Good grief
January 20, 2020 1:37 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out if I'm grieving or wallowing, and how to grieve well.

So, some context: I've never had much feelings of love for my parents/family - they never felt like family at all. In therapy (thanks, Metafilter!) I worked through some feelings of anger about that, and a whole host of other issues, but could never muster up much sadness. I "cut ties" with my parents since - basically, I just didn't contact them one day, and they haven't asked for me since.
Now, since therapy worked out amazingly for me, I ended it with the agreement (actually, quite strong encouragement) of my therapist last autumn. I have the option to go back, but I want to try to manage this on my own first. This is where I need your help.

For quite a while I have had strong feelings of sadness, loneliness and grief for a family I never knew - not for my parents as I know them, but for the loving, supporting parents I never had. There are times where the pain and feeling of loss, and longing, is almost physical.
I'm not sure if this is a healthy grieving that must happen at some point - and is happening now that I'm gaining at least a tentative understanding of how much I was actually robbed of. Or if this is unproductive wallowing that I should get myself out of. If relevant: I'm performing well at work, meet my friends and do my level best to be a good partner. But still I wonder. Also, I can tell that I'm far from the acceptance stage yet - part of me is forever hoping, longing, searching for a replacement, even though intellectually I'm quite clear on the unlikeliness of that.
How can I tell necessary grief from unproductive wallowing?

Also, I have never grieved this, or anything else really. Is there something I could be doing to make sure my grief is healing rather than hurting me?

Thank you, Mefi :)
posted by any_name_in_a_storm to Human Relations (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Disclaimer: I am not a therapist, I am not your therapist.

I think the point at which "grief" turns into "wallowing" is when it starts to interfere with your normal life. Grief is a little different for everyone; for something as complicated as this, you may just have a lot of feelings that need working through and feeling, and that may take time.

I think if you're able to be going through this while still keeping things going at your job and dong your best to be there for your partner and your friends, it sounds like you're doing pretty well. The most I would do is to let your partner and maybe a couple of trusted friends know what's going on with you, so they're forewarned just in case there's a day when you are a little moody and you snap at them or something (which is also normal, if you're going through a lot).

And be gentle with yourself. You're doing something hard, and it will feel really shitty, but it's important and it will pass. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:55 PM on January 20

I once went to see a former therapist after a friend had killed himself because I was so sad, even six months later. I had exactly one session and my therapist said, You are sad. This is grief. This is normal. It will dissipate over time. And it did.

I don’t think human beings have the ability to decide what kind of feelings to have. Like, we can try to ignore them or try to hide them or try to power through them. All of which are usually poor choices, at least for me. If you want to make sure that your grief is healing rather than hurting, it seems to me that you are doing what you need to do: acknowledge what you feel.

In Al-Anon we have a saying about the importance of the three As: awareness, acceptance, action. The idea is that it’s important to first be aware of a situation and then to accept the reality of it before you make a decision to act. It sounds like you are doing a good job of that. I spent decades of my adult life attempting to find a magical way of reliving my childhood with the father I felt I should’ve had instead of the largely absent father who helped create me. I regret that I didn’t understand at that time the value of accepting my loss and grieving what I missed rather than losing myself in a bunch of magical thinking that I wasn’t even consciously aware of.

Also, as recommended above, be kind to yourself. I don’t think having feelings of any sort can qualify as unproductive wallowing. We are human. Humans have feelings. It’s fine to feel your feelings and to tell yourself, oh, here I am feeling sad again. To acknowledge the pain of not having the family you wanted and that everyone deserves. If you start to feel too stuck, call your therapist and maybe just do one session or two. But it sounds like you are in a healthy if painful place at the moment. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 2:38 PM on January 20 [7 favorites]

This is fine; you're not hurting yourself. As long as you're not doing anything that harms you (like, real-world harm, like not paying rent or something) or that harms others, you are fine. <3
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:43 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]

When the infliction of the wound is measured in decades, a few years of healthy healing is not unreasonable. Be patient and kind with yourself and things will take their course.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:52 PM on January 20 [5 favorites]

The first time you really feel grief is a shock. I had no idea it could affect me so physically and that frightened me, because I was used to keeping emotions in one box and my body in another. But when the emotions get big enough, they take you over and it can be really alarming.

But it's normal for grief to feel that way, it really is. And it doesn't feel that overwhelming forever. You won't go back to feeling "the same as before" though. You will feel different but it will be a difference you can handle. You will know new things about yourself. You might cry more often or at different things. That's all normal, too.

