Lesson 3 of 7 - learn how to grieve well

Options for Finishing
Incomplete Grief

Accept your losses
and move on

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/grief/thaw.htm

Updated 05/25/2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This 15" YouTube video previews what you'll find in this article:

       This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 3 in the Break the Cycle! self-improvement course. The lesson aims to educate readers on healthy grieving basics so they can complete any unfinished mourning and grow a pro-grief home and family. Doing this is part of breaking the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle. 

      First, learn something about yourself by answering this anonymous question.

      Typical survivors of childhood trauma (Grown Wounded Children - GWCs) never learned these basics, and risk psychological, physical, and relationship problems from incomplete mourning. Lesson 3 requires major progress on Lesson 1 - reducing psychological wounds.

      Premises - all healthy adults and kids form bonds over time, which break by choice or chance - causing losses. Incomplete grief is an unrecognized, toxic condition in many people and families. It seems to be caused by widespread psychological wounds + unawareness + lack of personal and social permission to mourn well. Lesson 3 in this nonprofit Web site proposes an effective way to prevent or reduce unfinished grief, and to intentionally grow pro-grief relationships.

       This article offers options for completing unfinished grief in yourself and provides an example. The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit web site and the premises underlying it 

  • these five universal hazards

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 3

  • this quiz and these Q&A items on "good grief";

  • these requisites for healthy mourning; and...

  • these brief Lesson-3 research summaries. 

      My work as a therapist and student of family systems since 1979 suggests that many people and families are stressed by the toxic effects of incomplete grief. Typical adults (like you?) are unaware of healthy grieving basics and what to do if they become "stuck" in the process of mourning.  

  Six Options for Completing Your Grief

      If you have symptoms of unfinished grief, choose a long-term outlook, and adapt the options below to fit you and your situation. The long-term goal is to become an effective griever, not just to mourn a specific loss.

  1. Study Lessons 1 thru 3 here until you can easily answer these quizzes: 1  > 2  > 3

  2. Free your true Self to guide your other dynamic subselves  (Lesson 1). If you don't, these other options probably won't help you grieve well.

  3. Assess yourself for "good grief" requisites, and commit to acquiring any you're missing.

  4. Starting in childhood, identify your significant life-losses and their key impacts on you;

  5. Assess for and free up any incomplete grief on any of your losses.

    • use this level & phase concept and these symptoms to assess yourself

    • use parts work if necessary to gain inner permission to grieve well

    • evolve your Bill of Personal Rights as a base for grieving without shame, guilt, or anxiety;

    • use Lesson-2 communication skills to surround yourself with pro-grief people;

    • proactively seek any human and spiritual grief support you need;

    • if excessive guilt is hindering your grief, see these options;

    • patiently use the other grieving requisites until the symptoms fade - one loss at a time; and...

    • if necessary, get help from a professional grief counselor.

  6. Use your Self's wisdom and new awareness to grieve new losses to completion - and help others do the same.

      Pause and reflect. How do you feel about these options? Do they seem do-able? Do you think average women and men could explain all of them? Can your family adults?

      To free up blocked grief, it's important to know how false-self dominance combines with ignorance of healthy-grieving basics to hinder the mourning process.

  Personality Subselves and Grieving

      My clinical experience and research suggests that normal personalities are composed of an interactive group of subselves that each have their own purpose, values, needs, way of communicating, and view of the world. They create all the "voices" (thoughts) and images in your mind, and seem to cause a wide range of emotional and physical reactions.

      If you're skeptical or curious about this idea, read this letter to you. Then try this safe, interesting, exercise and return here. Though ancient, this "subself" idea is new enough in our culture that most grief professionals aren't aware of it. Most do believe in psychosomatic illness. Do you?

      Your inner family of subselves can range from harmonious, contented, and calm to conflicted, insecure, and discordant. Growing up in a low-nurturance family promotes inner-family chaos and psychological injuries.

      From practicing inner-family therapy since 1992, I believe many bodily discomforts and illnesses are promoted by our dynamic subselves beyond our awareness. For example, the subselves governing wounded adults often withhold permissions to mourn well. Impressionable children are taught anti-grief beliefs like these:

"Real (virile) men (or males) don't cry." or "Crying is for wimps, babies, and sissies."

"(Feeling and/or showing) anger, or too much sadness, is wrong and bad."

"Keep a stiff upper lip (or we'll withhold our approval, respect, and love.)"

"Don't burden others with your sorrow."

"Get over your loss, and move on. No big deal!"

"It's not OK to vent repeatedly about your losses and pain."

"Put on a happy face (or someone will dislike, reject, or punish you)."

"Don't be gloomy or 'negative' (or someone will dislike, reject, or punish you)."

"Always think of the other guy (otherwise you're being selfish and bad)!"

"You only grieve when someone dies, and then it should take a few weeks at most."

"We don't talk about or evaluate our family's grieving habits, values, or rules - and we deny, minimize, and/or joke about this."

"If you must grieve, do it privately, and don't disturb anyone else."

"Always look at the bright side! (or we'll disapprove of or reject you)."

"Strong emotions are upsetting and bad. If you must feel them, don't show (express) them."

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going. We (parents) love tough people best."

"We (you) don't discuss family business (like losses and their impacts) with outsiders."

"It is not necessary or OK to get professional help in healing your losses."

"If it hurts, use sugar, fat, nicotine, and/or alcohol (or work real hard) to feel better - and ignore, joke about, or deny that you're doing this."

      You may have learned as a small child following rules like these got the respect, love, and acceptance you craved. Kids that don't follow the family's grieving rules experience subtle or obvious disapproval, scorn, and rejection. Those hurt!

