different, what if I hadn’t been so abrasive, what if I had insisted he go to the doctor earlier, what if I hadn’t let my teen drive my car that night, what if….

If only. . . . If only I hadn’t been so angry when she left that morning, if only I had told him how much I loved him, if only I had listened, if only I had tried harder, if only I had been there when he died. If only. . .

It is not uncommon to grieve the actions we might have taken or words we might have said or wish we could take back. The “if only’s” like the “what if’s” can keep us stuck in guilt. At such times we need to remind ourselves that it is always easier to look backward.

We do the best we can at any moment in time. While that is not an excuse for bad behavior, it is an awareness that even in making grievous mistakes, there is the need to acknowledge our humanness and offer forgiveness and grace. Otherwise we get stuck in a revolving and non-ending cycle of guilt, anger and pain

How? How will I make it? How will I be able to make a new life for myself? How will I manage? How will I ever be happy again? How will life have any meaning again?

Anxiety and fear motivate us to find solutions. But when we get stuck in the feelings, we are unable to take that next step into the unknown and risk trying new options.

Again, while we might not find answers to our questions, it is important to voice them. In the asking we are able to work through them to find a way to come to terms with them and lay them to rest.

When we become stuck in the unending stream of questions, what if’s, if only’s and why’s, our grief is extended. My next blogs will explore these further.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

How do you Grieve

Grieving requires work and our participation so we can heal.

Roller Coaster of Emotions

At a recent funeral I attended, upbeat music was played, favorite songs of the deceased sung and prepared comments read by family members left us laughing and smiling through our tears. I remembered the two memorial services held for my husband where for over an hour people spontaneously shared all the wonderful and humorous stories about him as we laughed and cried together. And that same celebration of life helped all of us mourn the untimely death of my son.

Funerals used to be somber and staid and we left feeling down and depressed. Perhaps we have learned it is better to celebrate a person’s life rather than simply mourn their demise.

When Grieving Begins

As many of us know, it is after the people have left, after friends and family resumes their lives that we truly begin to grieve. For it is then, on a day to day basis, when we are faced with putting the pieces together, coming to grips with our loss and its impact on our life. It is then the numbness wears off and we feel the depth of our sorrow. Some of us plunge into life as usual, hoping to quickly run away from pain – others retreat as energy is consumed in sorrow.

The emotions triggered by grief can go from the highs of celebration and remembrance down to the fathomless depths of despair. It takes time for “time” to do its thing – gradually shifting our focus from what was to what is now. When we are an active participant in that grieving process, our healing can be more complete. 

Our Roller Coaster of Emotions

The roller coaster emotions of grief can be triggered so quickly it literally takes our breath away. People have told me that long after a death, a smell, a sound, a word, an image can suddenly thrust them back into the earliest feelings of loss reminding them again of what they had and have no more.

I remember going to the airport to pick up my daughter and her family a year after the death of husband. As I waited for them to arrive, an image of my husband walking down the corridor towards me flashed across my mind with such force, I could hardly breathe. As tears stung my eyes, I had to stand very still in order to survive the moment, allowing it to gradually recede.

Losses Create a Whole Range of Emotions 

We might experience increased levels of anxiety and fear as we contemplate financial concerns or the shift of responsibility such as raising children as a single parent. With the death of a spouse after years of marriage, our social structure changes as well. We can be happy one minute and sad the next.  I remember having dinner with friends and life felt normal and happy; only to return to an empty house and feel that aloneness.

 Losses have many layers to them

Even while maintaining relationships of long term friends, we find the dynamics has changed and we are acutely aware we are no longer a couple and another layer of loss becomes evident. The new reality of being single brings with it demands for creating new social circles.

Sometimes we get stuck in some aspects of loss that keep us caught in emotional turmoil that makes healing difficult. Two of these emotions are anger and guilt. We will explore some of these emotions in the upcoming weeks.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Myths and Misconceptions About Grieving

Research continues to give us information about the impact of grief and loss and the process that helps us heal. In the process we have identified myths related to the grieving process. Here are some misconceptions we hold about grief.

We “get over” it

This is a phrase we often use when talking about loss. We see the pain of sorrow on the faces of friends and family we love and want to re-assure them that they won’t be in pain forever. Yet, we don’t “get over” the loss of a loved one – we integrate that loss into the fabric of our lives. They will always be part of who we are. As we heal, the grief we feel no longer takes center stage and we are able to create a new reality. Grieving allows us to let go, heal, integrate and replace.

Grieving has a time limit

Putting grief within a time period is both unrealistic and sets up additional pressures of expectation. People are given a couple days to mourn before returning to work. In the process, grief may be pushed away or stuffed as we try to ignore the pain and quickly resume life. But when grief goes underground, it will surface at some future date and demand we deal with it.

Grieving is a necessary journey that enables us to reconcile what has happened. The time limit to complete that reconciliation will be different for each of us. Even when the initial intense feelings of sadness have been replaced with the desire to live again, there will be components of our loss that will always be with us. If we minimize or ignore this healing journey, we might miss some valuable discoveries about ourselves and our memories will not have a healing quality to them.

We all grieve the same way

We are different personalities with different life experiences. We grieve within that context. For some, sharing feelings may be difficult and they might find it easier to express their grief working on projects, art or journaling. It is important to honor your way and follow through.

Tears and sadness is feeling sorry for yourself

Grieving is not the same as feeling sorry for yourself. When we feel sorry for ourselves, we want to nurse our hurt and get sympathy. When we are grieving, we want to share our pain so we can heal. We don’t want to stay where we are. We do want to normalize life again. When the pain is intense and deep, it takes time to go through the layers of loss.

There are predictable and progressive stages to grieving

It was once thought that we go through the predictable stages of Elizabeth K. Ross’s stages of death and dying when grieving. While we may experience some of those elements, there is no predictable pattern or stages in which we grieve; my personal experience with grief resembled William Bridge’s transitional model. The first phase was recovering from the intense feelings of sorrow and pain and making the necessary changes to finances and living conditions. But then, as I picked up the pieces of my life, I needed to spend some time in that “neutral zone” to probe and answer the question of who I was today. What do I leave behind and what do I bring forward. I made new discoveries about myself and reaffirmed other aspects of my life. The process helped me let go of what was as I explored and tried on new realities. The discoveries during that time period helped make a more positive transition.

Losses are about endings. All losses require a transition – from here to there. If we hurry from ending to new beginning, we will find it difficult to put to rest the emotional turmoil, heal the wounds and grieve the many layers associated with losses.

It is better to be alone while we grieve

We need other people. We wouldn’t think about going through recovery of major surgery without the assistance and support of others. We forget that a major loss is an incredible injury. When we withdraw, we risk becoming isolated, lonely and depressed; we retreat into our world of pain rather than working out the healing. It takes courage to grieve; and while being alone may help us feel less vulnerable to others; it carries a huge price tag emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC