Grief Ghosts: Four-Step Rise and Seven Factors Influencing their Nature – Part VI

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Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

Grief Ghosts: A Viral Metamorphosis

And the Grief Ghosts will rise from the ashes
When one tries to bury the pain.
Feeding a fire that chokes dreams and desire
Oh when will your tears fall like rain?
Too late…look, soul-sucking phantoms
Spiral higher and higher, madly morph and conspire
As Trojan worms raiding while aerating your brain.


Perhaps there is still time to reach for the sublime:
Grieve, let go…and go with the flow!

As noted in Part IV of my series on “Burnout and Burn-in, Loss and Grief Ghosts,” burn-in involves the silent, chronic drain of harboring unconsciously repressed or consciously resisted lingering and reverberating memories and painfully smoldering emotions connected to: a) recent and past, b) physical, psychological, and spiritual, c) personal and interpersonal, and d) professional and family, socio-cultural and organizational losses, transitions, and traumas. And, perhaps most disorienting, pressure-packed emotions and memories long denied or prematurely buried become the crucible for the birth of “Grief Ghosts.”

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Let me simplify this “Four Step Rise of Grief Ghosts”:

1. Lingering Loss. You experience a painful loss – from the personal to the organizational – whether from the distant or recent past. The nature of the loss is denied or, more likely, acknowledged but quickly pushed to the back of your mind, out of everyday emotional consciousness. “It’s time to move on.” Of course, the more powerful the loss the greater is the potential for kindling grief ghosts. (In general, lingering, unrecognized, minimized, or denied loss + the significance of the loss + the absent or limited nature of grief time (the shorter the overt grief time the higher the kindling potential) + the dysfunctional/defensive characteristics of grief avoidance (e.g., substance abuse, keeping a manic- obsessive distracting schedule or pace, subtle or disguised depression, etc.) x time = the formula for ghostly production.)

2. Prematurely Buried Grief. The energy and feelings connected to the loss and the avoided or alienated grief process means painful emotions and memories are smoldering and reverberating inside. The longer and tighter one tries to keep the lid on this psychic crucible the more potent the condition for this combustible mix to become increasingly pressure-packed and incessantly loud, and to swarm furiously. Clear thought and decision-making processes are scrambled; heightened emotions if not numbed can become overwhelming.

3. Precipitating Event. Other life transitions, traumas, and losses experienced along the burn-in path may only compound and intensify this fuming and rumbling process if, once again, the grief process is basically avoided. In fact, one of these triggering hazardous events will finally be the spark that detonates the proverbial final straw, firing up, launching, and animating the underground ghosts.

4. Burn-in and the Rise of Grief Ghosts. Finally, one will implode or explode; constantly smoldering and smoking pain or shame not only is exhausting, it burns away your emotional defenses as well as your mind-body-heart-spirit insides; alas, it may be hard not to make an ash of yourself! Your combustible “burn-in” psychic mix, like the high temperatures and pressure that forms metamorphic rocks, now morphs into “Grief Ghosts.” Or subterranean, conflicting and clashing past and present voices in your head, like colliding tectonic plates, may spark the rise of metamorphic and metaphoric ghosts. Whatever the genesis, you are suddenly dealing with two battlefronts: a) the immediate real world problem in the present and b) and the unleashed spectral presence of formerly dormant, now painful, confusing, and often critical grief ghosts. And your inner reserve and resolve feels depleted if not devastated. This ‘Burn-in” process has you susceptible to depression, exhaustion or burnout, emotional overreaction, agitation, or regressing to old self-defeating “survival” patterns. These burn-in smoke signals may occur especially during times of crisis, trauma, loss, and high stress or when in the throes of challenging performance, identity-related transition, and/or intimate relating.

Seven Factors Influencing the Nature of Grief Ghosts

Are all grief ghosts alike? Of course not. The character of our “Grief Ghosts” depends on the nature of our loss, the variables surrounding this loss, and the subsequent grief reaction (including “Prematurely Buried Grief”) or response. According to Judith Viorst, in Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations that All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow, (The Free Press: New York, 1986, p.238), certain factors increase vulnerability to loss: “Those with a poor prior history of mental or physical health are at greater risk. So are those dealing with death by suicide. So are those spouses whose relationship with the husband or wife who died was especially ambivalent or dependent. Those who experience loss without the support of a social network tend to find trauma more intense. And the younger do worse than the older – studies find that one frequent consequence of childhood loss is a higher risk of adult-life mental illness… (Finally,) adolescents can mourn but are still more vulnerable than adults because they are experiencing so many other (psycho-physiological) losses and changes.”