      From infancy, you developed a normal group of personality subselves or parts who cause your primary emotions. Among others, you probably grew a sad part, a scared part, a shamed part, a lonely part, a guilty part, and an angry part. Other subselves can feel these emotions too, including your true Self (capital "S").

      Because your Inner Critic and Perfectionist subselves ceaselessly guard your Inner Kids from pain, they may relentlessly give you stern warnings and acid judgments if you start to feel or show grief sadness, confusion, and anger in a way that violates "the rules" (above.)

       You may also have developed a protective Catastrophizer subself that adds vivid thoughts and images about disasters that will surely occur if you don't follow the Critic's rules ("You'll be spurned, abandoned, and die a miserable death alone in the gutter!")

      You may also have a protective People Pleaser subself, whose steady job is to focus you solely on worrying about meeting other's needs and standards, in order to avoid agonizing criticism, rejection, and abandonment. This subself is specially active in shame-based adults and kids who were unintentionally taught to believe they were worthless and unlovable.

      Another common Guardian subself can be called the Magician. Its specialty is turning painful or scary current realities into something else (reality distortion). So when you suffer painful losses (broken bonds), this protective subself gives you thoughts like "Losses? What losses?"; or "Yeah, well we've lost some things, but no big deal!", or "Take care of the kids' wounds now, and worry about me later" (self neglect).

      Probably no one in your family, schools, or social circle has talked about "your inner family of personality subselves," so you became an adult without clear awareness of...

  • your Inner Critic, Moralizer/Preacher, and Perfectionist subselves and the rules they insists you follow,

  • your well-meaning narrow-visioned Catastrophizer, People Pleaser, Numb-er, and Magician subselves; and...

  • the group of Inner-child personality parts that these subselves guard.

If these normal subselves often overwhelm your Adult and Spiritual subselves and your true Self, you unconsciously live your days and nights from a false self, believing this and the painful results to be "normal."

      When you inevitably experience broken bonds (losses), subselves like these may block your sad and/or angry subselves from causing and expressing normal grief emotions and thoughts. Your well-meaning subselves may insist that you don't dare violate your inherited childhood rules about grieving, much less edit or replace them. You then lack "inner permission" to grieve well.

      These diligent Guardian subselves may also rigidly protect you against perceiving who encourages you to grieve well and who doesn't, because the subselves (mistakenly) believe that's not safe.

      The results may be that (a) your healthy grieving response is hindered or blocked, (b) you're unaware of why and how, and (c) you feel "depressed" and/or "irritable." If this persists and you accumulate too many ungrieved losses, you may become addicted, obese, "depressed," physically sick (e.g. migraines, cancer, hypertension, diabetes...), and strengthen your false self’s toxic dominance of your other subselves.

      If you take mood-control medications to reduce your good-grief symptoms, you may delay or miss the chance to...

  • reorganize your subselves under the wise leadership of your true Self;

  • complete your grief, and..

  • protect your descendents from inheriting lethal [wounds + unawareness].

+ + +

      What you just read explains the reason for good-grief options 1 (study lesson3 1 thru 3) and 2 (free your Self to guide you) here. Inherited psychological wounds are one of several core reasons for incomplete grief. If you doubt or ignore this, this article will probably be of little value to you.


      Let's look at how these grief-completion options might apply to a typical divorced, custodial mother called Pat in mid-life. See if you know anyone like her...


      Pat became motivated to work at these six steps for several reasons. She feels that her aging Mother has lived a drab, "joyless" life, and doesn't want that for herself. Pat regrets her recent divorce after 18 years of marriage, and feels guilty about the impact it's had on her (custodial) kids Lisa (17) and Steven (15).

      She admits that she's probably 25 pounds overweight, doesn't always eat well, and "may drink too much at times." Pat doesn't think much about dating or remarrying, but doesn't want to grow old alone or burden her kids and any grandkids in later life.

      Pat has felt significantly depressed for perhaps a year prior to asking her husband Ray to move out 17 months ago, and ever since. Her doctor prescribed a popular drug which has alleviated her depression somewhat, but leaves her feeling "like a robot at times."

      She dislikes needing a drug to function, and is intrigued by the new idea that her depression may be linked to psychological wounds and blocked grief. Before starting to study wounds and mourning (option 1), she had always assumed that grieving was only appropriate when someone died. The idea that the multi-year process of their divorce had caused everyone in her family major losses was new and disturbing to her. She and Ray had never discussed this.

      None of Pat's childhood adults ever talked about their losses or the grieving process. (an anti-grief policy). Her mother's stern Swedish ancestors were practical, blunt people who "had no time to be sad and mope around." Her father had rarely expressed emotions other than bursts of anger and frustration. She had never seen him cry, including at his parents' deaths - though he had experienced much trauma and pain in his life.

      He grew up in an alcoholic blue-collar family which had struggled to survive the Depression during the 1930s. At age 71, her father had no idea that he was an "ACoA" (Adult Child of Alcoholics) or what that meant to him, Pat, and his grandkids. None of them had ever studied what it meant to be the grandchild of addicted (wounded) ancestors. 

       Pat's parents' and grandparents' main attitude (policy) about reacting to major losses seemed to be "Just get over it." None of them had ever been to a therapist, or had much interest in human dynamics or "personal growth." Like their ancestors, hero/ines, and teachers, they had no awareness of family nurturance-levels, psychological wounds, or blocked grief. Pat's early caregivers were "God fearing" and religious, but none of them was really spiritual.

      Like their respective parents, Pat and Ray had never thought to teach their kids about bonding, losses, and healthy grieving, or how to support mourners effectively. As Pat learned more about these topics at age 43 (option 1) , she felt increasingly guilty and anxious about this. She mentioned this to her older sister Alice, who said tartly "For Heaven's sake, Patricia, stop worrying. Grieving is automatic, like digesting food, so your kids don't need instruction on how to do it!"

