The Grief Trap
By Dennis Bradford
The grief trap is an all-too-common outcome from serious
loss or separation. If you understand it, you can act to
prevent it or to minimize its effects.
Permit me to use the word 'bereavement' to refer to
losing or becoming separated from something you value.
It could be the death of a parent, spouse, child,
friend, or anyone else you love; the end of a romance;
the loss of a good job; the loss of your home through
fire, flood, or foreclosure; or any similar suffering.
It is impossible to avoid bereavement. Bereavement is
normal. If you are a Baby Boomer, it is quite likely
that you have already experienced it multiple times.
Without attachments, there would be no bereavement.
Attachments are normal and valuable. It would be ideal
if all children developed a secure attachment style that
leads to normally high self esteem and to thinking that
the problems of life are manageable. If you never
developed the optimistic belief that obstacles can be
overcome as well as generally positive attitudes about
other people, you will have an exceedingly difficult
time responding well to the inevitable stresses and
losses that occur to everyone.
Attachments always end, which is why bereavement is
Permit me to use 'grief' to refer to the reaction to
bereavement. Unless you are a sage, it is normal for you
to experience occasionally the emotion of grief.
The grief trap, however, is not normal. The good news is
that the grief trap is avoidable.
Like all emotions, grief depends upon a self-centered
evaluation, which, in this case, is "This bereavement is
bad for me." (I discuss the structure of emotions in my
book HOW TO SURVIVE COLLEGE EMOTIONALLY.)
When it begins, even so-called "normal" grief may
involve anger, feelings of unreality, emotional
deadening and withdrawal, nightmares, sleep disorders,
appetite difficulties, shortness of breath, dry mouth,
repetitive motions to avoid pain, and hallucinations.
Normal grief sometimes worsens into what is called
"prolonged" or complicated grief, which can last for
decades. The danger is becoming trapped by grief.
Why does the grief trap occur?
Its occurrence depends upon a fundamental psychological
fact, namely, that whatever we think about increases in
importance. If you are (or ever become) trapped by
grief, its root cause is (or will be) that your thoughts
have become fixated upon your loss or separation. Since
nobody except you controls what you think about, you
have unintentionally trapped yourself. You have
identified with your loss and made it a part of your
You may seem to lack any other choice. It may feel as if
you cannot let go. If so, an important delusion is
trapping you. You are stuck in a pity-party. As others
may have told you, you are being selfish. You may resent
such comments because you think that they do not
understand your situation, but your resentment comes
from your being trapped.
Yes, you are trapped. However, there is good news: there
is a way out of the trap.
Ultimately, though you may and should seek professional
help if you are suffering from prolonged grief or are in
the grief trap, you are going to have to free yourself.
Doing so will require that you develop a skill that, I
believe, is required for living well. You need to learn
how to calm your troubled mind and practice doing it
Which skill is that? It is the skill of mastering a
breathing (practice) such as zazen meditation. There are
a number of classic practices that all work. Some, like
zazen meditation, are very simple. Furthermore, except
for the belief that it might work, no other belief is
required for mastering zazen meditation.
In effect, what is required is that you practice
intensely and persistently learning how to refocus your
awareness. Doing so is training (disciplining,
purifying) your mind.
That is the way out of the grief trap. It is also the
only way to living really well.