Viorst also addresses the nature of grieving: “How we mourn, or if, our mourning is going to end, will depend on what we perceive our losses to be, will depend on our age and their age, will depend on how ready all of us were, will depend on the way they succumbed to mortality, will depend on our inner strengths and outer supports, and will surely depend on our prior history – on our history with the people, (positions, partnerships, programs, plans, possibilities, etc., who/that) ‘died’ and our own separate history of love and loss.”

Let’s take a closer look at these loss and grief variables. The propensity for: 1) the unleashing of ghosts, 2) the varying nature of the ghosts, and 3) the danger and opportunity for positive grief ghost resurrection and psychic rejuvenation is contingent upon:

a) Loss Significance, Identification, and Complexity

1) loss significance. The mind-body-heart-spirit significance of any loss (person, place, loss of control and competence, loss of a dream, etc.) clearly impacts the grief ghost process; to reiterate, the degree a person has prematurely buried or denied significant past “loss” issues and emotions and they now arise as grief ghosts, the immediate reaction is often a sense of danger and disorientation. Feelings of worthlessness and isolation, a sense of being hollow, profound identity confusion, and a loss of personal/professional direction may predominate. However, as we will subsequently explore, much as in the double-edged – danger and opportunity – nature of crisis, the rise of grief ghosts also allows one to more knowingly and purposefully tackle these subterranean issues which have been disrupting and constricting a life outside of one’s awareness,

2) identification, internalization, and introjection. Another factor is the degree of identification with the lost person/object that is, the process of internalization by which we modify our self (consciously) and introjection (unconsciously) to become in some ways like this or that person out there” (Viorst); according to Freud, positive identification facilitates our letting go of the lost person, that is, we now possess internally some of their essence; of course, one may also consciously try to disavow a connection to a person (or place), e.g., the individual who says, “The last person I will be like is my old man” simply tells me how deep the kindred hook is lodged; avoiding the grief process naturally impedes more healthy and current identification; avoidance also builds up and exaggerates critical voices and subterranean introjects or internalizations, along with subconsciously heightening feelings of early abandonment and separation anxiety; all these dynamics influence a person’s overt and covert thoughts and behavior and fuel the creation of grief ghosts,

3) loss complexity. Early childhood internalizations along with the degree of closeness and/or conflict in an intimate relationship and/or with significant role relations affects the depth and personal impact of a loss; ironically, for example, grief research indicates that for couples who had more dysfunctional or codependent relationships than couples in healthier partnerships, instead of relief (which might seem commonsensical) the death of a spouse typically results in more complicated grieving; clearly, there is burdensome amount of emotions and issues that not only remain “unresolved” and ghostly but likely were never honestly and healthfully addressed,

b) Loss Dynamics/Context – the bio-psycho-social-cultural-historical dynamics surrounding the loss altogether impact: 1) the immediate emotional experience, 2) the subsequent grief, 3) the reaction to a triggering event or stressor, as well as 4) the genesis and make-up of ghosts; e.g., one’s reaction may be different when losing a family member to a heart attack when death is sudden and unexpected compared to a second fatal attack; either cardiac scenario is obviously a different “loss context” than having a family member incinerated in the Twin Towers on 9/11 or die in a head-on vehicular collision.

I also want to highlight two compelling factors regarding the nature of loss dynamics-context and subsequent ghostly impact:

1) Gender. Gender differences clearly can have a ghostly impact. In Carol Gilligan’s thought-provoking In a Different Voice she refers to a study indicating that while men represent powerful activity as assertion and aggression, women in contrast portray acts of nurturance as acts of strength. Openly grappling with and sharing sadness, loss, and emotional pain clearly is still not the masculine norm. The result is a grief process more quickly aborted or altogether avoided. Conversely, under stress and in pain, women typically see a capacity for nurturance and interdependence (giving and receiving support and sustenance) as a sign of strength. Even highly successful professional women describe themselves in the context of a relationship, while men perceive their identity in terms of power and separateness. And finally, concerning moral reasoning women emphasize connectedness and care (attachment) and men stress personal integrity (separateness). To expand the old stress survival adage, men, especially the “strong silent types,” typically fight or flight while women (not necessarily adolescent girls of any age) often tend and befriend.