      Bad advice!.

      Pat asked Alice's opinion about their childhood-family's grief policy. When she explained the concept, her sister shrugged and said dismissively "Well, I don't know - I never thought about it. What's the point?" 

      Over some weeks, Pat invested time to learn about psychological wounds, recovery, and healthy grief - i.e. she has progressed well with option 1.

Option 2 - Assess for psychological wounds

      Pat has studied and accepted the concept of personality subselves, after some initial skepticism, she filled out the first three Lesson-1 checklists honestly to explore whether she was "significantly wounded." Despite some apprehension and having persuasive urges to defer this uncomfortable self-examination, she concluded that she was controlled by false selves "too often." The idea that she could intentionally reduce this and free her true Self to guide her other subselves more often felt "reassuring."

      Of the other five psychological wounds, Pat decided that in certain situations, her subselves were causing "significant" guilts, fears, angers, and maybe major reality distortions - she wasn't sure yet. She felt "excessive shame" was not a major problem, and was sure was able to feel her emotions (vs. numbing them), and that she could genuinely care about (bond with) selected others and exchange genuine (vs. pseudo) love with them. She felt relieved to acknowledge these traits honestly. 

       Pat reviewed the three types of subselves, thoughtfully changed some of the names to "fit better," and rough-drafted a roster of her personality "parts." She was surprised to discover she had a group of inner children, and over 20 active subselves - including her Spiritual One. Pat tried "interviewing" several subselves, and was startled to discover they really did "talk back" to her Self "just like people."

      As she continued this alien self-exploration, Pat wondered about the subselves that governed her kids Lisa and Steven. She mentioned this to her close friend Maria (also a mother), who expressed some interest in learning more about "this true Self / false-self thing."

      Pat knew no one else who had ever discussed or explored "normal personality subselves." She began to see her parents, her ex husband Ray, and some other people in a new way: She realized that "They each had major psychological wounds, and had no clue about that or what it meant.

Option 3 - Assess for "Good Grief" Requisites

      As Pat continued to adjust to the many changes from their family's divorce, she began to wonder if anyone was still grieving the major losses it caused, and how that might be affecting her family members - including Ray's parents. She had never thought about "my gieving policy''  or "the rules that govern how our family members mourn, and who made our rules."

      Pat wanted to learn whether she and Ray had developed the requisites to help their family members mourn their broken bonds well enough. With the new knowledge of her personality's many subselves and her several wounds in the background, she patiently worked at answering this question via meditation, reading, and discussions with key people.

      She explained the idea of a family grieving policy to Ray, and asked him what he thought theirs was. She was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had some interest in exploring that too "for the kids' sakes." Pat did not try to get into subselves or wounds, expecting him to view those ideas sarcastically as "New Age psychobabble."

      In reading about healthy-grieving basics, Pat realized that none of their adults or ancestors had been taught (a) to think of losses as including more than someone's death, or about (b) the levels and phases of health grieving.

      After some weeks of reflecting, studying, journaling, and discussing their family's requisites for "good-grief," Pat's dominant subselves concluded...

  • She was the first person in their family to assess for psychological wounds and begin to reduce them. Pat felt sad to acknowledge that her parents, Ray, and his parents were all probably Grown Wounded Children  (GWCs) and that that probably hindered healthy grief in all of them;

  • None of their family members had learned and discussed good-grief basics, assessed their major losses, or discussed the impacts of these losses on their lives and what to do about them;

  • Everyone seemed to be confident enough about their ability to grieve well, but this complacency was based on ignorance, unawareness, and distorted perceptions;

  • None of their family members assigned high personal priority to encouraging healthy grieving or checking for blocked grief;

  • None of their family adults had been committed to helping each other and their kids...

    • feel and express their grieving emotions and thoughts freely, or...

    • clearly identify their key life losses (broken bonds) and what they each meant.

  • For these reasons, the adults in her family had little motivation to help each other and their kids grieve well in their own unique ways. Their family grieving policy was unconscious and toxic. It netted out to...

"Grief only applies to someone's death. Grieve death briefly if you must, and get on with your life. Don't burden other people with your thoughts or feelings."

      Bottom line: Pat had to acknowledge that (a) she had been raised in a low-nurturance family that unintentionally lacked the requisites for healthy mourning, which (b) probably promoted unfinished grief among them all. She also had to admit that because of ignorance and unseen psychological wounds, she and Ray had raised Steven and Lisa in a similar environment.

      Her Inner Critic insisted that "So you failed as a mother!," causing her Guilty Girl and Shamed Girl to spasm. Pat's Self calmly countered "No I didn't fail. I couldn't have taught the kids about healthy mourning because Ray and I didn't know what they needed to learn - just as our ancestors didn't know."

      Pat journaled about her new awarenesses, including her anger and sadness about lacking the requisites for healthy mourning. She vented about this to Alice, who was genuinely sympathetic and receptive. That caused sadness and frustration that she couldn't vent with her own family members and get empathic support from them.

      After more reflection, venting, and using these wise inspirations, Pat decided to  keep working on...

  • getting to know her subselves better,

  • building trust and teamwork among them, and...

  • investigating her life losses for any incomplete grief.

She didn't think she had any, but her new awareness and knowledge made her wonder if that was a protective denial.

Option 4 - Identify Your Losses and their Key Impacts

      Pat recalled her conclusion that she did not seem to have the symptoms of the sixth psychological wound - an inability to bond, and to feel and exchange genuine love. This suggested that she had bonded with various people, things, and intangibles during her life, and did have losses to mourn.

