Dealing with grief? Grief comes in waves. That’s how grief is. You think you’re getting to the other side, and it hits you again. That can make you feel hopeless.
Let’s talk about why.
You don’t have to feel hopeless if you understand how grief works and what it takes to get through it. There are different kinds of grief and any grief stirs up conflicting feelings. There are ways to work out these feelings and go on with your life when you’re dealing with grief.
What Kind Of Grief Do You Have?
Grief takes many forms. Maybe you lost a long-time love and partner to death. Or a parent, sibling, or close friend recently died. Maybe you divorced or broke up with someone you deeply loved and you feel grief about a relationship that didn’t work.
Most losses bring up previous losses, hurts, and regrets. Sometimes this isn’t conscious and when old feelings come into play, it complicates your current grief. But, when you have the chance to work out the new and old feelings, it actually can help you grow.
Which situation of grief are you dealing with? Whichever it is, the sudden absence of a loved one is shocking, unsettling, life-changing, and hard to face. Your world is altered beyond recognition, even if you’ve had time to prepare. You feel lost in space, alone in the world, and you don’t have any idea how to go on. You’re struggling.
Symptoms Of Grief
The emotional state you find yourself in results in many common symptoms of grief. You may have some of them. Most of them are symptoms of the depression you feel.
Questioning the Purpose of Life
Questioning Your Spiritual Beliefs (e.g., your belief in God)
Feelings of Detachment
Isolation from Friends and Family
Loss of Appetite
Aches and Pains
Your questioning life’s purpose is part of what’s led to your hopelessness.
You can’t prepare for the emptiness a loss brings. Now, there is what seems like an insurmountable chasm where that person used to be. And, since you can’t get that loved one back, it will never be filled in just the way it used to be.
“In an age of hope men looked up at the night sky and saw “the heavens.” In an age of hopelessness, they call it simply “space.” ― Peter Kreeft
Hopelessness is an empty space that doesn’t seem to have any meaning without the one you loved and lost. This empty space is where you live right now. And you can’t imagine ever feeling hope again. You can. But hopelessness is often a part of grieving.
Hopelessness is part of depression. In fact, it’s a major symptom. In the symptoms of grief listed above, it’s the one about questioning the purpose of life. Of course, you question it. Now you’re living without your partner, without your best friend or sibling, or without the one, you hoped to make a life with.
The reality is that depression and even hopelessness are part of the grieving process. But, if you’re stuck in hopelessness, that’s a different issue. This happens when the hopelessness comes from regrets, self-reproaches, wishing you’d done things differently when you’re loved one was alive, or perhaps something to have prevented you from a very sad break-up.
Living with these kinds of self-criticisms eating at you makes it hard to get through your hopelessness. Freud had a lot to say about the difference between mourning and melancholia in his 1917 paper – and it makes sense 102 years later.
Mourning Versus Melancholia (Hopelessness)
Mourning is important in any loss. Self-criticism isn’t. Here’s what Freud said:
“The disturbance of self-regard is absent in mourning, but otherwise the features are the same … loss of interest in the outside world … loss of capacity to adopt any new object of love … turning away from any activity that is not connected with thoughts of [the one you love].” (p. 244)
The way melancholia (or hopelessness) shakes up your self-esteem does not have to be a part of grief. And, in fact, makes it harder to get through.
Freud clarifies: “In mourning, it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia, it is the ego itself … [that feels] worthless, incapable of any achievement” (page 246), and full of self-reproach.
What is behind these self-reproaches? They occur in any situation of grief when you feel you could have been a better wife, husband, sister, brother, friend, or lover. The ways you internally rebuke yourself are no doubt overblown.
This loss of self-respect can occur to an even larger degree in situations where you’ve been jilted or experienced unrequited love. It’s easy to fall into a sense of humiliation, believing there is something wrong with you. And that that is the reason you weren’t loved. You might even tell yourself you’re just unlovable.
Feeling unlovable is often a reflection of early trauma or neglect that left you with doubts about your worth. Often, too, the anger you feel towards yourself, is actually anger at the person that left you or hurt you long ago. But, you can’t let yourself feel it, and you turned it towards yourself. That is part of depression too.
