Safe Relationships Help Us Learn to Grieve Well

July 8, 2016 (Updated Jun 29, 2019) by — Intended Audience: .

Video You Cannot Face Sadness in Isolation

Video: 2 Minutes

Sadness, pain and loss are a part of everyone’s life. We all experience loss, not only in the form of losing loved ones to things like death or relational brokenness, but also in myriads of other big and little losses throughout daily life. Loss is a form of disappointment–the experience of having expected or hoped for one thing, and instead experiencing something much less desirable. How we respond to the daily (and seemingly “little” disappointments) sets the stage for how we will respond to our sadness about much more noticeable losses.

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For example, if you tend to respond to disappointment by minimizing it (e.g., “It doesn’t matter,” “It’s no big deal,” etc.), then as you encounter larger disappointments (regarding your own life, or others’) minimization will likely be your primary response there as well. Similarly, if you tend to respond to disappointment by overemphasizing it (to the exclusion of positive experiences in your life) you will likewise approach more significant disappointments in the same way. Both of these–minimizing and amplifying–are problematic, and sometimes we might even bounce between the two. Neither approach helps us to actually work through the underlying pain and integrate the experience. The first route tries to push the pain away (which is not unreasonable–pain does hurt, after all), while the second allows the pain to overrun us (such that other emotions and experiences get pushed away).

What both of these (and many variations on the above) have in common is a dynamic of being disconnected, from oneself, and from others. We disconnect from ourselves when we aren’t able to process the emotional “voltage” that parts of us carry. And we disconnect from others because of experiences that taught us people can’t, or won’t, be there for us if we try to touch certain emotions (such as sadness). While these various forms of disconnect do have their place in helping us survive,1 they are woefully insufficient for helping us thrive.

The healthy (and much better feeling) alternative is to have a relational context where you feel safe, and the other person knows how to guide you through the process of learning to face your pain/sadness/loss while staying relationally connected. By learning to stay connected to someone who is not afraid of the emotions that you are so afraid of, you can gradually build the strength to engage loss, and thus learn to grieve in ways that become healing, and lead to greater peace.

This video briefly touches on the these themes of grief and relational connection. It is an excerpt of a longer recording exploring couple’s trying to recover from an affair,2 but this section on the role of grief in the healing process is applicable to everyone.3

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  1. Note that I’m not trying to suggest that we should disconnect from ourself or others–rather, I’m just acknowledging the reality that these common coping mechanisms do help us survive when we don’t have access to relationships that can help us more constructively engage with ourself and others regarding difficult emotions. 
  2. Does an Affair Mean the End of the Marriage? (video) 
  3. Also seeĀ Working Through Grief and Forgiveness (video) for a further exploration of this topic. 

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