Grief is a sneaky bugger. Like variegated yarn it weaves its way into our lives, resulting in subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) changes in hue. While most of us expect to mourn death, divorce, or disease, we are confounded by loss that cannot be touched or researched in any scientific journal: that of innocence.
For me, it all started with Santa. I still remember the moment my older sister and I put the pieces together: one portly man, a magic sleigh loaded with presents, pulled by flying reindeer, shimmying down the flues of houses all over the world in one night? Ya. Right. And, hey, didn’t the handwriting on Santa’s thank-you notes bear a strong resemblance to our father’s? The look on our mother’s face when we confronted her with the case files merely confirmed the gig was up.
I thought I would feel proud for solving the Santa mystery. Instead, I was disillusioned by the years of tooth money, chocolate bunnies, and carefully-filled stockings, not purveyed by magical figures from faraway lands, but by the two hands of my very real parents. I was too young to know it then, but this moment was the first pearl in strand of ideals that would eventually break apart as I got older.
From birth until about age seven the part of our brain responsible for logic and reason (prefrontal cortex) is undeveloped. From age seven until approximately twenty-five, prefrontal synapses burgeon. As they do, our problem-solving ability advances and the idyllic lenses through which we view world are gradually replaced by realism.
What no one ever tells us is just how emotionally difficult this process can be. Life chips away at our ideals until the pain of holding on to them is greater than the pain of letting them go.
Here are the most commonly grieved ideals I have encountered in my work as a therapist:
The age at which we recalibrate our assumptions will vary according to our personal circumstances and degree of openness.
Though its intensity eventually subsides, grief is often cyclical and ongoing. Life has an uncanny gift for shining light on the places that may always be tender. For instance, the childhood wounds we made peace with in early adulthood can be reawakened when we become parents. This can also happen when our children reach the age(s) we were originally injured.
The next time you feel as if there has been a terrible mixup in the cosmic kitchen, ask which of the above ideals you may be struggling to recalibrate. Need help? Try scanning your internal dialogue for "shoulds" (e.g., “My parents should have been more responsive.” or “My relationship should have lasted."). "Should statements" are the expression of an unconscious wish to live more freely. Instead of telling yourself how things should have been or how they should be, remind yourself that everything you experience is divinely chosen for your healing and growth. Gently loosening the grip on idealistic assumptions allows us to make peace with what is.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. Struggling with something that didn't turn out quite the way you wanted? Schedule a free consultation to find out how therapy or counseling can help you find peace!
Several years ago, my children (then 9 and 11) were listening to Katy Perry on the radio. As "Dark Horse" faded to black, the DJ announced that, after 14 months of marriage, Katy and her husband, Russell Brand, were divorcing. Apparently Russell had "grown bored" with Katy and wanted freedom to pursue other interests.
The following discussion ensued:
Kid #2: Mom, how could Russell Brand get bored with Katy Perry? I think she is really interesting.
Me: She does seem interesting. I guess, after a while, some people stop seeing what is interesting about their partners.
Kid #1: That's weird. I have known my brother (Kid #2) my whole life. And he is NOT boring!
Kid #2: And I have known my sister (Kid #1) my whole life and she is just full of surprises!
Me: (silent and humbled)
Like a taproot, this conversation lodged in my psyche. From it, sprang questions about how people come together and why they come apart.
Most of us would say we choose people because of who they are. It is probably more accurate to say that, at least initially, we choose people because of our version of who we think they are.
In the beginning of any relationship, this version is heavily informed by oxytocin (aka the "cuddle hormone"), which is responsible for the short-lived sensation of falling in love. Under its influence, we can't eat; we can't sleep; we dot the "i(s)" in our lover's name with little hearts. It's bunnies and rainbows all the time! Oxytocin is steadily released into the bloodstream for the first six months to two years of a relationship. Then it slowly tapers off.
Through the lenses of this powerful chemical, everything about our partner and the relationship looks darned-near perfect. This is why so many of us make long-term plans based on feelings that, biochemically speaking, are meant to last the approximate duration of Katy Perry's marriage.
As oxytocin leaves the bloodstream, our partner's imperfections gradually come into focus; so do our own. Around this time, it is both normal and expected for partners to experience a slight decline in relationship satisfaction (which can look a lot like boredom). Many folks, like Russell Brand, see this as a lighted exit sign.
Relationship experts believe the real work begins when the honeymoon period ends. Falling in love is easy; staying there is another story.
We are drawn into relationships by the fantasy that we will be loved unconditionally by another. A wiser (albeit unconscious) part of us knows that we must provide this for ourselves. We are biologically predisposed to do it, but our wounds get in the way. Intimate relationships are the crucibles in which these wounds--our psychic barriers to self-love--melt away.
Every partner is an excavator, uncovering the places inside us that want to heal. Instead of viewing the pain of this process as a cue to listen closer to ourselves, we erroneously displaced it onto the person who exposed it: our loved one. The connective thread is compromised and we set off in search of someone different, someone who will not show us the places we are hurting.
Each lesson ignored sets the stage for its sequel.
This most commonly manifests in the repeated choice of a partner who will wound us in familiar ways (aka our "type"). For example, if early parental neglect or abuse stand in the way of self-love, we may continue to choose someone who is absent or critical to help us expose and remove this barrier.
Every disappointed expectation in the present is an opportunity to grieve an unmet need from the past. Disappointment is our chance to offer the child inside us the love she or he deserved--love that was not freely given when it was most needed.
When we practice unconditional self-love, over time, our wounds slowly begin to heal. How do we know this is happening? Single folks will notice traits that were once irresistible, now, are uninteresting. Our attraction directs itself toward individuals who help foster the love we have created.
Those of us already in a relationship will feel "triggered" less often and, when conflict does arise, it is no longer a demand for our partners to change what they are doing (though, on occasion, that might need to happen), but as an invitation to set clearer boundaries and take better care of ourselves.
When I am asked about the specifics of "how" to love more deeply, I remember Melody Beattie's words: "How stands for honesty, openness, and the willingness to try." This is a gentle reminder that we are not supposed to know all of the answers. It is enough to show up, speak the truth, and listen to our power of our own words.
Despite our efforts, there may be times when the most loving thing we can do is leave a relationship. This is not failure. Some lessons are intended only for a season. Success is not determined by the duration of a relationship but by the space forged for our own love to thrive.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. Need help finding your path to greater self-love? Schedule a free consultation to see how therapy or counseling can help you!
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, grief counselor, and dating coach. Her coaching and therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle in Washington.