Who Helps You Grieve?

You lose a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a spouse or a parent. Death, breakup, estrangement – all terrible. If you are wary of a therapist, who helps you grieve? This tends not to be a thought-through decision. You are in pain, if not overwhelmed. I hope to address here some of the complications of your choice or choices – steer you, too, toward who might be best.

  • Complete Self-Reliance. This is the most challenging and dangerous choice. You have lost a dear person and, perhaps, trust in the virtue of attachment. You fear losing the supportive individual, too, through death, relocation, or misunderstanding; maybe driving them away with your desolation. Grieving alone is a self-alienating process. The parts of you press against each other. Your insides ache, but the world goes by as if nothing happened. Tears are not enough unless they are witnessed by someone sympathetic.
  • A Person in the Midst of the Same Grief. Should a child go to a parent who is also bereft if the child’s father (the mother’s spouse) is the one who is gone? The choice is natural, but the mother has nothing to give. Reverse the situation: should the mother go to the adult child seeking solace when the sting from which the daughter suffers is just as intolerable? Each needs her own support. That said, a parent or an adult offspring might feel responsible and obligated to give aid, and guilty if she does not. Both are adrift. Why do we expect one person to be the life-saving lifeguard when both people are drowning? We go to therapists because they are not suffering our loss. They offer the therapeutic distance the bereft cannot. Only with such remove from personal pain can comfort be provided as needed.
  • Friends or Relatives Who are Judgemental. Some people will blame you. What did you do to drive your spouse away? Why aren’t you going to church and relying on God? You mean you’re not over it yet? You need to move on, start dating again, get a life. Some of these “friends” do not want to consider their own vulnerability to tragedy and devastation. Easier to shun you or blame you. Surprisingly, a friend who has “been through it” might be less sympathetic than one who has not.
  • A New or Potential Love Interest Who Offers Support. Pardon me for being cynical here, but one must be careful of opportunists. Even those sincere in their desire to offer a hand to hold may be unaware of the extent to which they hope for a relationship with you. I’ve seen this opportunism in both sexes. By itself, not necessarily a bad thing, unless your vulnerability finds you making a poor selection of a new lover, choosing the distraction of a rebound romance to salve your faltering heart.
  • A Friend Who is Available For Only Part of the Job. She is a good choice if she is also sympathetic. Such a person might limit contact, but be fully present when able to offer herself. These friends can’t do the complete job of helping you grieve, but a part of it.
  • An Array of Supportive Friends. If you know such people, some of whom might be in your religious community, then you can go to two or three who are free and solid enough to take on a bit of your hurt. By distributing the weight of your pain among a few people, burn-out of any one of them is less likely.
  • A Support or Survivors Group. Especially if you add such a group to the friends with whom you talk, this can provide a means to the end you seek.
  • An Individual Therapist. Again, the various choices are not mutually exclusive. With the availability of a few people to witness your pain and a dedicated professional hand, you now have a system of reattachment to the human community. A counselor has treated other bereft souls before you, the training to help you along, and the aforementioned distance from your loss.

Nothing about this process is easy. No perfect solution exists. Time helps. Love helps. People help. Work helps, too.

The sun has set on your life, but, as Ecclesiastes tells us, the sun also rises.

The first photo is of The Kiel Canal, in the German State of Schleswig-Holstein. Finally, The Sun Rising Through the Clouds, by Moise Nicu, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

29 thoughts on “Who Helps You Grieve?

  1. I spent my first ever session with D , grieving the upcoming ending with Jane. It was the first time I had ever handled grief in any way other than by complete denial or self reliance. I can still remember her words about keeping Jane always with me in my heart and memories. She is a wonderful container for my grief, knowing the subject well herself, I think. I will always remember and treasure that first session, though there have been numerous ones like it since then. Her gentleness and holding were a badly needed revelation. The thought of eventually grieving her, without her, is unfathomable, but – she has taught me, held me, cared for me well, more than well, and it’s only because of her that I will be able to do it……

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    • Thank you for this. My next post will deal a bit with the impossibility of “freeze-drying” life (as most of us would like to), trying to make permanent the most precious things – precious because they are both in short supply and temporary.