Anger is one stage (or feeling) in grief that needs to be faced and worked out.
Stages Of Grief
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief have been around since 1969. Yet, they aren’t really “stages” at all. They’re feelings. And, they don’t come in any particular order. You might feel all of them at one point or another. You might feel some; or none. You’ll grieve in your own way. Everyone’s grief is different.
Yet, you might identify with some of these emotional experiences, having to live in the absence of the person you love. These feelings are common and are also part of a major breakup with someone important to you, or in unrequited love.
Until you’ve worked out your grief, these feelings come back again and again.
You feel numb. Don’t know how or why to go on. You’re walking through a dream. Nothing seems real and you don’t want it to be. The reality is too much to bear. Denial and numbness help you deal with grief at the pace that you can.
You feel abandoned. Angry at the person who’s gone. “Why did you leave me,” goes over and over in your head. You hate the whole world and the life you are now forced to live. This is when you begin to reproach yourself, but self-reproach is your anger turned against you. Anger is necessary to heal. Allow yourself to feel your anger.
This is the “if only…” or “what if…” stage. You want life to go back to what it was. Back in time: find the tumor sooner, stop the accident from happening, do something else that might have kept your love. This is another way you might find fault with yourself, And, if you do, it’s harder to get over your regrets. And, this feeds hopelessness.
Reality hits. You’re alone. You feel empty and wonder what’s the point in going on? How can you ever get through this? Live your life alone? Depression after a loss is normal. What happened is very sad. It feels like the depression won’t end.
But, if hopelessness settles in or you can’t get free of self-accusations, it’s time to get help.
You’ll never like this new reality, but eventually, you accept it. Now, you enter into life again. Start being with friends. Come out of your isolation. Try to live in a world where your loved one is missing. You begin to feel alive again.
The Way To Get Through Grief
Remembering is a way out of hopelessness. Going through the good memories of what you had and lost helps you know they now live inside you.
“Love demands everything, they say, but my love demands only this: that no matter what happens or how long it takes, you`ll keep faith in me, you`ll remember who we are, and you’ll never feel despair.” ― Ann Brashares, My Name Is Memory
“You’ll remember who we are.” In grief, you’ll remember who the two of you were. You can bring back the memories not only of who you were but of who you are. In those memories, you’ll find yourself again.
If your grief is for a love that hurt you, that very act of remembering – can bring you back to your goodness once again. It will also help you know what you don’t want to repeat. And to commit yourself to find what you need.
As you allow yourself your tears and missing those moments you remember, they’ll give you the fuel you need to take them into your future.
“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.” ― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
There is a future. When you hold your memories of love inside you, you’ll have the hope and resources to move on.
If you’ve been disappointed in love, remembering what is good in you, and what you want, can give you resolve and hope to create a different future.
Moving Into Your Future
Go through your memories one by one, piece by piece as they emerge. Look over old albums. Talk to loved ones and friends. Write in a journal. Record your dreams. Remember the dreams that did come true.
Going through your memories, holding on to what you had, keeping it inside, is one of the most important ways to get to the other side of your grief. You have your memories forever. Of course, it doesn’t replace the person you lost and it takes some time to get there. But, over time, you can.
A word of warning, especially to those of you who’ve had a bad break-up or divorce. Don’t get yourself too busy or so angry that you move on, too fast, away from your sadness. This might be tempting. But, it’s important to feel the loss and learn what you can about yourself and what didn’t work.
Hold on to the good things, but use those to look for a better match. Use what you’ve learned about yourself and your choices to choose differently.
If you continue to be stuck in hopelessness, a grief group in your area might help. Or psychotherapy is a good option. Therapy can help you get through any regrets and self-reproaches you experience, hold on to what was good, and retrieve and strengthen your self-worth. You’ll feel better and find your hope in life again.
I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a Los Angeles based psychoanalyst and psychologist. I work with people going through grief for different reasons – loss of a loved one, divorce, a break-up, or unrequited love. You can heal, get over your hopelessness, and feel alive again.