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Why We Grieve Change, Endings, and Disappointments

Feeling shame over grief should alert us to a disconnection.

Key points

  • Disappointment, disillusionment, and dejection may accompany the grief of changed circumstances, endings, and unfulfilled goals.
  • The emotions that create the experience of grief involve distress and, in its extreme, anguish.
  • Many symptoms of grief-related depression directly involve coping responses to shame.

Many experiences may not be regarded as grief-worthy, even though they activate emotional responses similar to those who grieve the death of a loved one. Death is a conspicuous loss. If a loss doesn’t involve death, a person may dismiss or judge what they feel, concluding they are not entitled to mourn their misfortune, their sorrow, or the shattering of their illusions. Yet grief occurs in many forms. We grieve because we remember when things were different; when we perceive our former circumstances were better than they are now.

When a relationship ends with a romantic partner, mentor, or friend, we may carry grief based on memories of that connection. Changed circumstances—the demise of an intact family due to divorce, the mysterious disappearance of a pet, or a parent’s descent into dementia—may also result in grief. Members of a community whose homes have been destroyed by a wildfire or tornado may experience collective grief. As well, within institutions or organizations, employees may collectively grieve changes in leadership that seem to dreadfully impact their values and goals.

The emotions that create the experience of grief involve distress and, in its extreme, anguish, combined with several other emotional possibilities, particularly anger, fear, or shame. Shame is an ignored but important component of the experience of grief because shame is designed to alert us when positive feeling states are temporarily blocked or disrupted. People typically think of shame only in terms of how it makes us believe that our entire self is bad. Yet shame also alerts us that we are disconnected from our positive feelings. The shame associated with grief can become anguishing simply because this emotion motivates us to reconnect or to repair a broken bond even when, in some cases, it is not possible. We may long for reunification or restoration, but what about when someone or something—a relationship, home, or job—is gone? Further, the inability to express inner pain and need resulting from grief-related distress or shame can lead us to feel separate from the rest of humanity (Kaufman, 1974).

When the grief of disappointment, disillusionment, and dejection involves shame, we might experience the feeling of depression. Many symptoms of grief-related depression directly involve coping responses to shame. These include withdrawal (e.g., hypersomnia, not wanting to be in the presence of others or engage in activities), avoidance (e.g., drug and alcohol abuse), attack-other behaviors (e.g., anger, irritability, or blaming others), and attack-self responses (e.g., self-injurious behaviors) (Nathanson, 1992). Thus, rather than recognize that we are grieving, we might believe that we are simply angry, fearful, or may want to be left alone.

The circumvention of social goals and values, including unfulfilled goals or the ending of a purpose, can be emotionally painful. Emotional responses to the outcome of our pursuits are influenced by our personal history, the culture in which we were raised, the ways we have learned to express emotion, and how others have responded to our emotional expressions. All of our experiences in which emotions were triggered, and how we responded to them, are compiled in our brain and contribute to forming the set of rules by which we live (Tomkins, 1995). Thus, the emotions we experience in the present have past histories that have been compressed into mini-theories that help us make sense of regularity and change in our lives and provide information concerning ways of living in the world (Tomkins, 1995). The sense of disappointment, disillusionment, and dejection are greatly influenced by our emotional responses that, over time, have become scripted. These scripted responses can either help or hinder us as we interpret, evaluate, and make predictions in our present life and as we anticipate the future.

We can ask ourselves, “How do I respond to situations where the outcome is negative and beyond my control?” Affect theorist Silvan Tomkins (1995) referred to situations in which something happens outside of one’s control and the outcome cannot be changed, due to physical death or a value death, as a limitation-remediation script. Essentially, this involves how we remediate distress or anguish that results from experiences that are less than ideal, and how we have learned to confront situations and adapt to them.

Humans adapt differently. In any kind of grief experience, we must psychically reorganize because we are dealing with the absence of an emotional connection with someone or disconnection from something we valued. The only remedy is to make a commitment to what we can do, to give ourselves time to recover from the pain, and remind ourselves that, while hurting, we do have the health to support the sickness. (G. David, personal communication 7/ 12/22). If we focus only on what is wrong, we enter a world of disillusionment, disappointment, and dejection. Thus, our inability to metabolize a feeling may come from our sense that we have to get away from it rather than learn.

The capacity to learn enables us to have hope that we will get through a tough time, even if that hope is merely a glimmer. Hope does not extinguish grief, but it can take our memories with us to better or different future places (Lamia, 2022). We may focus on the past—upon memories when things were different. However, memory is also an adaptive mechanism that informs our present and future. Anger or fear may represent an expression of protest over the changes taking place, but rather than getting over or recovering from loss, we must adapt to it. Memory enables us to use the past to imagine new possibilities. The integration of past and present involves adjusting our identity to changed circumstances so that we may grow into new personal roles and find new meanings in life, along with any meaning we derive from our losses.

[Excerpted in part from Grief Isn't Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One.]

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Kaufman, G. (1974). The meaning of shame: Toward a self-affirming identity. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 21(6), 568–574. 10.1037/h0037251

Lamia, M. (2017). What motivates getting things done: Procrastination, emotions, and success. Rowman and Littlefield.

Lamia, M. (2022). Grief isn't something to get over: Finding a home for memories and emotions after losing a loved one. American Psychological Association.

Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. W. W. Norton.

Tomkins, S. S. (1995). Script theory. In E. V. Demos (Ed.), Exploring affect: The selected writings of Silvan S. Tomkins (pp. 389–396). Cambridge University Press.

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