Author: Sharon Burris-Brown
“Both mourning and gratitude are daily necessities to lead a healthy life” Pam Winthrop Lauer
I heard this quote today in a workshop and of all the content I heard there, I found that this statement gave me the most pause as food for thought. In Positive Psychology, the attitude of gratitude is a major tool to increase the ratio of positive thoughts to negative ones. Positive Psychology believes that you can retrain your brain to boost your happiness quotient and one of those strategies is to learn the discipline of expressing gratitude each day.
The magic of living a life filled with gratitude has been widely discussed—in self-help books, in blogs, on Facebook.
However, creating a daily practice of mourning has not. We mourn when we experience a loss, but who wants to intentionally go back to those losses in our lives to evoke mourning and sadness on a daily basis? I can tell you that in my therapy office, my clients are looking to avoid feeling sad—at all costs. It is even challenging for us to allow ourselves to mourn when we do experience a clear loss. Our culture pressures us to put our sadness aside so we can be productive.
So, is adding mourning to your daily practice of gratitude a happiness booster? Well…maybe not—if your belief is that happiness means getting rid of challenging emotions.
Most of us know that mourning is sadness and grief about the death of a loved one. However, I see this as a limited definition. I see complicated grief in almost every client I see. And many may not have had a death to contend with. There are so many losses small and large that we all face. From not getting the mark on a test we hoped for to losing a family member—whether it be from death or from abandonment.
You may say, the poor grade is not something to mourn about, it is simply a disappointment. But who can tell someone else that this is not significant in their world of losses especially if they have not had to experience and handle losses in the past. This experience may feed into worry about self-identity and fear that future opportunities may be closed off because of a poor grade.
Mourning is really about the loss of or fear of the loss of a specific future or a sense of self as much as sadness about the loss of a particular individual. And we can grieve about something that was never experienced—such as having a warm, trusting and loving relationship with a parent and/or sibling.
When loss piles on top of loss, unaddressed grief can grow large and become the primary issue. Many of us place a time limit on our sadness and because the feelings are so uncomfortable, we push them away. Our culture does this as well. Friends and family may be attentive for a period of time, but then, after awhile, they move on. Judgment from others can be directed towards us about long it is taking us to “snap out of it”. Because we still feel all the feelings that come with mourning, we tell ourselves that there is something wrong with us. We get angry and frustrated at ourselves. And the self-judgment and blame, over time, can turn inward and distort our perception of who we are.
So, mental health has a lot to do with what we acknowledge and allow into our day to day experience—such as those challenging feelings that can arise from accepting the losses in our lives.
Making Mourning a Daily Practice
We all have feelings that come up every day. We may not connect our emotions to mourning a loss, but underneath it all, when we have intense reactions to situations, there is usually a loss somewhere in the background. It could be a need that is not being met or had not been met when we were young that is impacting our lives and our reactions now.
Check in with yourself. Make times during the day to check in to how you are feeling. It takes 30 seconds.
Observe. Simply notice the feelings that come up without trying to control, push away or judge them. Pretend that you are watching yourself and observe any feelings or thoughts.
Connect to Your Body. Notice where the feeling is in your body. Get to know the physical language of your emotions.
Name it. Simply name your feelings.
Get Curious. What might be behind your feelings? Notice when you are feeling self-judgment too. If you are used to beating yourself, those negative thoughts will come up. This is part of your process too. And often, the tendency to criticize your feelings is a symptom of complex grief.
So many of us equate happiness with the belief that we need to feel joy, contentment and uplifting feelings all the time. Self-help books discuss how optimistic people who can see all experiences from a positive spin are healthier and more successful. We are inundated with messages of how to be happy so it is no wonder that people feel threatened with challenging emotions that arise. And they are uncomfortable to experience! However, what I see in my therapy room are individuals who have had to push aside their sadness and grief and are now realizing that they are unable to feel joy either. They have numbed out.
In reality, having a rich, satisfying life means becoming friends with discomfort. We can’t have the joy without accepting that life is full of losses and, consequently, all of the sadness, anger, confusion that will come up from our grief.