Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Parts Awareness in the Grieving Process

In our lifetimes, few of us escape the pain of grief over losing a loved one. Many of us experience this pain a number of times. In fact, the more full and engaged one's life is the more one runs the risk of this kind of loss. Even if we somehow were never to lose a human friend or family member, any pet owner knows that it is one of nature's ironies that our beloved pets have a shorter average life span than we do. Whenever we give our hearts to other beings we know that those same hearts may be shattered when our dear ones leave or die.

Some people refuse to take this kind of risk, attempting to solve the problem by not allowing in the feeling of love inside in the first place. But a life without loving connection lacks richness and depth. Most of us are not willing to live our lives that way.

I have found that the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model provides some insight into what is really happening when you are grieving and speeds the process itself. Dr. Richard Schwartz developed this model after years of listening to his clients describe what was happening inside them.

Dr. Schwartz discovered that it is our normal condition to be comprised internally of a number of different parts or sub-personalities. He states: "A number of intrapsychic explorers encountered what I call the 'normal multiplicity of the mind' long before I did." (Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D. (2001) Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model, Trailheads Publications, p. 94)

Dr. Schwartz adds that: "Carl Jung also recognized the multiplicity inside himself and his clients and used a process called 'active imagination' to gain access to that inner world. Of the inhabitants he found there, he said, 'There are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life...they always have a certain degree of autonomy, a separate identity of their own.' " (Ibid. p. 94)

The Internal Family Systems model provides a map to our inner structure as human beings. According to that map, each of us has one Self and a number of parts in each of the following categories:

Self - the core or center of the person. At this level we can never be hurt or wounded. When leading with Self you feel calm, clear about things, compassionate, confident, and curious. You are courageous and creative. You are aware on a deep level of the connectedness we all have with the other Selves around us.

Exiles - these parts hold painful emotions or burdens from unresolved trauma. They are often young and have vulnerable feelings.

Managers - these parts try to protect the Exiles from the outside world and from Firefighter parts. They also often try to hide the Exiles from the rest of the internal system. They try to keep you in control.

Firefighters - they try to protect too but either by distracting or by taking the system out of control so that you will get help. Examples include: Addictions, dissociation, obsessions, compulsions, shopping too much, over-exercising, workaholic behavior, self-harm.

When we are feeling overwhelmed by grief we are usually feeling a lot of different things. Some parts of ourselves will be feeling deeply sad. There may also be a part that is completely enraged. And there may be other aspects of us that are fearful of the impact of the sad and angry parts. We may have a cloaking part that cuts us off from the feelings of all the other parts.

Many of us have experienced a few days of numbness immediately following a personal tragedy, and may have even thought to ourselves: "I thought I was going to feel worse than this." A few days later, when the cloaking part thinks we can handle it, the really painful feelings start coming in. Often in spurts, we'll be completely overwhelmed with sadness, fear or anger and then (especially if we let these feelings speak to us without trying to cut them off) we'll feel kind of okay for awhile. Then more overwhelming feelings.

While everybody grieves differently, almost everybody has some feelings of confusion or inner conflict about the process they are going through. I find it helps tremendously to know that different feelings represent different parts of my internal self and that sometimes these parts do not agree with and may even fear the others. This is why it can be very helpful to visit a therapist when you are grieving. A professional can help you mediate the conflict going on inside you when you are feeling really strong feelings. Doing this will make the whole process go faster and help you heal the wounds that are there from having lost a cherished one in your life.

I have experienced the helpfulness of being "parts aware" in my own grief process and would like to share one example with you in the hope that it might help you as well.

My dear father died after a long illness. As I stood next to him looking at his body and saying goodbye through my tears, I knew that I wanted to use this time with him to begin to heal some of my grief at losing him in my life. At first I wasn't sure what to do. Then I realized that I had a lot of different parts at different ages inside me that needed to say goodbye. I began by thinking of myself as a one-year old and saying: "Goodbye, Daddy." I did this for two and for three. By then I was sobbing very deeply. By the time I got to my teen years, I was crying but it was not with such deep sobs. I said goodbye to him at every age up to my current one. Then I turned and walked out into the sunshine, not even needing to look back a final time at his body. He was now someplace else for me.

I still had a lot more grieving to do because I missed him. But in saying goodbye in that way, I had let him go and opened myself to other aspects of this life process. And now my sad feelings didn't overwhelm me. I could now feel and remember the ways in which he made impact on my life, instead of shutting out all feelings related to him to keep the pain away. My feelings of love for him have actually grown, as I have been more open to the loss of him. The amount of time I spent in painful grief at his death was substantially shorter than what I had experienced with other close deaths. Even how I think about the finality of death has changed from this experience.

How one heals from grief is a process unique to every individual. Yet we all have internal parts that overwhelm us with feeling or keep us from feeling anything, when our feel hearts are shattered by loss. Most of us have a surprising number of these internal personalities, also uniquely individual and often in conflict with other parts inside ourselves.

In the example I just gave about my father, I did not have any parts of myself that thought it was a bad or silly idea to say goodbye in that way. Because of that my goodbye to him worked for me. Someone else might have had a part that did not want to be embarrassed by crying in a funeral parlor. So the way I said goodbye to my father might not have worked for them. Because the relationships between our internal parts are so complex, I would strongly recommend that anyone dealing with the feelings of grief seek the help of a therapist. An IFS therapist, in particular, can help you work with all of the deep and conflicted feelings that are swirling inside of you as you face your loss.

With a little help and some parts awareness painful loss can be healed, overwhelming feelings can quiet down and the full richness of life can be experienced again.

Diane Jhueck, MA, is a therapist who practices in Clinton who provides IFS psychotherapy and specializes in helping people to transform the barriers to health & happiness. Diane can be contacted for questions or scheduling here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/m15_view_item.html?m15:item=djhueck%40whidbey.com also at: http://www.goodtherapy.org/Kansas-City-therapy.htm

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