Grief. It can kill or heal, depending on how you treat it.
Ever run across a person that chronically complains? The person you dread running into because the entire experience feels like a deep sea dive into dark polluted waters where nothing is living and you’re caught without an oxygen tank, so you literally have to hold your breath.
Maybe that’s a bit extreme. Or maybe you know the feeling all too well. Perhaps it’s a dear relative that you love and therefore are obligated to listen to their routine litany of complaints about health ailments, difficult grocery store clerks, adulterous neighbors, and crooked politicians. The conversation feels so miserable that you want to run for the hills, take a shower, or do something, anything, to escape the residue of misery that seems to have seeped into your skin like an allergenic medicinal cream.
Chronic complaining is one of the many side effects of constipated grief. Sometimes people have cumulative grief from traumas and losses that have piled up. They are deep storehouses of pain that the person hasn’t been able to fully process or release, so they get clogged up. The pain is hidden and too painful to touch, so the person begins recounting any other safer disturbance in their life. They are desperate for attention and hungry to have empathy, yet are not able to sit with the real pain of grief, so they do the very things to others that they are doing internally (pushing them away). The cycle creates a vicious feedback loop that keeps them isolated and lonely even though they are talking to people—perhaps even more heightened when they are talking to people—because they can feel the emptiness from the other person’s discomfort. That feeling you get of wanting to run away from the encounter as fast as you can is akin to opening a refrigerator where food has been rotting for nine months. It’s a wretched stink and you want to flee.
Remember chronic complainers aren’t the only people with constipated grief. Many, many people experience the deleterious side-effects of this condition. Some will isolate and have a difficult time connecting emotionally to anyone. Others may lose themselves in addiction. Depression and other mood disorders can often be traced to constipated grief. Worst cases involve suicide.
In his book, “The Wise Heart,” Jack Kornfield shares that his colleague, West African medicine man Malidoma Somé, says that we in the West have forgotten how to grieve: “Our streets, he says, are filled with the ungrieved dead.”
Think about your first reaction when you hear someone has suffered a loss. Do you hug them? Do you sit with their tears? Do you try to cheer them up and share the “bright side” with some kind of promise of hope? Such responses aren’t bad, yet it does create a barrier to the expression of pain in the moment and reinforces the message (internally and with others) that it’s not okay to feel pain. It might also inadvertently communicate that being cheerful is somehow the only acceptable form of feeling. That’s where the trouble comes in, as it can be an effective defense mechanism that works in the short-term but creates a constipating backlog of grief in the long-term (if grief isn’t fully felt).
Personally, I come from a family of teasers. We tease a lot and then laugh. Our teasing comes in the form of insulting the other person at their expense. It’s all very socially acceptable and means we love each other. Luckily, I also get the gift of experiencing family member(s) that will sit and listen as I (we) cry and grieve. We can go deep and share mutual pain and bring it to the light of day. A feeling of lightness and love always follows the heavy talk, much like a rainbow after a storm. The talks may be as heavy and painful as a hurricane that brings floods of grief or as light as a summer rain. As long as I stay real and feel, I can heal.
Therapy works the same way. It can be a safe place where someone can provide acceptance-based listening and sit with your pain and help you to sit with your pain so that you can feel and release it. I have witnessed therapy transform chronic complainers into fully present and empathetic people. It’s powerful to witness someone walk with a lightness of being and a smile on their face along with the ability to deeply cry when they feel pain. They become more vulnerable and authentic—and more fully alive.
Now here’s your medicine. Maybe you’re thinking about how you want to send that chronic complainer in your life to therapy. Perhaps hold the horses on that idea. Instead, try sitting with the complainer and accepting them for who they are and what they are feeling. Practice compassion for any constipated grief they may have—without trying to figure it out or by asking them about any traumas they experienced. Just be patient and present. Later you can assess what feelings came up for you in the conversation and write them down. Ask yourself what grief you felt in the interaction and fully feel it. Ask yourself if there’s any similar feeling that you felt before in your life and try to feel that. Be gentle with yourself if nothing comes up. You can’t force it. However, you can create conditions to allow it to flow as necessary. Over time, other people’s grief, pain, and complaining won’t trigger a runaway reaction in you because you won’t have any residual pain that is getting triggered. You will be able to accept them for where they are with compassion and grace as though you’re watching a movie for the first time. You don’t have to fix anything or make them feel better. You can just be and relax with whatever they are saying. When you do, grief (yours and theirs) will be a healer instead of a killer.