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  2. “The melody that the loved one played upon the piano of your life will never be played quite that way again, but we must not close the keyboard and allow the instrument to gather dust. We must seek out other artists of the spirit, new friends who gradually will help us to find the road to life again, who will walk that road with us.”

    ~Rabbi Joshua Liebman, Peace of Mind

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    • A wise man, Evelyn. As it happened, I was at the Chicago Symphony last night and heard the 1935 Berg Violin Concerto, dedicated “to the memory of an angel,” the 19-year-old just-deceased daughter of a friend of his. To the good, there are a few angels out there who walk on two feet and help us right the balance of life. Some of them even men, some of them even fathers.

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  3. I love this.

    “With the availability of a few people to witness your pain and a dedicated professional hand, you now have a system of reattachment to the human community.”

    I love it a lot, because it speaks to what a good therapist should be: a bridge back to ‘life’ when we are stuck in some dark night, soul limbo-land.

    This is what my good therapists have been for me. A helping hand back to the human race at times I’ve felt so very far away.

    The opposite is my not-good former therapist, who walked back across the bridge, joined me on the other side and cut its ties to the world she should have been helping me journey back to.

    Sometimes it feels to me like all therapy is about grief, isolation, and finding a way to get unstuck from a place of bone-deep loneliness.

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    • “Sometimes it feels to me like all therapy is about grief, isolation, and finding a way to get unstuck from a place of bone-deep loneliness.” Well said, defragging me. It is surely climbing a ladder back to humanity, whatever the technique employed to do so.

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  4. What if you are a child you has lost a parent? At times I feel I am still in that moment. The moment that always beats the passage of time.

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    • There are surely moments like that, Joan. Vivid still, despite the passage of time. Some, I hope are good ones (like the one you mentioned at lunch): funny and still talked-about by your friends! I have in mind to write a post about the shock of the JFK assassination and, I think, a way to safely relive a little of the shock that I think few have heard.

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      • I’ll be looking forward to your take on one of those moments when everyone knew where they were. The world stood still.

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  5. You hit on a lot of what I went through when I had a pregnancy loss.

    I really found out who my friends were and who I could trust. The loss rocked my world.

    I had a friend who said she wouldn’t mind listening or my reaching out but when I did through email she ignored me repeatedly and then when I called her to confront her, her words were, “You’re forcing me to be a voyeur on your life. You should talk to a therapist.” And prior to that she offered for us to spend time with her newborn granddaughter knowing the loss of my pregnancy was fresh. Seriously, who wants to be around babies (or pregnant women) when they’ve just had a pregnancy loss, even by choice?!?!!!? Our friendship ended after that. It’s been 5 years and I don’t miss her or that friendship.

    I have had some thoughts on why see may have responded in this way. She gave birth at 19 instead of choosing abortion. I chose to end a much wanted pregnancy due to chromosomal abnormalities … And maybe my choice hit somewhere close to home … Perhaps she could not talk about my loss because it would bring up feelings for herself … But I’ll never really know because I’m not rekindling that dead friendship.

    I did end up seeing a therapist who was OK at best. My biggest help through this grieving process were the following: 1) an online private support group with women who suffered the same loss, 2) reading 4 books about pregnancy loss, and 3) reading online internet articles …. And then the passage of time which doesn’t erase all wounds, but makes the pain more distant.

    I met judgmental people in this healing journey … One was the office nurse from my Ob’s office who I ran into in a public place and she told me, “God works in mysterious ways and doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Things happen for a reason, and I was going to talk you into keeping your pregnancy but Dr. X was there when we were on the phone.” I talked to the office manager about what she said and where she said it. She ended up getting fired. I was never angry with that nurse. I understand she was religious and young.

    Grieving is a process for sure and journey for sure. I learned so much about myself, people close to me and people in general. Grief carves it’s own path and there isn’t a right or wrong way to grieve — it’s unique as the individual.