I don't think there is any such thing as wallowing. You feel what you feel. It doesn't have to make sense, it will almost never be convenient but it's like weather, it happens when it happens.

I don't know if writing works for you, but it might help to write down what you are grieving, what you wish your younger self could have had. I would assume this sadness has been building all your life; you knew things were wrong but you were in control and didn't let yourself feel the hurt. That's how you survived.

Now you are letting yourself feel. That's healthy, but not easy. You are doing good work.
posted by emjaybee at 2:52 PM on January 20 [11 favorites]

I don't think you're wallowing. The need to have a loving, supportive family is innate. It doesn't sound as if it's interfering with your healthy relationships, or leading to bad decisions.

I'm not a therapist, but I am estranged from my parents. I went through the typical stages of grief, but true healing came when I realized that I'd built a family of my own that was everything my birth family was not.
posted by snickerdoodle at 2:53 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]

Your feelings are real. Wallowing is a loaded term. It's possible for grief or other feelings to be so strong that you have trouble coping. As long as this is not keeping you from living your life, you probably don't need therapy for it. You're working, seeing friends, moving towards goals? Wouldn't hurt to call the therapist and ask for a check-in session, if you need to. You don't have to do feelings alone.
posted by theora55 at 3:00 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]

Part of your difficulty is that you're not grieving an event, which gets further away as time passes no matter how well or badly you deal with it, but a fact about your life, which is not going to get further away with time because it will always be true. Your lack of the family you wish you had is a continuing fact about your life, not a thing that happened to you once and then was over.

(This is also true about death, and the reason we treat death as an event rather than as a state that never changes and never ends is because if we pretend we are grieving the day our parents died, and not the fact that our parents are dead, we can put an arbitrary pin in it and pretend we have moved on and away, carried forward by time. this is a fiction, but it is a useful fiction sometimes and you can borrow it for your own circumstances.)

so you can't really fall back on the usual formulas for grieving, unless you actively decide that they sound good to you. but if they do, you can. people sometimes say it's reasonable for the pain from a breakup to last half as long as the relationship did; depending on how old you are this may be much much longer than you want to allow it to take. For a death, people often say two to five years before the acute stage is over. These aren't requirements; I don't think there is any such thing as good or bad grief unless you hurt other people with it.

The persistent hope of finding a replacement is only an illusion in that you can't regress to childhood and have better parents as a child. but you can be part of the kind of family you want, given time and luck and the right kind of effort. I think that in your circumstances, either you persistently hope for something even though it seems impossible or you decide you had better give up because you can never have it. which attitude you take is probably not all under your control, but the first way (your way) seems better to me.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:09 PM on January 20 [18 favorites]

Maybe you could set aside a formal time each day or week to grieve. Ten minutes, or a half hour, where you can feel freely and fully, with nothing else to claim your attention. I think it's a nice way to honor your complicated emotions while keeping your life in motion.
posted by aw jeez at 3:19 PM on January 20

The more of it I experience, the more I've come to think of grieving as a process of transformation. It can change yourself and it can change how you perceive the world around you, or both. I think that part of why everyone's grieving processes are different is that everybody's coming from a different starting point when it really hits them, and as they engage with it they're changing too.

I guess my point is, you're going through a change and that means you can't measure its "healthiness" or "success" by how much it doesn't affect your life - it should affect your life. Necessary vs unproductive is a very cold, calculated way of looking at grief. Instead try reframing things as harmful vs just different. Do you approach your existing loving relationships differently? That's okay, just different. Are you isolating yourself, or harming your friendships with your actions? That's harmful. Do you need more time to yourself lately? That's just different. But if your alone time makes you feel worse afterward, that's harmful.

It can be a good idea to build in structure to check in on your grief. There's a lot of things like this that you can draw from in preexisting religious traditions even though what you're grieving isn't a traditional death. But on the secular end of things, something simple like lighting a candle every Friday and taking fifteen minutes to think on things, or more involved like regular journaling on the topic, might help you calibrate yourself as you change. I have a friend who goes hiking once a season to check in with themselves. If you're artistic you might look into art therapy techniques. There's a lot of different ways you can ritualize grief depending on your personality that might help you feel more connected to the process.
posted by Mizu at 3:48 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]

Something that helped me a lot when I was processing a trauma and grieving the self I would otherwise have been, was to read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. It's a memoir about her grief following her husband's sudden death (while their daughter was in the ICU, no less), but also an exploration of how the experience of grief is both universal and singular.

I mean, I knew about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the stages of grief before then, but Didion's writing was the first time I really got it. Especially grief as a physical thing, which I was completely unprepared for.

