Gestalt Psychology

Why Grief Is Scary

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When faced with a situation that elicits grief the concrete loss is obviously scary to confront. No one wants to admit that something or someone they love has slipped through their fingers forever. But there’s a deeper reason grief is scary, and this is that all of the unfinished business from previous losses comes bubbling up into conscious awareness too.

It’s precisely because each grief inducing situation is aversive and therefore never fully worked through that all those painful losses stack up over the years. They’re banished to the unconscious but they don’t go away, they remain very much alive. They hibernate, lying in wait for the next loss to come around, at which point they explode onto the scene, mixing together and adding to the painful thoughts and feelings attached to the current grief episode.

So as counterintuitive as it sounds, often in the face of the current grief episode what’s really needed is to work through past grief episodes first. In the existential psychological sense all grief shares the same basic features and in fact is one and the same entity, regardless of where it occurs over the lifespan. This is why sometimes a loss that seems rather insignificant, to you and to everybody else, can exert such a profound negative impact on your psyche, really stopping you in your tracks. It’s not really about that rather insignificant loss, it’s simply that the insignificant loss is a symbol for all of those stacked up big losses that haven’t been completed, that haven’t been worked through.

It takes courage to confront grief, to confront what grief means about the nature of existence, that change is inevitable, that one day everything and everyone you love will turn to dust, that one day you will turn to dust. But if you don’t confront and work through grief experiences when they arise they’ll stack up over the years and they’ll exert a profound negative impact over your life and relationships. You won’t consciously be able to make the connection between what’s going wrong in your life and all that unfinished business, you’ll probably blame the dysfunction and your general malaise on something else since all those painful thoughts and feelings remain repressed for you in daily life.

What gets repressed doesn’t disappear it just gets hidden away, where it operates from the shadows but operates just the same. Grief is scary, no doubt about it, but what’s scarier is going through the lifespan without ever really feeling whole, without ever authentically feeling like you’re in a place to connect with people, with your projects, with the world, due to that roiling broiling cauldron of accumulated grief bubbling just below the surface.