      To set the stage, she chose a quiet undistracted place and time to thoughtfully review these examples of tangible and intangible losses. After some days of reflection and journaling, she evolved this list of her major life losses since childhood:

  • "I lost: the delightful illusions that there was a tooth fairy; and a Mr. and Mrs. Santa Clause, elves, and reindeer "living w-a-ay up north." This triggered a larger loss of the comforting belief that adults 'always told the truth.'"

  • "I lost: the prized relationship with my Mom's mother 'Muma," who died when I was seven. This caused the loss of prized rituals like making cookies with Muma, sitting in her lap, having her read me bedtime stories, backrubs, and going to the zoo with her on summer weekends."

  • "I lost: the enjoyment of our orange tabby cat "Fireball," who died when I was eight. And...

  • I lost: the familiarity and comfort of my first home, school, friends, and neighborhood when our family moved from Wisconsin to California when I was 12. This dislocation caused a web of minor to major broken bonds for our family members, which no one discussed. Part of this web that had special poignancy - losing the opportunity to lie on my back after a fresh snowfall and make "angels" with my best friend Nina."

  • "I lost: the companionship and comfort of confiding in my older brother Toby when he left home for the Navy."

  • "I lost (a) my identity as a young girl and (b) my childhood innocence, when I began menstruating at 12. As a veteran mother now, I also realize that I also lost (c) the security of having a family adult care enough to explain my emerging sexuality to me.

      Dad seemed uncomfortable with each of us girls reaching puberty, and was unable to express paternal pride and support for us in this key life passage. This feels like (d) some kind of loss, but I'm not clear on what. Loss of Dad's validation and respect for my femaleness?

      Pat recalled that her mother's reaction to her starting her monthly cycle was no-nonsense instruction on hygienic necessities, and sternly warning her "Now you have to be real careful when you're around boys." But she did not explain what she meant, and made it clear that Pat wasn't to question her.

      So Pat also lost (e) having her Mother celebrate her development into someone now capable of the miracle of co-creating new life, and (f) welcoming her into the sacred female world of potential motherhood. Pat had to discover those things from other older women and the media, so she (g) lost a degree of closeness and bonding with her own Mother that she now wished she had had.

      More of Pat's key losses:

  • "I lost memories of many average and special childhood experiences like early birthday parties and my first day at school, because my parents didn't care much about family pictures or keep-sakes." ("Amnesia" about early childhood details and events is common among typical survivors of a low-nurturance childhood.)

  • "I had many small and major high-school losses during my California high school years. One that stands out now is losing my familiar 'girl body,' as my breasts developed and my hips widened. That amplified the loss of relating to boys as buddies that began in middle school.

  • Another loss that stands out now is the end of my childhood freedom and irresponsibility. One day I really recognized that I would eventually graduate, leave home, and have to support myself. This loss was amplified the day I got my diploma."

      We won't include Pat's many tangible and invisible broken bonds between high school graduation and her divorce here, with two exceptions:

  • the chosen losses of (a) her life-long identity as a single female and of (b) her (subselves') fear of growing old alone, when she exchanged wedding vows with Ray. Note an implication: some losses are chosen to get something of greater value.

  • Like all first-time mothers, Pat experienced a boggling series of personal and marital changes and losses that began when she conceived and delivered their first child - e.g. she lost the familiar ritual of sleeping soundly through the night.

Her identity shifted, too - from "childless woman" to "a fully grown woman who had realized her biological potential to co-create new life. This is an example of an important personal change that is not a loss.

      Do you need a stretch break before reading more? 

Key Divorce-related Losses

      As a family divorces, all bonded family members experience a web of significant invisible and tangible losses over many years. If family adults discourage healthy mourning, the odds of significant  incomplete or blocked grief in some members are high - specially if one or more adults were controlled by protective false selves. This seemed to have been true of Pat and probably Ray.

      Over several weeks of reflection, using these loss inventories and talking with divorced friends, Pat identified many physical and invisible bonds that broke because of their family's evolving divorce. Examples of the invisible losses include...

  • "I lost some self-respect because of our divorce. Part of me believes that I shouldn't have married Ray, and that I caused our divorce. Another part of me blames Ray." And...

  • "I've lost some self-confidence. Am I really able to choose a healthy partner and maintain a primary relationship? Is there something wrong with me?" And...

  • "I've lost the comfort of having a trusted, loving partner I could talk with and depend on to be there in all situations. I began losing that some years before we split up. And..."

  • "I've lost the freedom of never having to go through 'the dating' thing' again, and possibly having to deal with the stresses of forming a stepfamily. And..."

  • "I lost my cherished dream of living in 'a normal, happy family' through my old age." and...

  • "I've lost my current and long-term financial security and some related freedoms. The kids and I have much less money now, despite Ray's child support payments." and...

  • "I've lost the certainty and pride of being a beloved child of God. My church says that divorce is a sin, and obviously Ray and I have broken our marital vows. I'm not sure what to believe about my 'sinning.' I never had to wonder about this before." And...

  • "I've lost my confidence that our kids were raised well and have a good start on their adult lives. I worry about how our family stress and divorce has impacted both kids' development, short and long-term - specially Steven. His school grades have dropped way down since Ray moved out; he seems isolated, angry, and secretive; and most of his friends seem to be pretty troubled.

      Stevie says he's not using drugs, but Lisa says he is. He refuses to consider counseling, and says 'nothing's wrong, Mom!' I don't believe that, and I'm not sure what to do. Maybe I should see a counselor..." And...

  • "I've lost my freedom to be a full-time Mom and housewife. I'm really working two jobs now - co-parenting two busy teens, and selling real estate. I've also lost my former freedom from having to negotiate child visitations, holidays, health insurance, school activities, and financial support with Ray - and from wondering what will happen if he decides to date and remarry." And... 

  • I lost my identity as a married ('normal') woman. Some people are still scornful and biased against parents who divorce." And...