    Thanks for the post Dr. G! ❤

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    • You’ve made “real” what I offered only in abstractions. Thank you for this, Elizabetcetera. You sound both generous in your forgiveness of the nurse and having good judgement in the disposition of your friendship with the failing friend. I’m glad I was able to prompt your response and your reply here.

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  6. An important question, Dr. Stein. Who can avoid the loss of a loved one? It’s part of the human condition. In Brazil, I didn’t have the luxury of a therapist to help me deal with my husband’s abandonment. I did the best I could to heal and deal with my everyday responsibilities in raising two small children alone without their father. I was grateful for all the emotional support I received from neighbors and friends at work.

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    • You have made an essential point, Rosaliene. Sometimes (and often in some places) there isn’t the luxury of a therapist to be had. Moreover, for most of human history, people simply buried the dead and went on with their lives; burying their emotions, if possible, with the deceased. Thanks for a particularly useful personal take on the issue.

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  7. Grief, such an extremely personal thing in its breadth and its depth and its scope. Very difficult to share with someone you don’t know and trust completely. The unburdening leaves you open to even more pain if you pick the wrong person to open up to. Sharing with loved ones, be they relatives or friends, is an unloving and selfish thing to do. Why would you want to burden those you hold most dear with your tears, with your grief? Why would you want to pull them into your sorrow or make them worry about you? You’d want to safeguard those you love, not add to their load.

    On the other hand, when you are already in such a vulnerable state, those you don’t know or care deeply about (therapists and support groups, or casual friends/acquaintances) seem risky choices to trust with your most acute and painful feelings. I see no other recourse but to go the first route you mentioned, “Complete Self-Reliance”. Even with all your arguments against it, to me there seems to be no other thoughtful option. You are sparing loved ones, and protecting yourself from all others at the same time.

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  8. I’d take issue with one of your assumptions, Brewdun. If you “go under” from the grief, your relatives or friends are not spared: you are lost to them. They are damaged by your injury (an injury to someone they love) and hurt from seeing you hurt. Support groups, while made up of strangers, hold at least the possibility that these strangers will come to support you within the protected confines of the group, under the leadership of a therapist usually, or at least, someone with experience. I suppose, ultimately, the proof of the pudding in is the eating. If you try the group and it fails, that’s one thing. If you predict the group’s inadequate or hurtful response, then your suffering alone is guaranteed. Only one of these options offers much hope that you will attach again to the human community. You may survive without any support from individuals or groups, but you will be alone. Thank you, however, for your openness in describing the view of a good many people. It has added to the conversation.

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  9. Thank you for this post, Dr. Stein. Who “helps” me “grieve”? – My answer is no one because I believe help shouldn’t be judgmental or limiting, and I’ve seen many people across a wide network in my life judge my grief and limit me from being able to grieve the way I need to. Thus, I wasn’t allowed to grieve with anyone, so no one helped me grieve but myself. I cried alone for over 30 years. As a trauma survivor, I dealt with internal systems (dissociative identity disorder) who reenacted their emotions and found comfort within the dissociative realm while I was alone in my home, but no one to witness or understand it. When grieving is pathologized as something else (i.e., misdiagnosed), it makes finding help to grieve even worse – especially when you’re told not to grieve and to subdue or limit your grief. This is why I’m still disabled. (PS: I usually have something cheerful to say, but I don’t on this one.) I know grief is a phase of trauma treatment, but I feel that I haven’t found a therapist yet who either allows me to express the grief I need to or whom I feel completely comfortable with–by comfortable, I mean I can trust the therapist is truly trying to understand me, truly believes me, and truly has my back in terms of seeing my strengths in the midst of my weaknesses. There’s a lot of vagueness in my words – on purpose – but the specifics are way too painful for me to mention here. I’ve tried to use online forums in the distant past (like about 10 years ago), and that never really helped. THIS is the number one reason why I haven’t been able to get off of disability and finally apply to graduate programs in psychology; I have a really hard time trusting the curricula if the majority of what I’ve experienced as a client has been misdiagnoses, judgment, and mistreatment. I’ve had wonderful therapists, too, but it’s easier to remember the stuff that could potentially endanger our way of life and our survival. It’s not that people will remain stuck in the grieving process, or that people want attention, or that people are too needy; it really is that there are a bunch of us who have gone years without the right kind of people in our social networks, and that takes a toll on trusting future people who would be awesome candidates to be in our social network. If we were to grieve and be accepted in our grief, we would be free. There’s something about wanting justice, also. When the grief includes betrayal trauma, and no one was prosecuted, and the victim is blamed and then ridiculed for having strong emotions, then the need for processing grief with real live human beings and being validated by them is greater. To be able to trust life again, not just human beings, but life, is hard. There’s a narrative that needs a voice – a human voice – and even some form of strong wailing and lamenting; when that is heard and comforted without judgment by people who care as well as professionals, then and finally then can I see people like me moving on and finding hope that this world is trustworthy. Until then, victim blaming seems to remain an issue. (PS: I also quit smoking recently, so I’m a bit sensitive to everything right now, but I’m trying to get my feelings out in a somewhat coherent way.)

