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John James, founder of The Grief Recovery Institute

John W. James

Founder of The Grief Recovery Institute®
Co-Author of The Grief Recovery
Handbook & When Children Grieve

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Why Won’t Anyone Let Me Feel Sad?

If we were forced to quantify the problems grieving people encounter, there’s no doubt the number one offense they must confront is being told that they shouldn’t feel sad or bad. The tragedy is that they are told this at the precise time when it makes the most sense to feel sad or bad—when someone important to them has died.

Although we don’t like to be sarcastic, we must ask, “If you can’t feel sad in reaction to a death, then when can you ever feel sad?”

A typical lament from a broken hearted griever is, “I am having a very difficult time. Everyone keeps telling me not to feel bad or sad and giving me all kinds of reasons that don’t make sense to me. They say, ‘Don’t feel bad, she’s in a better place.’ Since my wife had struggled so long and so valiantly with the cancer that took her from me, I do hope she’s in a better place. “But I’m not in a better place! I’m sad, I miss her terribly, and I’m confused when people tell me not to feel bad. I just want to avoid those people. Is there something wrong with me?”

Hopefully our answer will comfort you: No, there’s nothing wrong with you – you’re actually the emotionally healthy one in the scenario. You are trying to tell the truth about how you feel, only to have others tell you that you shouldn’t be feeling what you’re feeling. The death of your wife is the dominating event in your life. But the absence of comfort that would be provided if the people around you listened to you effectively rather than making you think there’s something wrong with you distracts you from your primary task of dealing with her death.

It All Starts With What We Learned When We Were Young

Being told not to feel bad is always followed by a reason that makes no sense relative to how the griever feels — things like “she’s in a better place” or “at least her suffering is over.” Those explanations are about the person who died, not about the grieving person. Even if the griever agrees with those ideas and sentiments, the comments don’t address what the griever is feeling.

It may help you to understand why everyone is so dedicated to telling you not to feel bad. As you read this, you may be surprised to learn that all of us were taught not to feel bad from as far back as we can remember. The reason that we use it with others is that it was used on us. Therefore we believe it to be truthful, though it is anything but truthful.

Here is an example of how a child’s normal response to a painful event is converted into a lifelong incorrect philosophy for dealing with sad emotions: A five-year-old girl has had an emotionally painful experience at school. The other children have been mean to her. She goes home to Mom, Dad, or Grandma, and spills out her tale of woe, with tears. This healthy, normal expression and display of human emotion is met with, “Don’t feel bad. Have a cookie, you’ll feel better.” Those two sentences can create a life-long belief that that we deal with sad feelings by eating. The child has honestly presented an emotion, a sad feeling, to someone she trusts. The emotion is immediately dismissed with, “Don’t feel bad,” and then anesthetized with food. The fact is that when you load a little body up with food or sugar, something will change. The child feels different, but not better. No one has listened to or addressed her present issue, which was her feelings, not hunger.

Sweet But Dangerous For Adults Too

The fact that the people who love us do not want us to feel bad is a sweet sentiment, but a dangerous one. Children feel what they feel whether others approve or not. If the people around a child do not understand that sad, painful, or negative feelings are normal and natural reactions to hurtful events, then the child will just go underground and hide her feelings. Children will begin to ACT FINE, because that action is rewarded. “Isn’t she brave?” Or, “Isn’t he strong?” are the comments children hear when they cover up and bury their sad feelings after a loss.

What is true for children is also true for adults. We all started out learning the rules when we were young. When we get older we reach back into our storehouse of information and come out with things like “Don’t feel bad.” We even apply that idea to ourselves when we feel bad, without others saying it to us.

The problem is that we never asked the question, “Why not? Why is it not acceptable to communicate openly and honestly when I have sad feelings in reaction to grief-producing events?” As a griever, the healthiest thing you can do is tell the truth about how you feel in any given moment. As a person who is talking to a griever, the healthiest thing you can do is listen without judgment or criticism of feelings, and never give the illogical advice that your friend shouldn’t feel sad or bad.

© 2022 John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute®. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this and other articles please contact The Grief Recovery Institute at info@griefrecoverymethod.com or by phone, 800-334-7606.

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