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Blocks to Grieving and Emotional Repressionby Becky Zuckweiler, MS, RN

BLOCKS TO GRIEVING

There are a number of reasons people encounter difficulty in moving through the grieving process. Having a limited support system, holding certain beliefs or attitudes, and lacking adequate emotional development can all play a part in blocking grief.

Lack of Support

Some people do not have adequate support for their feelings and do not want to have to go through their pain alone, so they avoid facing their emotions. If you do not have many people in your life or enough people who will sincerely take the time to listen to you share your story and what it means to you, then you may find yourself "shutting down" and withdrawing.

Telling our partners we are okay, we just need some time to ourselves, can help them to not close in or try to "fix" our feelings.

Conversely, sometimes our loved ones watch us too closely because they are worried we will not be able to cope with the pain and grief from our mastectomies. This can make them hover over us at a time when we need a little space. We may need to withdraw a bit to wrestle with our apathy and despair. Telling our partners we are okay, we just need some time to ourselves, can help them to not close in or try to "fix" our feelings.

If you find yourself without an adequate support system, I strongly recommend that you seek out a support group or an individual counselor. Your doctor, clinic, or the local Cancer Society office should be able to help you find appropriate professional support. The women in a support group are going to understand what you are going through and you will feel less alone with your trauma. Many women go to a group because their pain is so extensive they do not want to wear out their family and friends. A lot of women have loving, close partners, but they realize that their partners are going through their own set of losses associated with the mastectomy and can only be so strong. Your home life needs to normalize before the stress will settle down, and taking some of your pain to a group can balance your relationships. Also, friends and partners, as much as they want to understand, cannot fully appreciate what you are going through because they have not gone through it themselves.

I want to caution you, though, when you are looking for a support group that the group is only as good as its members. If the group consists of women who are fairly well matched with your circumstances, you will probably find it to be very helpful. However, if it is not a good match it will be a waste of your time and only reinforce your feeling that you are truly alone in your pain. One woman I spoke with found her first group a disastrous experience. She was a young, Jewish, professional woman with small children who ended up in a small group of kind, older women who could not relate to her concerns as a young working mother and wife. To make the situation worse, one of the group members tried to convert her to Christianity by telling her that there were "Jews for Jesus." She quickly saw this group was not going to benefit her and she tried a new one. The next group was made up of young professional women who met at a time of day that least affected their family time. She has built a warm, comfortable, supportive network with her second group and has remained in it for several years.

Hindering Attitudes

There are many attitudes that we bring to the grief process that can get in the way of resolving the loss of our breasts. Many people are told to count their blessings, which invalidates our feelings of loss. It is helpful to keep our grief separate from our gratitude. I believe being grateful is an important part of having a positive attitude about life. I am truly grateful I am not dying from cancer. It is very easy to look around and see how we are, in many ways, more fortunate than others. However, we need to round out the picture. Lots of other women are more fortunate than we are because they have not had to have a mastectomy. We have suffered a loss and we are entitled to a normal human emotional reaction. We feel angry, scared, confused, and incredibly sad.

Finding compassion for ourselves and room for our feelings is how we can move forward.

I cannot stress enough that we need to accept our reactions as valid no matter what they are. It's our body, our loss, our change, our gain, depending on who we are and what attitudes and history we bring to the situation. Finding compassion for ourselves and room for our feelings is how we can move forward. I find that when I try to make myself feel grateful when I am faced with a disappointment, it makes me feel worse. I still have the feelings about my disappointment that are being ignored, plus I think I am a bad person for not feeling sincere gratitude. When I give myself room to be honest about my feelings I naturally seem to end up feeling grateful for what I do have. Grief and gratitude can be experienced at the same time; the important thing is to not prescribe one or the other for yourself. I felt incredible grief over the loss of my breasts and health, but I also felt appreciative for the good care I was receiving from my doctors and the love I was shown by my friends and family.

EMOTIONAL REPRESSION

If you were raised in a family that was uncomfortable and confused about what to do with their emotions, and have not had an opportunity in your adult life to learn about your own emotions, you will be faced with recovering from your mastectomy with limited skills to assist you with your grieving.

Some people believe they will be “emotionally well” when they no longer feel anything “negative.” They have the mistaken belief that reaching the state of health means never feeling scared, angry or sad. The truth about mental and emotional health is that it entails being comfortable with your emotions. To become emotionally well we have to learn to suspend judgment about our feelings as either good or bad, and accept them as simple human responses associated with living in this world in a body.

Once you learn to not fear your emotions, you become free to experience life. Because I went through many losses as a child and was raised in a family that could not teach me how to cope with my emotions, I started my adulthood with strong denial and emotional repression. Subconsciously, I believed that releasing my emotions would result in a complete loss of control and disintegration that I would never recover from. Once I realized I had this fear-based belief, I was able to work through it, allowing myself to admit that I came from a dysfunctional family and to feel the emotions that went along with growing up with a lot of emotional pain. As a result of opening up my emotional side, I found that my body felt less tense and I was taking more risks in life. Doing this emotional processing allowed me one of my greatest joys in life, becoming a parent. Working through our grief as we come to accept our changed bodies puts us in a better position to be available to our daughters and granddaughters as they come into their womanly bodies.

Operating as an Integrated Whole Person

I understand humankind to be spiritual "beings" in physical bodies. We experience human, earthly life through our minds, emotions and bodies. When we are using all of our entities we feel integrated and complete.

The order in which we respond to life is as follows: an event happens, we formulate a thought about the event, an emotional response produces an energy form in the body, and the body reacts by releasing the emotional energy. We have the capacity to feel four basic emotions: anger, sadness, joy, and fear (mad, sad, glad, and scared). We have lots of words to describe our feelings, but they can all be traced back to these four basic emotions. Irritation, annoyance, frustration, or rage are all forms of anger. Each emotion runs on a continuum from mild to intense. For example, a little bit of sadness may be called disappointment, whereas intense sadness might be expressed as devastation, and a little bit of joy might be called feeling pleased, whereas a lot of joy could be called elation.