I've moved four times since, and have had to cull my bookshelves many times over, but that one always makes the cut.
posted by basalganglia at 4:20 PM on January 20

Gosh this is hard. When I was dating my last long-term boyfriend, he had a family that was... a lot of things my family was not. They were kind, attentive, familial. And I went through a long period, while my parents were still alive, of grieving that I hadn't had a real childhood, that I'd spent so much time scared and catering to the whims of people with untreated mental health issues. What was helpful for me was realizing that if I basically liked who i became, some of that was because of them, not in spite of them (even if it was a negative reaction to who they were). I have an okay self-image and this was a useful thing to keep telling myself.

To me, wallowing is just remaining in a place where you're unhappy and that unhappiness sticks with you and keeps you from forming new emotional relationships, keep you stuck replaying old movies at the same time you are hating them, and even sticking other people in your own stuck place. Grieving them is going through your life (living your life) but just being sad about a thing, a "what might have been" thing. That grief, over time, lessens. This metaphor has been helpful for me, since dealing with the death of my parents, maybe it will be helpful for you.
posted by jessamyn at 4:59 PM on January 20 [10 favorites]

I know this grief. It still crops up every now and then.

How I see things, and how I explain them to my kiddo, is that you need to feel what comes without feeding or fighting it. Allowing difficult emotions is a hard one, and what helps me on very bad days is to verbally acknowledge how I am feeling and just settle into it with things that will comfort or nurture me while I ride it out. Sometimes just the acknowledgement makes all the difference. It's like being sick, wrapping yourself up in a blanket, and eating chicken noodle soup while you e.g. pay the bills. Even when life doesn't allow you to "call in sick," you can find ways to be compassionate to yourself as you go through your day.

(Apologies if I'm repeating what has already been said; I didn't have the ability to read all the answers today.)
posted by moira at 6:05 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]

The second step in the book Will I Ever Be Good Enough is teaching yourself to grieve: "processing the feelings related to having a narcissistic parent; grieving; feeling." The author states that the remaining steps will only really stick if you stop and grieve--with body and with concurrent feeling, as emjaybee says physically and frightening--the childhood you wanted/deserved, mourn the parenting you needed but didn't get. After being in a variety of therapeutic settings myself, I know this is the step I resist. Part of that is because intellectualizing was/is a fantastic, functional, and protective coping strategy for me. So at the very least I'm unskilled at the feeling part. Part of it is that I'm not sure I want to feel those feelings because they, and their source, are pretty sad. But I do think if you're feeling the feelings, then they are volunteering to be considered and befriended.

The book itself recommends journaling, setting aside time to simply acknowledge your feelings and feel them, as well as a few other ideas. Cry, yell, feel humiliated, feel lost, lonely---as it seems you've been doing. Right now I'm hovering on the threshold of this step and....just watching myself hover.

Wallowing? I think that's if you're using the feelings of grief, loneliness, sadness to artificially distract yourself from looking at them head on (through self-pity, or a need for busy-work attention from others, or by checking out of life so you can blame other issues on your crappy childhood, etc.) You don't sound like you're wallowing. You sound like you're vacillating understandably between stages of grief. Two steps forward and one step back.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:12 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]

Apologies if I'm projecting too much from my own experience here..

OP, I think that one of the things that you might have gained had you had a different experience of growing up - and hence, one of the things whose lack you might righteously grieve - would be the secure belief that your emotions were valid, and welcome, and fully vindicated, even when (or: even because) they're negative feelings.

My sense is that the whole false judgement between grieving and wallowing is a way of second-guessing your own emotions. Grieving is allowed, but wallowing isn't. If I judge this to be wallowing, then I'll just deny that it's happening & move on, as if I didn't even feel it.

IME, that's a kind of accommodation that you learn to make when your youthful self's emotions & emotional needs were never recognised & met. But your adult self rationally knows that such things as emotions - such a thing as grief - objectively exist, so you search yourself for evidence that such a thing might be happening inside yourself. "OK, is this grief that I'm feeling? Or maybe it's just wallowing... or maybe I don't even know the difference"

So for me, now - those are just different names for the same thing. "Grieving" is the legitimising name for it, and "wallowing" is the self-denying name. But they're both naming the same underlying need.

You should go ahead & do it, whatever you call it.
posted by rd45 at 3:21 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]

I've not read other answers as I'm not feeling emotionally up to reading much about grief but I've been on the exact same journey. My therapist said something which I turned to just yesterday - that every new thing that you realise you didn't have will feel like a new loss, and in turn bring new grief. So I don't think it's wallowing at all, it's just understanding all the things you missed out on, as they come up. Give each loss a little time. Feel free to mefi mail me.
posted by london explorer girl at 7:47 AM on January 21

How can I tell necessary grief from unproductive wallowing?