  • "I've lost some of my old shared-parenting role. With Ray not living here, I have more caregiving responsibility more often now. This feels more stressful." And...

  • "I've lost 16 priceless years of potential happiness and contentment. If I had made a wiser marital choice and had learned to problem-solve more effectively, I wouldn't have 'wasted' these years with Ray." (Pat later realized this was one of her subselves "talking," not her true Self.)

  • "I've lost pride in my appearance, and confidence in my health. I've gained about 20 pounds since our split-up, and I know I'm not eating well and exercising enough. I no longer have the time or energy to do those the way I used to. I'm uneasy about drinking more alcohol, too - and I don't like to think about that. I think my Dad's mother was an alcoholic, so I wonder... And..."

  • "I've lost the great pleasure I felt at (most of) our personal and family-holiday rituals, like family dinners, birthdays, our week-end barbecues and picnics, making Easter eggs together, campouts, vacations, anniversary gatherings, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. These will never be the same as they were for more than 17 years, including our courtship time. And..."

  • "I've lost valued relationships with most of Ray's relatives, and some of our mutual friends. I specially miss feeling close to his father Norman and sister Nancine." And...

      Pat has more divorce-related losses, but these are enough for our example. Note that her ex Ray, her kids Steven and Lisa, and many of their relatives and key friends have similar loss-clusters to mourn because of their family's reorganization into two co-parenting homes. Also note the difference between divorce-related changes, and losses.

      All losses are changes (which also require accepting and adapting to), but not all changes are losses (broken bonds). Finally, note that typical adults and kids in a new stepfamily have a large group of new losses like those above that need to be mourned - whether prior losses have been well grieved or not.

      As Pat identified her life losses - specially those related to their divorce - she felt drained, overwhelmed, and increasingly sad. Reviewing and naming her specific losses was very painful, and her true Self had to keep her long-range vision and steadily resist some protective subselves' urging her to quit.

      She reminded her subselves that the payoff was to be able to decide whether she was risking major health and relationship problems by avoiding her grief. As her loss inventory grew, Pat realized that she knew no one else who had evolved such an inventory or assessed for blocked grief.

+ + +

      Stretch, breathe, and recall the big picture. This Lesson-3 article proposes six options identifying and finishing incomplete grief. Let's continue with our example..

Option 5 - Assess for and Free up Incomplete Grief

      After several weeks of periodic study, meditation, discussions, and journaling, Pat has concluded "Neither my childhood or my marital family had the requisites for healthy mourning, so I may be avoiding  my grief and not knowing it. Now I need to...

  • identify which losses I may be denying; and whether I need to grieve them,

  • learn (a) why, and (b) what I need to resume (or finish) healthy grief. I also need to...

  • work on evolving and implementing a pro-grief policy in our home, and to...

  • learn how to assess and help Lisa and Stevie to (a) reduce any psychological wounds, and (b) progress on their mourning. I also need to...

  • decide if and how I should try to alert our other family members to what I'm learning about inner wounds and mourning our losses - starting with the kids' father Ray.

"Whew - this seems like a LOT of work!"

+ + +

      Yes, it IS. As ecologist Barry Commoner said, "The TANSTAFL principle applies - There Ain't No Such Thing as Free Lunch."

      If you're considering options like these, notice the difference between labeling them as boring, unsatisfying "work" and "rewarding self-care and healthy family nurturance." Your (subselves') attitudes about healing wounds and healthy mourning (and other things) makes a major difference!

Identify Losses that aren't Fully Accepted (Mourned) Yet

      There are at least three ways to check whether mourning a given loss is (a) accepted well enough, (b) in process (incomplete), or (c) blocked. Sometimes assessing this status isn't needed, because people intuit that they have or haven't grieved well enough.

      Caution - to protect anxious or shamed inner children, well-meaning Guardian subselves like the Magician may argue persuasively that grief is done "well enough" when it really isn't. This is the psychological wound of reality distortion at work.

      If someone like Pat (or you) feels ambivalent or unsure about their grieving status, they can take each key loss or a cluster of losses like those above, and...

  • research whether they have any of these common symptoms, and/or...

  • take each phase of the three levels of mourning, and ask "Have I really moved through this phase, for this loss?"; and/or...

  • hire a licensed, experienced grief counselor to help assess their mourning status - ideally, one who knows how to work with personality subselves; and perhaps...

  • Participate in an effective, knowledgeable physical or on-line grief-support group.

      To illustrate these options, we'll choose the cluster of losses that typical adults (specially parents) like Pat and Ray experience when they separate and divorce.

1) Check for Symptoms

      Pat took undistracted time to tailor this overview of the multi-year divorce process to her family's situation. She then applied her new awareness of her personal grief policy, which she had inherited from her parents.

      She acknowledged that her way of coping with the many losses she had experienced from their slow divorce process was similar to her mother's policy - "Just get on with (life), and don't whine, cry, or complain." Pat acknowledged some symptoms of blocking her cluster of divorce losses:

  • She was avoiding the collection of pre-divorce family photos and courtship and marriage-anniversary mementos - including her wedding ring - that were in a box in the garage. She didn't want to throw them out, and didn't want to look at them because of the discomfort (sadness + regret + guilt + anger) that would cause.

  • Pat realized a pattern: several weeks before their marriage anniversary, she began to get "depressed" (sad). She consciously avoided talking about their courtship and marriage - in general, and around their anniversary.

      Pat also saw that she tried to avoid co-parenting contact with Ray around their anniversary, and avoid mentioning him to the kids. The unspoken family rule that had emerged was "We (family members) will not mention our wedding anniversary or our divorce."

