“Genuine grief is the sobbing and wailing which express the acceptance of our helplessness to do anything about losses. If instead, we whine and complain, insist that this cannot be, or demand to be compensated for our pain, then we are forever stuck with trying to redeem the past.” Sheldon Kopp, “The Refusal to Mourn”
Martha Stark MD argues that the challenge of living is understanding our losses. In trying to avoid the pain of loss, be it the loss of a nurturing mother to alcoholism, or the loss of an attentive father due to workaholism, one develops, unconsciously, techniques to distract ourselves from this understanding, and hence from this pain. These techniques include anger, intellectualization, isolation of affect, reaction formation and denial. We employ these defenses which “defend” us from feeling distraught and hence they have a utility. On the other hand, as Dr. Stark says, “there is a price to pay.” This price is often one of feeling empty or unsatisfied. It is as if our brain is deciding that it would rather feel empty than helpless. Another way of looking at this is that the defenses were helpful at one point in our lives, such as childhood, when there were few other options available to us, but as we enter into adulthood, we need to shed our defenses and develop a maturity which allows us to look at our lives as they have been, rather than how we wished they were. This realistic appraisal of our life is one of the “goals” of psychotherapy, because it is in this understanding that we can accept ourselves, and hence accept others. When we live in a world of wishes, then it is very challenging to find people who can fulfill our fantasies. Crushing disappointment is inevitable and hence the loneliness is profound.
Courtney, fifty, very attractive, very intelligent, is single, never married, never had a relationship longer than one year, never lived with a loving partner. She has lived alone for twenty-five years. By her account, she “has not found the right person, despite multiple approaches to meeting people and dating. She is placing the problem externally. She does not ponder if she is pushing people away. She would get angry if you suggested that. Her anger is clearly a defense against feeling like her neediness is so great that no one can possibly satisfy her. She avoids this notion because she would need to reflect on her childhood, which although was one of affluence, was also one where she was not “seen” as a separate developing being. As such, she felt the need for affirmation, but since that need was never gratified, she was left to feel, as a child, deeply isolated and alone. She has carried that isolation feeling into adulthood where she now feels, unconsciously, that she should continue in this lonely way, since, she behaves as if she believes that since her mom could not “see her,” so no one else can either. In order for Courtney to find a relationship, she would need to grieve the mother she wished she had; the mother who took pride in her accomplishments and understood her in an empathic way. Instead, Courtney defends her mother by saying “no one is perfect, and I had it pretty good.” Courtney’s problem is not that she is single, but that she has not formed a narrative of her life which is consistent with how she has felt throughout the years. Her narrative is a way in which she “lies” to herself and hence she remains confused as to why, as she says “I am fifty and I am not married. I just can’t believe that.” In the honesty of one’s feelings is the experience of clarity and the hope to move forward. This is what grief does. There is the painful “missing” followed by carrying the memory as a building block to a deeper existence. Without this grief there is a shallowness and a confusion. Understanding is often grieving. This is one of the many challenges in the work.