Grief, Mourning, and Loss: Unhealthy Ways of Coping

Man with his head down in his arms

I’ve been thinking about grief, mourning, and loss a lot lately. It shows up as a theme in my work as a psychotherapist all the time. I’ve also been studying the literature on methods of providing grief counseling and grief therapy. What I realize is that my sub-specialty in this area is not limited to working with individuals who have experienced the death of a loved one. It is more far-reaching than that. Judith Viorst wrote a wonderful book, Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow, in the mid-1980s in which she described the losses we experience along the life cycle. It’s a must-read for people who are unfamiliar with it.

I would venture to say that most of the work we as psychotherapists and spiritual counselors do is about coping with loss. We help our clients grieve about their losses, whether it’s loss of youth, money, job, socioeconomic status, or friends. They need to be helped to grieve the loss of hopes and dreams. They even grieve the loss of fantasies and illusions, although much of this happens unconsciously. In this case, our job as psychotherapists and counselors is to help them recognize that they are in mourning and provide tools to cope. The idea is that grief takes up a lot of psychic space in our beings, and it is only by coming to terms with our losses that we create room for the new.

The focus of this article is how many people typically grieve. The ways—which are not healthy—include:

These are just a few of the many ways people attempt to fill the space loss creates in their psyches and spirits. With methods such as these, the loss is not completely grieved or grieved at all. The feelings may even become worse, leading to a cycle of self-harming behavior.

So what predisposes someone to engage in the self-harming and ultimately unsatisfying behavior described above? There can be many factors, including low self-esteem, a history of untreated anxiety and depression, an inability to express feelings—especially difficult ones such as anger—and the lack of a support system. There are also more complex reasons involving one’s family of origin, including trauma in early childhood and the absence of a secure connection with early caregivers.

This sense of emptiness and lack of safety makes loss intolerable rather than simply painful, and it is this inability to tolerate it that leads to the behavior described above.

In addition to these internal factors, society in general and specific cultures in particular make grieving difficult. Part of this stems from our lack of recognition of the universality of loss, i.e., as something that permeates all aspects of life and isn’t just about death. In addition, we have become a culture of short-term fixes—the “just-get-over-it-and-move-on” philosophy. This puts pressure on individuals to minimize their sense of loss.

Finally, there is the over-arching reason grief is given short shrift. It makes many, if not most, people uncomfortable because it touches unhealed grief in themselves.

Next month, I will discuss some effective and healing ways to cope with grief and loss.


© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kalila Borghini, LCSW

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Zoe t

    November 8th, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    If you are not willing to face your losses head on then you will always have to go around with supressed feelings of sadness and grief. These things, while they hurt so much to confront, you feel so much better when you allow yourself the chance to process them and get to a better place.

  • rachel

    November 8th, 2012 at 11:49 PM

    what may be simple for you may not be that simple for may take me a much longer time to get over a similar loss!this understanding needs to be present in people because I see a lot of people saying why cant you get over it already.well because I am having a tough time because of it and I feel more of a loss?!

    my marriage ended a few months ago and although there has been no formal divorce we have separated.i have been unable to really ‘get over it’ and now have some of the negative behaviors you have described like under eating and being depressed and anxious.

    I tried a lot but seems like it is too much for me.please suggest ways of overcoming this. Someone down there I know I am harming myself but just can’t seem to help it.

  • Kalila Borghini

    November 9th, 2012 at 5:54 AM

    Thanks for responding Rachel. One of the most infuriating responses to loss is “get over it.” It implies there is something wrong with the person who’s grieving. However it is really about the other person’s discomfort. Sounds like you really could use some support and soon. Are you in therapy or counseling? If not, this is an excellent time to start. Even without insurance or high income there is help available. There are also support groups for people who are separated/divorced some of which are low or no cost. These can also be very helpful, especially knowing you are not alone. Until you can get yourself set up with some professional help, if you have anyone in your life who has a spiritual/religious affiliation, try to seek him/her out. They are usually quite well versed/experienced in these matters. A separation is no less of a loss than any other. Allow yourself to have your feelings and try to get support as soon as possible. You need people to talk to NOW before you go down a path you don’t want to go down.