However Gilligan is trying to rebalance the scales; one moral code is not superior to the other. Rather they represent two modes of experience and interpretation which together could enable us to “arrive at a more complex rendition of human experience.” Both the voice of relatedness and the voice of separateness are needed to define adult maturity.

2) Transition. Daniel Levinson, in The Seasons of a Man’s Life, highlights a wide-ranging psychosocial context that often triggers and shapes ghostly manifestations: In periods of transition we are challenging/terminating the premises of our life structure – raising questions, exploring new possibilities. Each termination is an ending, a process of separation and loss. The task of a developmental transition is to terminate a time in one’s life; to accept the losses the termination entails; to review and evaluate the past; to decide which aspects of the past to keep and which to reject; and to consider one’s wishes and possibilities for the future. One is suspended between past and future, and struggling to overcome the gap that separates them. Much from the past must be given up – separated from, cut out from one’s life, rejected in anger, renounced in sadness or grief…

As our past realities start to collapse, we challenge the self-definitions that have sustained us, finding that everything seems up for grabs, questioning who we are and what it is we are trying to be, and whether, in this life of ours, the only life we have, our achievements and goals hold any value. Does our marriage make sense? Is our work worth doing? Have we matured – or have we simply sold out? Do our connections with family and friends rest on a loving exchange or on desperate dependencies? How free and how strong do we wish – do we dare – to be?…There is much that can be used as a basis for the future. Changes must be attempted in both self and the world…

My compressed poetic take on Levinson: One must begin to separate; one must be separate to begin. The complement of that masculine, yang-like perspective may well be the more maturational and evolved, yin-like need to merge in order to reemerge (Gilbert Rose, author and student of psychoanalysis and creativity). For example, according to Levinson, the demands of parenthood press us into a polarization of roles. However, the potential of grappling with “mid-life transition” is the development and the direct expression of our shadow gender side (men explore tenderness and sensuality; women explore executive and “political” capacity), that is, some blending of our yin-yang natures.

c) Capacity and Opportunity for and Extent of Grieving – one’s own psychological capacity for grieving along with family-socio-cultural support or discouragement to grieve; in addition, there’s the extent of initial, conscious bereavement before prematurely burying live grief; an axiom of this model is that for a significant loss grief is never “finished or resolved”; such losses and accompanying emotional memories, overt and covert voices and messages, etc., will always need to be recollected and reflected upon, if not require some periodic emotional remembrance or mourning, if ghosts are not to roam your psychic mindscape,

d) Childhood Losses – whether you also experienced early childhood losses or traumas through for example, death of a family member, disaster, separation, remarriage and reconstituted families, and illness – involving person, place, personal control, developmental progress and identity, etc.; research indicates the earlier an individual experiences loss or abandonment the more susceptible to disruptive trauma and the less resilient they are in overcoming post-traumatic reaction or disorder,

e) Psychological and Developmental Parallels – the degree of emotional connection or psychological similarity between past and present losses, e.g., I previously noted the initially unrecognized psychological connection for a Vietnam Vet between the death of his wife in a household fire and his emotional disorientation one week after 9/11; however, this is also a normative process as delineated by Therese Benedek in “Parenthood as a Developmental Phase,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 7, pp. 389-417: “At each successive stage of a child’s development his (or her) parents are afforded another chance to work through, or reinforce, solutions to (unconscious developmental) conflicts arising at a comparable stage of their own childhood,”

f) Prematurely Buried Timeline – the length of time that the loss or trauma has been suppressed or repressed, that is, insufficiently grieved; in general the longer the dismissal or denial the greater the intensity of “Ghost Grief”-building psychic pressure from internal heat-stress to conflicting-agitating voices,

g) Tightness of Lid and Rigidness/Riskiness of Coping – the tightness of the lid on your psychic grief ghost crucible, and the self-defeating nature of coping strategies used to neutralize or numb the subterranean pain, e.g., substance or sex abuse, co-dependency, mania or depression, a wide range of escapist behaviors, etc.; however, this rigidity only delays the time for reckoning while eroding the mind-body-spirit; as Viorst avers, “until we can mourn that past, until we can mourn and let go of the past, we are doomed to repeat it.” Until we can embrace our grief ghosts, that is, dig behind the mask, open the psychic coffin, and then consciously resurrect and wrestle with our ghosts, we are doomed to be hounded and haunted by them.

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