Part 1

In setting up grief therapy, which focuses on expressing and processing emotions in grief, it is necessary to look at the blocks to the free and appropriate flow of emotion.

We can assume that within each of us there is a struggle to share painful feelings. A part of us wants to and a part of us holds back. The part of us that holds back uses a variety of techniques for blocking expression.

Processing Emotions in Grief Therapy at The Center

As therapists at the Center for Grief Recovery, we ally ourselves with the part of each person that wants to openly look at feelings. The techniques we use to block the awareness of feelings are called defense mechanisms. We are usually unaware that we are using those defenses and it is useless to argue with people about them. However, it is important for us to help free up the expression of feelings through assisting people in understanding how defense mechanisms operate.

For our purposes, we can divide defenses into two categories: cultural defenses that are present in the social environment and that we can assume operate to some degree for everyone; and those that individuals adapt on a personal basis. While there are these two broad categories of defenses, it is important to understand that the mind is an infinitely creative instrument and that almost anything can be used to serve a defensive purpose.

Dealing with Natural Defense Mechanisms

In grief therapy–especially grief group therapy–cultural defenses should be dealt with early in the program. As part of the initial conceptual material it is useful to address the question, “What makes it hard to grieve in our society?” While there are a number of issues involved, one of the major topics to cover is societal defense mechanisms such as:

  1. It’s not okay to express strong emotions publicly.
  2. Grief should be short-term.
  3. Discomfort, especially psychic discomfort, should be dealt with by a quick fix such as a tranquilizer, headache pill, or a trip to the gym.
  4. The expression of strong feelings will overwhelm and make us crazy. Or if you are experiencing intense feelings you must be crazy, therefore, stop quick!

The above social values, function as ways to avoid the awareness and expression of emotions, which we find difficult to sit with and to manage. Thus, one of the lessons we can teach is that painful or difficult emotions can be tolerated, managed, looked at and processed and that we don’t need to act to suppress them most of the time.

Respecting the Emotional Process

One last warning needs to be included in any discussion of defense mechanisms and processing emotions in grief therapy. Defense mechanisms must be treated with the utmost respect and care. They are always in place for good reasons and we should not lightly ask that they be abandoned. Only if we are relatively sure that the person can constructively manage the feelings that lie underneath can we push ahead. And even when we point out to people what they may be doing, we can only do this tentatively. We should always leave room for people to disagree with our interpretation and we should always allow the defense to stand if the person so chooses.