  • Another uncomfortable pattern: Pat realized she and Ray had each avoided asking Lisa and Stevie how they felt about their parents' divorcing, and what they missed (lost). She also recognized the same pattern of avoidance with her relatives. She didn't want to experience their pain, and feeling responsible for causing it. This could be promoting blocked grief in the kids.

  • Pat saw that at holiday times, she had pretended gaiety and cheer that she really didn't feel (and denied doing this), rather than honestly expressing her sadness over lost traditions and family togetherness.

      Another part of her current grieving policy became clear: "I'm responsible for how my actions affect other people, and I shouldn't inflict my sorrow on the people I care about." (A healthier policy: "I should try to be aware of other's feelings and needs, and respectfully accord others the responsibility for managing them, as I am responsible for my feelings and needs.")

  • She began to notice how other divorced parents talked (or didn't) about their marital and family split-up. Their anger, bitterness, and sarcasm helped her realized that she had numbed her strong anger at herself - and some of her anger at "life" ("Our divorce is so unfair!"), Ray, her parents, and their church.

      The more she thought about it, the more she realized - and felt - her deep resentment and anger that her parents and grandparents had not adequately prepared her to make a healthy marital commitment and to resolve major marital conflicts effectively. Pat reminded herself that feeling and respectfully expressing anger over a loss was a normal phase in the emotional level of "good grief."

      This led to reflecting on what her family, church, and society had taught her to believe about women and anger. This teaching netted out to "A good woman doesn't get angry, is patient and understanding, and should not feel or express anger at people she loves."

  • Pat realized that when her kids and others she cared about seemed to be sad, she tried to "cheer them up," and "look at the bright side." A better ("pro-grief") choice would be to empathically validate their feelings, ("You seem to be really sad right now.") and encourage them to feel and express current emotions honestly without guilt or anxiety.

      Her unconscious grief policy included the toxic rule "Sadness is painful and bad, and should be discouraged." With what she was learning, a healthier rule was "Sadness is a vital phase in our normal grief process, and should be respected and fully expressed rather than repressed or apologized for."

  • As she worked at Lesson 1 to reduce her psychological wounds, Pat studied addictions. She learned that the sugar in alcohol and "comfort foods" temporarily muted feeling painful emotions. So did most fats, tobacco, shallow breathing, and "antidepressant" drugs.

      She concluded that a diligent Guardian subself had been compulsively overusing alcohol and excessive fats and sugars to protect inner kids from feeling their sadness and anger at many losses, not just those from her divorce.

      Pat discovered more symptoms like these, which convinced her that she was (i.e. her subselves were) avoiding the pain of mourning some important childhood, teen, and divorce-related losses. That conclusion justified taking the next step...

2) Explore Why One or More Losses Aren't Accepted Yet

      This courageous middle-aged mother reviewed the three core causes of blocked grief:

  • significant psychological wounds (false-self dominance), and...

  • ignorance of healthy-grieving basics (Lesson 3) and unawareness of specific losses, and...

  • a social environment that hindered healthy grief.

      She felt she was making good progress with (a) learning "good grief" basics, (b) updating her personal grieving policy to healthier rules, and (c) starting to respectfully confront and/or avoid people who discouraged her from grieving well.

      That left identifying and working with her personality subselves  that were withholding necessary internal permission to grieve well. She began to identify these subselves with respect and compassion, reminding herself that all her subselves were trying to protect her - tho some didn't trust her Self to do this effectively yet.

      Prior to this good-grief work, Pat had studied and experimented with ways to cause healthy changes in her subselves' values, roles, perceptions, and allegiances. She drew on what she had learned to do this grief work.

      She picked one symptom of her blocked grief - pretending family-celebration cheer that some subselves really didn't feel. Pat acknowledged that that was being phony and dishonest (i.e. violating her integrity), and that it discouraged healthy mourning. Her true Self meditated on how to change her (other subselves') attitudes and behavior in order to be genuine and encourage her family members to grieve well.

      She decided that she wanted to:

  • be honest with other people about (express) her own grieving emotions and encourage them to do the same,

  • give able adults responsibility for managing their own feelings and filling their own needs without being insensitive to them, and...

  • exchange empathic support as they all grieved their respective lost family rituals.  

      She reminded herself that devoted Guardian subselves always act to protect one or more Inner Kids from discomfort or possible injury. Next, Pat reviewed the roster of her subselves that she'd evolved from her wound-recovery work.

      She imagined calling a council meeting of all her subselves in a safe, non-distracted place, and (her Self) asking those who needed her to pretend holiday gaiety to identify themselves. Pat tried this alien exercise several times, and followed her intuition.

      She found that a coalition of subselves needed her to pretend: her Moralizer, (Rule Keeper), Perfectionist, Magician, her Fantasizer, People Pleaser, Inner Critic, Guilty Girl, Abandoned Girl, and Shamed Girl,

      Pat called a meeting of these subselves to learn why they needed her to pretend false celebration gaiety rather than allow her Sad Child and resentful subselves to honestly express their feelings and needs to other family members. She learned that...

  • Her Moralizer insisted that she must "be responsible for her actions" and must not "selfishly" inflict her sadness on other people, because it "made them feel bad" (which was wrong);

  • Her People Pleaser predicted that if Pat honestly expressed her sadness at family gatherings, others would dislike, resent, and reject her. This terrified Pat's Abandoned Child;

  • Her tireless Inner Critic promised relentless scorn if Pat disobeyed the Moralizer's rules;

  • Pat's black/white Perfectionist insisted she had to behave "just right" (per the Moralizer's rules) in all situations, including family celebrations. Her Shamed Girl a and Guilty Girl strongly agreed;

  • Pat's Fantasizer and Magician wanted to preserve the illusion that family gatherings could be wonderful (ideal), despite their pretense (denials), repressed feelings, and prior losses;

  • Her Guilty Girl moaned that if Pat was honest about her sadness and "made others uncomfortable," she (the child) would "feel really bad" because she felt Pat was responsible for other's feelings. And the woman learned that...