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    • You are coherent to me. No worries on that count, PP. You’ve had a rough road. I treated DID and did so even when it was called MPD, too. Back when you were starting the therapy grind, it sounds like you encountered what I saw in the field: many people who did not know their way, but thought they did, or tried their best with little guidance. Lots of injury happened to the patients. In my own first encounter (that I know of) with a DID patient (who eventually recovered to have a good life), I’d been treating her for a year when she called me one day in crisis, sounded “different,” and told me she was going to murder her son (who was himself a criminal) and that she had a weapon to do it. Well, I figured it out, as we all did despite getting as much education as was then available, and our education was partly at the expense of those we treated. Your hesitation is understandable and, I gather from what you’ve said, some of the alter personalities in your internal system comfort some of the others. But, I do hope you don’t give up. The field has advanced enormously since you started and there are now good, experienced, and well-trained therapists among whom surely you would find one who is trustworthy. Thanks for what you’ve written here.

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      • Thank you, Dr. Stein. I haven’t given up, and I’m still in treatment (now getting used to another therapist). Your explanation makes a lot of sense. I have sympathy for the therapists, too, but it’s like going to a doctor to get your broken leg fixed and instead of treating that leg, they treat the arm while putting pressure on the broken leg to do it; it hurts and it’s not working; the diagnosis of a broken arm or a non-compliant patient are incorrect; the patient needs the leg fixed. In DID, as I see it, there are multiple wounds and fractures that need fixing, and sometimes treating one area activates a different area. But I’m bias because I have it, LOL. I am mostly integrated now with a few internal helpers I’m co-conscious with. The integration of the others were kind of automatic as I learned to process the trauma with them co-consciously and then on my own. But the pain and grief remained with me and no longer exists in the alter who no longer exists. No therapist or professional has thus far ever been able to explain what this is. Some have said that I “pretended” or “pleased the therapist.” That’s far from the truth, though pleasing the therapist for approval does co-exist, that’s not the motive behind making the statement that I’m now fully dealing with the effects of the trauma on my own – without an alter that no longer exists, and that alter wasn’t made up (he or she did exist!). It’s hard when you’re no longer presenting as a “new DID” case but are rather integrated from prior treatment and need help to (1) still process the trauma for PTSD, but (2) still work on integration of the remaining co-conscious alters. I don’t need to “switch” for a therapist to say that I am making it up or that my past treatments were ineffective because they couldn’t get me to “switch.” I’ve had that happen too. I’ve made progress in treatment, and I won’t undo that progress because of a therapist who needs to “see” the alters. There’s not much studies on that, and the DSM only provides criteria for DID that has perhaps gone untreated or has not been treated for that long. When you change care and you’re nearly fully integrated, it’s hard to get your new counselor to understand, believe you, and treat you effectively. You’re often going through the full circle of coping skills you already know, etc., instead of understanding my narrative now and allowing me to grieve without fear of my emotions. For instance, I may be in so much pain and try to trust the counselor enough to cry like a child (but it is me, not a child alter), and