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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 normal.

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 self.

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 regularly.

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.


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