  • In varying degrees, all these subselves distrusted Pat's true Self to keep them safe enough in family gatherings, and overruled her Sad Girl and angry Girl This meant they resisted her Self's request to change their attitudes and behavior

      Once Pat understood the values, fears, and goals of each of these subselves, she (a) intentionally kept a long-range outlook, and (b) patiently set out to persuade each of them to adopt a teamwork perspective and try some safe changes "to benefit all of us." This was part of her overall goal to build her subselves' trust in the wisdom and reliability of her Self and other Manager subselves, and to patiently grow their teamwork and harmony.

      As she worked at this, Pat watched for chances to describe what she was learning about healthy grief, subselves, inner wounds, and personal and grief "policies" to her kids and other family members - including her ex, Ray

      She tried hard not to be "preachy" or take responsibility for the other adults; and to be factual, brief, and encouraging. Many of her family members were ruled by false selves who were skeptical of, disinterested (i.e. "scared") in, and unempathic with her wound-recovery and grief work. To keep her balance, Pat often used these wise guidelines along the way.

      Over time, Pat's Self persuaded her subselves to relax their distrust and experiment with expressing family-celebration anger and sadness rather than pretending. Her coalition of protective subselves grudgingly acknowledged that no catastrophes happened, and everyone "survived."

      With coaching and instruction, her subselves began to appreciate and accept the benefits of healthy grief and the potential harm in blocking it. An important shift was steadily encouraging her subselves to change outdated childhood attitudes about self-sacrifice ("Always think of the other person / Don't be 'selfish!'") to adopt a new code of personal rights as a dignified person - without major anxiety, guilt or shame.

      Let's look briefly at a second vital focus of Pat's grief work, because it's common in typical Grown Wounded Children:

Was Pat Addicted?

       Premise - addiction is a universal subself strategy to mute or numb (medicate) major inner pain. Compulsive overuse of ethyl alcohol, nicotine, and some "street" drugs is compounded by developing a bodily craving for the chemicals. Each of the four types of addiction is a reliable way of avoiding the discomfort of healthy three-level grief.

      As her wounds receded, Pat had to confront a scary question: "Am I addicted to alcohol and/or eating too many fats and sugars to help avoid the discomfort of grieving?" To research this, she decided to stop drinking alcohol and snacking on high-sugar foods. She also challenged herself to limit her food portions, exercise more, and lose the extra 25 pounds she was carrying.

      Over a period of some weeks, she found that she could not stop using these chemicals or taking too many second helpings at dinner. She felt major guilt and frustration at gradually reverting to her old low-exercise lifestyle despite vowing not to.

      These results seemed to indicate that she was compulsively medicating her inner pain - i.e. that some well-meaning Guardian subselves felt she needed these chemical and eating rituals for immediate relief, despite their long-term health risks.

      Pat committed to using parts work to help her subselves choose healthier ways of self-comforting  and expressing and releasing their pain. First, she identified the subselves which seemed to cause her toxic compulsions. They included...

  • My Addict - a common Guardian subself who insisted that using the sugars and fats in alcohol and some foods was merited to reduce the discomforts of...

  • My Sad Girl, Lost Girl, Anxious Girl, Guilty Girl, and Abandoned Girl, whose combined intense feelings and thoughts were promoting major inner pain; and...

  • My true Self, Adult Woman and Health Director, who all say "Addiction is harmful - Stop!!"; and...

  • My Inner Critic - ("You're pathetic and weak. You can't keep your promises to yourself, can you?");

  • My Procrastinator - ("Ah, come on - you can diet and exercise tomorrow.  How about a little comfort now?"); and...

  • My Magician / Rationalizer- ("Hey, you work hard for other people, and you deserve a little pleasure and comfort. What's a few extra pounds - you're not obese like some real overeaters. And you don't crave alcohol in the morning or have blackout like real alcoholics. No big deal - you're OK!" (denials)

      As with reducing her compulsion to pretend false gaiety, Pat patiently set out to change the ignorance and narrow immediate-gratification values of these subselves one or two at a time.

      Two fundamental goals were to...

  • connect her competent Inner Nurturer with each needy Inner Child, and to...

  • persuade her Guardian subselves to trust that her Self and other Managers would effectively help her needy little girls release their various discomforts.

      For perspective and options for achieving these two goals, read this article after you're done here.

      Pat knew that despite compelling dangers, typical Guardian subselves resisted healthy change because they feared they would no longer be needed, and lose their power and control. So she steadily reassured her Guardians that her Manager subselves would help each of them find interesting, valuable new personality roles, and stop self-medicating with toxic chemicals and comfort-rituals.

      She steadily encouraged all her subselves to meet and appreciate each other, and grow group pride and teamwork under the wise guidance of her Self (capital "S") and her Spiritual One. 

      See this series of Lesson-1 articles and/or the related guidebook for more on effective parts work.

      Pat patiently applied her growing awareness and subself cooperation to other specific childhood and divorce-related losses, despite some disdain and anxiety among her family members. She (her Self) also began expressing some long-repressed (loss-related) hurts, anger, and resentments at Ray, her parents, her kids, and - at times - some of her subselves.

      She worked to evolve a more balanced, healthy anger policy, and encourage the same in Stevie and Lisa. She worked to develop respectful ways to (a) express her anger and frustration, and (b) assert her needs and limits, rather than the ineffective ways she had learned as a child.

+ + +

      You just read a brief illustration of two ways to (a) reduce inner wounds, and (b) identify incomplete grief and facilitate healthy progress. The first way is to learn about personality subselves, wounds, recovery, and healthy three-level grieving. Among other benefits from this learning, Pat became able to assess for unhealthy personal and family grief and anger policies, and personal and social permissions to grieve well.