the counselor tells you, “Calm down, let’s change the subject, let’s get your mind to a safe place.” I thought I was in a safe place with her and being able to express to her how I feel because words don’t do it justice. I don’t want a hug, I don’t want attention. I just want to deal with this feeling I’m presenting before her because that is what reaction I finally had after telling the same darned story over and over again in different ways with the same therapist. You then feel you can’t ever show that kind of emotion again, and then you’re afraid to show any emotion. The therapist then says that you have to learn to process grief without expressing it like THAT. Is this true? If that’s the case, maybe I can learn more coping skills to subdue the emotions I’ve been subduing and controlling for years. It’s not like I go around to everyone and act this way; I have many friends I’ve maintained relationships with for years, and I’ve been close to them, love them and allow them to love me, etc. I’m not afraid of getting close to people, but I am afraid of therapists who make judgments and then frustrate me to the point of simply agreeing with them and melting down on my own at home. If there’s anything I need to grieve over is that first before my trauma because now I have what I feel are two traumas. Therapy is a relationship – a different one with a unique set of boundaries – but a relationship nonetheless. I have boundaries too, and some of those boundaries include my needing a moment to express something. It won’t escalate, it won’t last for hours. It’s just a pre-verbal expression perhaps. I don’t know, but I have to guess because I haven’t had a therapist who could answer it for me. Heck, if some of the same therapists were to tell me that they got the treatment wrong and that they’re willing to still help me with a different plan that works, I’d be okay with that; I’d try to maintain that relationship with the therapists. But often times therapists say something really hurtful to you or they refer you to find someone else. I understand that therapists deal with their own pain from hearing clients’ stories, and my stories are painful for me to hear, so for them I can just imagine. But I just wanted someone to hear me grieve. If that’s attention-seeking behavior that I need to control, then I’ll learn to control it and figure out eventually how to “grieve properly.” I’m sorry to vent. I do trust the field, and I love it dearly, but I also have had most of these experiences from Social Workers (clinical), which may have different training than MFTs, LPCs, PsyDs, and PhDs. I don’t want to discriminate between the two fields because I’ve had awesome LCSWs also who have treated me, one of which was in a trauma treatment hospital, and I believe that it is important for social workers to work with psychology professionals and vice versa. I’ve just been hurt, and I know it isn’t my “disorder” that is making me feel hurt; it’s unintentional hurt I feel when the treatment wasn’t helping. Anyway, I feel better just getting this out. Thank you for reading and responding. It really helps me find hope.

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      • I’m glad you haven’t given up. The two levels of trauma – the initial trauma and that which comes from treatment — are something I’ve heard from others. Common enough, but in no way acceptable. DID does challenge the therapist at every level, including his own security and emotional stability. Still, it is our job to do our job properly and “do no harm.”

        As to “The therapist then says that you have to learn to process grief without expressing it like THAT. Is this true?” I haven’t heard this kind of report before. So long as the patient is safe, lots of tears shouldn’t be disqualifying. Thanks for writing all this PP. Your courage is inspirational, not just about treatment, but about surviving the human condition.

