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, dating coach, and writer. She offers dating consultation and counseling services in Seattle, WA.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, and writer whose therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of Seattle, Washington. She has been providing counseling and dating consultation services since 2000.