When You Can’t Talk About Your Grief

There’s a phrase for the torment that you can’t talk about: disenfranchised grief. It was first defined by Kenneth J. Doka in 1989 as “grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.” Your heart is grieving, but you can’t talk about it to your friends because it’s considered unacceptable or tasteless or shocking. You’re sad, but the world doesn’t want to hear about it.

Examples of Disenfranchised Grief

·    Religious Amanda, age 14, just lost the love of her life, her 15-yr-old boyfriend to her best friend. She feels betrayed, lost, hopeless, depressed, scared, angry, and sad. When her parents minimize her pain, telling her it was just “puppy love,” she wants to scream at them, “I gave up my virginity for this relationship!” But she doesn’t. They don’t understand the depth of her pain, so she puts on a smile and keeps it to herself.

·    When my friend MaryAnn lost her soul mate to cancer, she cried nonstop for 14 days. On the 15th day, she packed away his belongings and went hiking, laughing and joking with old friends. “You’re in denial,” friends told her because they couldn’t believe that she could recover that quickly. Her grieving was different, and therefore, unacceptable to them. Two years later, she was still at peace with his passing and moving on with her life. What her friends didn’t understand that during the two years when she and her friend were fighting his cancer, she was learning to let go. Every month that he got worse, she slowly let go of him.

·    When Elizabeth had her 4th miscarriage, her friends and family were used to it. But for her, the death of this fetus was also the death of hope that she would have a family. All the pain that she had been trying to dismiss for 8 years came tumbling out. Her grief was profound and prolonged. Friends couldn’t get her to “snap out of it,” as she had in the past. She became good at pretending, but spent many hours each day in bed crying.

·    Everyone thought 10-yr-old Jodi was a quiet child. Sweet and shy, she kept to herself. What they didn’t know was that she couldn’t talk about her pain. When she told her alcoholic mother that her father was sexually abusing her, he was arrested and went to prison. Now she feels alone in the world because she is left with an alcoholic mother who pays little attention to her.

·    Blaine was devastated when his wife of 50 years died in a car accident. Though family members extolled her virtues, they also told him that at least she had a long and productive life. “It was her time to go,” they told him. This didn’t help to ease his immense pain. He went into a deep depression and finally died two years later. His daughter says he died of a broken heart.

A Tale of Two Families

Betty and Jean, both single parents, were close friends and next-door neighbors for some 30 years. Two of their children were the same age, and Rob and James became close friends. They went to Sunday School together and helped each other to earn the badges leading up to Eagle Scout. When James received the “Hope of America” award in 6th grade, his mother Jean was proud and happy as was Betty. In fact, Betty was the first to jump to her feet in a standing ovation for him. When Betty’s son Rob received a basketball scholarship to college, Jean felt as much joy and pride for him as if it had been her own son James. They played sports together, did science projects together, and even double dated in high school.

When James was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in college, Betty spent many hours with his mother Jean in his hospital room. They prayed together, cried together, and Betty provided a good listening ear for Jean. Betty organized a charity fund through their church for her good friend’s son to get the necessary surgery to save his life. Despite valiant efforts and the best of surgeons, James died after a four-year battle with cancer. Jean was surrounded with love and sympathy from neighbors, friends, relatives, and their church community. It was one of the largest funerals that people could remember. Hundreds of flower arrangements were brought to the grave and Jean’s home. She had more casseroles than what she could eat in a month. And Betty stayed with her friend Jean to comfort her through torturous days of sorrow.

Shortly after losing his best friend, Rob learned of another, even greater loss. His father, who lived in another state, died in a motorcycle accident. He had always hoped to be able to move close to his dad so that he could get to know him better, and now that would never happen. In his grief, he turned to alcohol and drugs. When his grades fell, he lost his scholarship and his place on the basketball team. Things got worse when he was expelled from college and turned to pain killers. Rob died of an overdose two years to the day after James died. It may or may not have been accidental.

Sixteen people attended Rob’s funeral. Betty’s friend Jean came, but slipped out the back door of the church before the procession to the cemetery. No one seemed to know what to say to Betty. Unlike Jean, there was no outpouring of love from the congregation. Betty was alone in her grief and felt like she was going crazy.

That’s when she called me to talk about her son, her grief, and the craziness that she felt. I let her know that she had a right to her grief. She had a right to be comforted, affirmed, and validated.  Her grief was real and raw. The lack of community support threatened to turn her grief into something bitter and ugly.

Apparently it’s all right to die of cancer. It’s not all right to die from drug abuse. At least that is what society would have us believe. But what about the person’s need to talk?

Therapists Will Listen

People turn to therapists for disenfranchised grief because no one else wants to listen. What a shame! People heal when they can talk about their pain. In fact, one of the most important factors in the resolution of grief is social support from others. Please know that you have the right to tell your story and indulge your grief—whether others want to hear about it or not.