      The second way is to use this new knowledge to (a) methodically identify life-losses, (b) check each of them for symptoms of blocked grief, and (c) patiently work to identify and retrain protective personality subselves who may be blocking effective mourning. Doing this is part of the larger goal of identifying and reducing any significant psychological wounds (Lesson 1).

      Two more options for forming a healthy grieving policy and identifying and freeing blocked grief are to...

3) Hire a Professional Grief Counselor and/or (4) Join a Support Group

      To augment her own wound-reduction and grief work, Pat decided to try professional grief therapy to guard against possible reality-distortions fostered by protective subselves - e.g. "I have grieved my child-hood losses well enough." She first researched the criteria for choosing an effective counselor. She felt that a qualified professional should...

  • be comfortable working with inner and outer family systems; and...

  • accept the Lesson-1 concepts of harmonizing personality subselves and reducing psychological wounds - or be open to learning about them; and...

  • be able to describe some comprehensive framework of good-grief basics, including...

    • requisites for healthy grief,

    • the three levels and phases,

    • the causes and common effects of incomplete grief, and...

    • the idea of inner and outer permissions to grieve;

     and a qualified professional should have...

  • special training and significant experience in promoting healthy personal and family grief, and facilitating incomplete grief.

       Pat described these traits to her friends and coworkers and asked for referrals, but got none. Then she called local mental health agencies asking for grief therapists. She interviewed several, and chose a woman who came close enough to her criteria. Several sessions with the woman affirmed the wound-recovery and grief work she was already doing, and added several new options and resources - including trying out a local adult grief-support group.

      Pause and reflect - do you feel you may be incomplete or blocked in grieving some major life losses? If so, do the options above seem to be practical ways to assess for and reduce this stressor? If not - why not? Is your true Self answering, or "someone else"?

Summary Checklist

      To facilitate grieving any physical or abstract loss, get undistracted and check each statement that is clearly true:

__  1)  My true Self usually guides me right now.

__  2)  I can answer each of these questions about wounds and recovery with confidence now.

__  3)  I have honesty assessed myself for significant psychological wounds (Lesson 1).

__  4)  I'm committed to reducing my psychological wounds (freeing my true Self), and am making significant progress at doing so.

__  5)  I can accurately identify Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) now using this and this.

__  6)  I can answer each of these questions about bonds, losses, and healthy grief now.

__  7)  I have thoughtfully identified the major physical and invisible losses in my life, starting in early childhood.

__  8)  I have thoroughly assessed myself for incomplete grief using this 3-level concept and these symptoms, or equivalent

__  9)  I have thoughtfully written down my personal policy about grieving well, and I'm living by it.

__  10)  I'm clear on whether I have _ personal and _social permissions to grieve well now. If I lack either one, I'm actively correcting that now.

__  11)  I can clearly describe what kind of support typical grievers need, and I know how to provide it.

__  12)  I often use the Serenity Prayer, and I understand how it relates to helping others grieve well. 

      If you can't confidently check each item as true now, you may be ruled by a false self and may not be ready to facilitate healthy grief.

Facilitating Others' Grief

      If your feel your mate, relative, or dear friend hasn't finished grieving some key loss/es, consider these options...

  • Make sure your true Self is guiding you (Lesson 1), and choose a long-term outlook.

  • Use this and this to estimate whether your person is a Grown Wounded Child. If s/he is, motivating her or him to assess for psychological wounds must come before completing grief.

  • Use these options for giving effective feedback to another person to suggest that s/he study and apply Lesson 1 in this Web site. Defer discussing Lesson 3 until her or his true Self is usually in charge.

  • Let these ageless wisdoms guide you. You can't make a wounded person want to recover or grieve, but you can "plant seeds."

  • Assess your person for addictions. They are an instinctive way to mute unbearable inner pain  (wounds). Stable sobriety from any addiction is needed before reducing psychological wounds (and grieving). Note also that any addiction usually indicates a low-nurturance home and family, which may be interfering with wound-reduction and healthy grieving.

  • If your person isn't ready to assess for psychological wounds and reduce them (hasn't hit bottom), you may talk about your own recovery and grieving process without expecting your person to change anything yet. See this for more options.

  • If s/he commits to empowering her/his true Self (true wound recovery), you may mention that unfinished grief can be toxic, and Lesson 3 is about learning how to grieve well. Then let go of feeling responsible for your person studying and acting on Lesson 3. If you feel compelled to rescue your person, check yourself for false-self dominance and codependence. Usually, rescuing someone (making them "feel better") is about your own comfort!

  • If your person is usually guided by his/her true Self, then ask if s/he will study and discuss Lesson 3 with you, and describe why you're asking. Option - ask your person to read this article with an open mind, and to discuss it with you. Whatever s/he decides to do, use these guidelines to support her or him while you progress on your own recovery and grieving. Finally,

  • If your person is raising kids, invite him or her to intentionally (a) teach their young people about healthy 3-level grief, (b) model it, and (c) intentionally create a pro-grief home for them. This will help to break the [wounds + unawareness] cycle in their family! 

+ + +

      Pause and reflect - what are you thinking and feeling now? If you know someone who seems to be stuck in mourning, do you feel these options could help you and them? Use the options as flexible possibilities, not a rigid cookbook.


      From 36 years' clinical research, I propose that incomplete grief is a little-known, widespread stressor in people, their families, and our society. Lesson 3 in this self-improvement course focuses on healthy grieving basics.

      This article describes a series of practical options for identifying and finishing incomplete grief. It includes an illustration of an average person acting on these options. The article closes with options for reacting to someone else's unfinished mourning.

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not, what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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