  • Fritz J

    November 9th, 2012 at 8:55 AM

    Hoarding as a form of maladaptive grief expression is something I hadn’t considered before. I guess if you consider you have a hole in your heart from something painful, maybe hoarding is a way to fill that hole up with stuff. The more stuff you have, the more likely you are that the hole will be filled. Well, I guess that is the disordered thinking at any rate. Hoarding is such a difficult thing to understand if you don’t do it. It just makes me want to go clean out a closet.

  • heidi

    November 9th, 2012 at 8:57 AM

    Intollerance of feelings can certainly lead to many a maladaptive behavior. Why can’t we just come with a self-fix button, sort of like a self-cleaning oven?

  • Al

    November 10th, 2012 at 9:03 AM

    Ended a long relationship about a year ago but we are still in touch.She’s getting married today and I am absolutely down in the dumps.Feel so shattered.Still wanted to be with her but she didn’t.I know this feeling isn’t going to lead me anywhere,I know I cannot have her back,but why is it that I am unable to stop feeling this way?Is this a necessary step that we humans put ourselves through?Just why I do not understand :(

  • Kalila Borghini

    November 10th, 2012 at 4:14 PM

    Al, it sounds like you are in great distress and have suffered a terrible loss. I suspect that today is particularly difficult because of the events that are occurring. Unless you are thinking of harming yourself (then you need to get help immediately), I would suggest that you get some counseling to help you process some of your painful feelings. I also would not beat yourself up because you are in pain. You say the relationship was a long one so it is to be expected that you will be suffering, especially since you were the one that did not want the end. You might also, for the moment and perhaps forever, not have any contact with her because it only makes it more difficult to let go. Hope this helps.

  • Al

    November 11th, 2012 at 11:38 AM

    Thank you for your reply,Kalila Borghini.Well as expected it was a gloomy day and I even stayed up until late,just crying to myself in my bed.I do not have any ideas of self harm so I guess that is a good thing.

    She herself said she is going to cut off from me permanently and I haven’t heard from her in five days now.I texted her many times but did not get a response.Maybe I should stay away from her,but right now it seems like the toughest thing to do.Do you think a proper goodbye (something we never had a chance to do) would do me more harm than good?I say this even though I am unsure if I’m going to be fine without her in the first palace.

  • Kalila Borghini

    November 12th, 2012 at 2:41 AM

    Al, it sounds like you could really use someone to talk to about all this. Your feelings are understandable in the circumstances but it might help to be able to work out some of it with a professional. I’d be happy to work with you if you are in the NYC area and if not, this is a wonderful site to help you find a therapist. Best of luck.

  • sullivan

    November 12th, 2012 at 11:14 AM

    There is no right or wrong way to go thru the grief process- but there are healthy and unhealthy ways.

    Looks like most of us have a tendency to go about it all wrong until we finally open our eyes to see that this is getting us nowhere.

    grief is common, it’s natural, but it’s also a lot more comforting to remember that we are not the only ones who have experienced this emotion and that this too shall pass and get better as time goes on; but only IF you allow yourself to process the emotion in a way that stays positive and causes no lasting harm to the psyche.

  • Al

    November 12th, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    Thank you so much for the support,Kalila Borghini.I think I will look for a therapist (I am on the West Coast.

    I still haven’t heard from her and I think that’s the way it’s going to remain. Guess I need to realize that I will have to get over it and that there’s no other way to it.I just hope I am able to work with a good professional who will make this transition easier for me.Thank you once again.

  • alisa

    September 30th, 2014 at 6:12 PM

    This puts pressure on individuals to minimize their sense of loss. <—- This is what I am under now. I lost my man it will be a year in the end of November. I don't have a whole lot of support where I live now and I wont lean on my daughters. I never learned how to grieve even when my son died and I had a break down ten years later. I find myself doing the same thing with this current loss. Go Go Go. Don't feel. Well I didn't want what happened to me with my son's death to happen again so I signed up to Hospice for spousal grief support. (we didn't use hospice he died suddenly) and well it has helped me a lot. I always read GoodTherapy because you have such useful information. Waiting for the second part of this.

  • going to goa

    March 14th, 2015 at 11:05 PM

    I don’t want my grief to define me. However, writing a book about my experience is bringing it all back to me.

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