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Complicated Grief Has Left Me Feeling Numb

Question:

Last February I lost my grandmother, I loved with her and took care of her for the last two years of her life. She had Alzheimer’s. Less than a week after her death I was informed that an uncle that I am not too close too was in the hospital and most likely going to die. He didn’t. About a month later my cousin died and a month after that an uncle I was close to died. Now my Aunt (that uncle’s wife), who I am very close to is dying, she has stage 4 cancer and they told us this week she has 3-6 months to live. I feel nothing. No sadness no tears, I don’t understand. I think her daughter is upset with me because she is crying all the time and I support her but there is no sadness or emotion on my part. I am there about 3 times a week I do what I can to help out. I think I should be feeling something.

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Answer:

You are likely experiencing a variety of grief reaction . Not a standard one, but not one that is weird or rare either. You’d think you should be feeling something, I understand, but that is not how grief works all the time. You have had an extraordinary amount of death and suffering in your life lately. Not extraordinary by wartime standards, perhaps, but certainly for everyday life, you’ve been positively clobbered with death and significant loss of loved ones. As a protective reaction to the shock of this grief bombardment, you may have quite unconsciously dampened down your ability to feel the pain that is associated with these intense losses.

The process through which this sort of dampening down of emotion occurs is called dissociation , a mental phenomena that is closely related to hypnotism. What happens during dissociation is that you check out mentally and start thinking about something other than what you are dealing with. There are many varieties of dissociation. The very mildest forms of dissociation are very common; we call them "spacing out" or "day dreaming" and they happen all the time to most everyone. On the severe side, some people use dissociation to "check out" during abuse, or during traumatic events. The abuse or trauma is still experienced, but the emotional and cognitive memories of those events are detached from consciousness in some fashion. People describe their memories during dissociative events as having the quality of watching a movie rather than having been a participant. Some people who dissociate during trauma do not remember the events at all.

My guess is that you’ve engaged a mild dissociation process to help you cope, and this is why you’re having difficulty feeling the feelings you think you should be feeling. This isn’t necessarily anything to worry about. There are all sorts of grief patterns and this is one of them. You may reach a point in time when it starts feeling safe again to feel again, and at that time you will find feelings bubbling up to the surface, perhaps in the form of sudden bouts of crying that seem to come from nowhere. If you focus on the feelings of grief you might be able to make contact with them, but then again, consider that the fact that you’re insulated from them now is protective in some manner; it is helping you to stay functional, and that it’s okay to allow this to happen.

If it really concerns you that you aren’t feeling grief at any point in time (now or in the future), my recommendation would be for you to seek out some grief counseling . The safety of the therapy room might offer you the sort of container you need to feel safe enough to let some of this out.

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