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.