I think others have covered above that "wallowing" is actually fine. Also it strikes me that it's mainly about perspective - what is actually much-needed grieving and processing might look like wallowing to the outsider. But you get to decide how you manifest your grief, and when you are ready to move on.

However - to your question. There is grief, and there are cycles one can get stuck in that prevent one from moving on and living one's life. It might be useful to be able to tell between the two, which I guess might be another way of saying your question above.

On this, I would say that it's hard, but one way to tell might be to ask yourself, is how you feel changing? However slowly, is it moving from one thing to another? Grief, in my experience, changes over time. It might get worse, better, and worse over and over, but it is always changing.

If you find yourself replaying the same sadnesses, or anger, in your mind, or asking the same questions over and over, that might be when you say to yourself, enough is enough. This is not doing anything good for me. But until that point, let yourself grieve and don't feel you need to qualify or quantify it.
posted by greenish at 8:19 AM on January 22

since therapy worked out amazingly for me, I ended it with the agreement (actually, quite strong encouragement) of my therapist

This stuck out at me because... it's a little too familiar.

So, two things.

First: I am similar to you ito relations with my family. I don't know any details about you of course, but even from what little you said, I know we share the experience of a primal, powerful rejection and abandonment. As a result of my experiences in childhood and young adulthood, I've come away with a strong urge to do things on my own. As a child I had no other choice, there was nobody I could turn to who was empathic, accepting, or kind towards me so I HAD to manage on my own. And in adulthood, that's just a habit now. Asking for help seems like asking for training wheels on a bike I ought to know how to ride, or, goddamn it, a bike I do kinda know how to ride (even though I fall down far too often and I'm excruciatingly slow and it's far more effort than anyone else seems to expend when they do this). Regardless, it feels like cheating to ask for training wheels. And I suspect you may feel the same, which is why you're saying you want to work this through on your own even though you're hurting, even though help would be so lovely right now even if it's not strictly necessary.

Second, and slightly more tricky: I had the experience of a therapist (CBT + CPT modalities, primarily) who strongly encouraged me to leave therapy and get on with it. It's a complicated story, and I won't tell it here, but … I've come to realize that especially for people with histories like ours - parental rejection and abandonment, which has led to almost an incapacity to allow ourselves the luxury of someone to nurture us in difficult times - a therapist who encourages us to leave is really quite damaging. I personally felt really messed up about leaving therapy under those circumstances: on one hand, I was doing great! Therapy had helped me so much! And hell, I was always fundamentally okay, no big deal, it's not like I'll suffer if I don't have therapy, it's all cool. But on the other hand, therapy had also made me more sensitive to my own experience, my newly unbottled emotions, etc., and even though the ostensible goal of therapy - which had been decided back when I had started therapy and I was fucking clueless - was met, I was JUST beginning to uncover some hugely significant things, so I kind of didn't feel done.

But was I going to say that to a therapist who was strongly encouraging me to leave? FUCK no! I left. I was glad and grateful and very sincerely expressed my gratitude, too. Damned if I was going to stick around whining when e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.s.f.i.n.e. OBVIOUSLY. My therapist said so, and I've always known it!

I'm not sure if that's what it's been like for you. But I wanted to bring my story up in case it has been that way.

I did a good thing as a result, though. I didn't cling to my I'm Totally Fine narrative. As a result of how much that successful round of therapy had changed me, I went looking for more help from someone who was more able and willing to provide it. I've been in therapy with the second therapist (psychodynamic + person-centered modalities, primarily) for a little over two years now, and it has been life saving, life changing, all the superlatives I can possibly use. With the help of my first therapist, I learned to kick butt at work and life, broke through my inertia, etc. With the help of my second therapist, I am healing my trauma and learning to be one with myself - no more cacophony of a thousand voices in my head, it's one harmony now. This deep work is SO worth it.

I'm so sorry you didn't have the experience of loving, nurturing, holding that a family is supposed to give to all children. It's a devastating and complicated loss. I encourage you to seek a caring therapeutic relationship to help you through this grief, because you deserve it, because it's okay to seek out softness and gentleness in this world when things are tough on the inside. You've had such a harsh and unforgiving start in life. That harshness and lack of empathy towards yourself which you were forced to internalize as the only acceptable way to be, because when you were small there was no other choice... it doesn't have to continue.
posted by MiraK at 5:53 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]

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