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  10. What would you do, what would your reaction be, if a total stranger came up to you and asked you to write down on a piece of paper a secret that you have never revealed to anyone else before and then to hand that piece of paper over to this stranger and then to stand back and watch what the stranger does with it. This is a person that you know nothing about, know nothing about their background, their hopes, their dreams, their journey past and present. Yet you are expected to overcome all your inhibitions, your learned and indoctrinated habits and coping mechanisms, to override all that you believe you have created to protect yourself and to place this in the hands of a stranger whose hands you have no idea are capable or not of holding and protecting your secret. This is how I feel when I’m asked to talk about my grief. This is as I see it in my limited sight: there is one of you and one of the dead/lost person, your relationship is unique therefore no-one can tell you how to grieve, your grief is as snowflake unique as your relationship with that dead or lost person, just moving on as everyone tells you to do is invalidating that unique relationship you cherished, grief is packed up into a butterfly printed bandanna and slung over your shoulder, most kinds of grief you have to learn to carry. No-one can help you through your grief, it is a path you have to carve out of your soul landscapes all on your own but you can share the journey milestones with someone who will hold out a trust bucket and let you fling in your excavated tears and rage and lostness. Learning to grieve is like learning to love – we all had teachers who sucked but sometimes there was an old geezer or two that got past our mental barriers and defenses and managed to knock out some of our stubbornness to create space for us to move and reach out and remember how to dance in the light of remembrance even if the dance steps are new ones. And I am so afraid of losing the sound of the heartbeats of those people I have loved and lost, too afraid to whisper my grief in case it all runs out and I am left with no memories to hold onto in the cold darkness of being alone. Society let’s us love and hate and laugh and cry and rage out at injustices but very rarely does it allow us to grieve in all our technicolour emotional fears – grief is the party gatecrasher, the loud fart in polite company, somehow, somewhere we’ve made ourselves believe that we can feel and express and ask for help for any emotional cause or neglect except for grief, that’s taboo, grief must be hidden in the darkest corners of the basement, we don’t even allow grief to co-habit with our skeletons in the closet. Grief somehow got separated from the emotional pack and was labeled as outcast. We judge another’s grief in our anger that our own grief was not allowed to be seen, to be held, to be soothed. It is in the act of surrender that we allow ourselves to choose someone to be a witness to our grief, whether that person honours all our expectations or not, we have taken the first steps to being visible within our grief. So in usual Rosie fashion I’m giving society a great big “up yours” when it comes to my grief – I hurt all over, inside and out from death and loss and things that were taken from me without my permission and with no satisfaction of justice, I hurt but I am blessed to have people in my life that I have chosen to hold my hurt until I am ready to wrap it all up in that butterfly bandanna and fling it over my shoulder, ready for the next adventure. Grief should be talked about and exposed and held and we should be allowed to say as loudly as we like “I hurt” – thanks Dr G for opening up this can of wriggly worms

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    • “No one feels another’s grief, no one understands another’s joy. People imagine that they can reach one another. In reality they only pass each other by.”
      Franz Schubert

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      • An interesting comment from Schubert, who lived only to age 31, and who understood enough of grief to touch people even today. Listen, in particular, to his Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960. Thanks, Brewdun.

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  11. Thank you, Rosie. As always, you enlighten from the inside all who read you. You, Brewdun, and PP have displayed the agony of the grieving dilemma. Why do we do it? As the punchline to an old Woody Allen joke tells us, “because we need the eggs.” I hope you know the joke, otherwise here is a link to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-M3Q2zhGd4

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  12. Ugh! I have been in therapy for 5 years, 4 of which were messing around with treatment resistant depression. After a MBSR course it turns out I am a child abuse survivor. The therapeutic relationship is contentious: I have terminated numerous time, only to return with my tail between my legs because of grief! If I terminate this therapeutic relationship before it is time I feel grief. It feels like this therapist is learning at my expense. I tried to terminate today but I knew what I would be in store for if I did – grief. I suppose I’m in this therapeutic relationship for the long haul. I have a support group, family and a couple of friends. Healing from child abuse and dealing with a contentious therapeutic relationship is exhausting. I have to be careful not to tire those people out. Grief: the sun also rises.

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  13. Hang in there Jake. Your continuing return and your statement about the long haul make me think you are learning some things. Nobody gets therapy or life right (if there is a right) at every moment. I’m rooting for you.

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  14. Yes, therapists indeed are the best resource to help one grieve, because the world expects the grieving person to trudge forward and stop making others feel uncomfortable by their sadness. Since I am finding therapy to be such a life changing experience, I applaud your suggestion for this and all types of anguish.

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  15. awesome writing . thanks

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