One of the things that you may need to address eventually is that hidden reservoir of anger lurking just beneath the pain. As much as you may not be ready to do this, you will eventually need to forgive others for not being there for you when you needed them most. You’ll need to do this so that you can set yourself free from the bonds of resentment. Grieving is a process, and it wants a voice. You’ll need to do some talking or writing. In addition to that, you may want to give yourself the gift of some grieving rituals.

Grieving Rituals

Although they vary by religion, culture, or region, healing rituals can help us to let go. You don’t have to spend money or be religious to have a ritual. Consider these:

Celebrate a Life. Much like a formal funeral, a private celebration can also be very powerful. Set up a time and space where you can celebrate the life of your loved one. Perhaps you’ll want to pick some special music, gather photos, write about your loved one or tell another person some special stories.

Create a Scrapbook or Video Slideshow. Several of my clients have done this and brought their scrapbook to therapy. I remember one client brought me her scrapbook each week for three months. She told me charming, lovely stories about her beloved cat who had recently died. We laughed and cried together while she told her stories.

Carry a Private Momento. It may be a photo, a ribbon, a postcard, or anything small that you can keep in a purse or briefcase. One client I knew wore a small heart necklace every day to remind her of her love. Several of my clients have gotten tattoos over their hearts.

Plant a Tree. Planting a tree in someone’s name can be public or private. It doesn’t even have to be a tree. It can be a flower, a bush, or even a potted plant.

Donate Your Time or Money to a Cause. Several people that I know have donated their time and efforts to causes that they support. It helps them to heal knowing that they are contributing something to the greater good.

Hang a Favorite Poem on the Wall. Maybe it reminds you of your loved one or what you had together. Perhaps it perfectly describes how you feel. Maybe it helps you to have hope.

Light a Candle. A client of mine says that she lights a candle every night to memorialize the past relationship that she can’t openly acknowledge. It’s enough for her to know why she is doing it.

Spread the Ashes. After a cremation, many people find solace in spreading the ashes in a treasured place—on the top of a mountain, in a body of water, or at a favorite place you both enjoyed.

Your Challenge

If you’re grieving, talk. Grief needs an outlet. If you have no one to talk to, then write your feelings. Perhaps you’ll want to keep a private journal of your feelings.

If you know of someone who is grieving, then listen, listen, listen. You don’t have to say anything magic. Ask how the person is doing and then just listen without judgment.

Omega-3 Oils Could Help Beat Major Depression

July 1, 2010 by  
Filed under Burnout

Dr. Andrew Weil reports that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil can help treat mild to moderate depression, and now a study from Canada suggests that these essential fatty acids might also help people suffering from major depression. Researchers at the University of Montreal and other participating medical centers in Canada recruited 432 men and women suffering from unipolar depression for a randomized, double-blind study testing omega-3 supplements against a placebo. Many of the patients had complex and difficult to treat depression, and many hadn’t responded to earlier treatment with prescribed antidepressants. After eight weeks, the investigators saw a “clear benefit” in patients who suffered from depression alone, but not in those who also had anxiety disorders. The investigators noted that the improvements were comparable to those generally seen with conventional anti-depressant treatment and concluded that additional research will be needed to test omega-3s head to head against antidepressants. The daily doses used in the study were 1,050 mg of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and 150 mg of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

Further, Dr. Weil reports that a number of studies have suggested that a deficit of omega-3s may predispose to depression. He recommends two to three grams of fish oil a day, providing both EPA and DHA in a ratio of about three or four to one for mild to moderate depression along with other approaches including regular exercise, at least 30 minutes five days a week. Exercise is the most effective treatment known for mild to moderate depression. Results of the study on the effectiveness of fish oil for patients with major depression appear promising. We all look forward to future studies comparing this treatment with pharmaceutical anti-depressants!

Stress Relief

October 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Anxiety, Burnout

I was looking at my list of things to do yesterday wondering how I was going to get everything done. Sometimes I do more than what I can reasonably handle. And I know I’m not alone in feeling the stresses and pressures of daily life. Every day in counseling I see people who are stressed, anxious, nervous, pressured, and burned out. Life can certainly be stressful for all of us.

Slow down and relax for a moment.

We are all seeking solutions to problems in life.  But it’s important to take the time to recognize stress and the body’s need to relax, even if the pace in your life is not slowing down. Guided meditations and breathing techniques can help give you simple ways to relax, even if for just a few quick minutes in the middle of a busy day.

Count your breaths.

The easiest way to start off when practicing guided relaxation is to count your breaths as you inhale and exhale. You don’t need to do a lot. Start with five.  After all, our lives are busy.  Breathwork that involves inhaling through your nose as deeply as you can, will help your body start to relax. Hold this breath and then let it out slowly through your nose. Your heart rate will start to slow down and your muscles will start to relax. When learning relaxation meditation, remember to have a focus for the meditation, such as on your breathing.

Recognize and dismiss thoughts.

During relaxation meditation, all kinds of thoughts will come to mind. As you learn to recognize these thoughts and then dismiss them, your meditation will go deeper.  This is one of the main reasons why you will want to choose a quiet place for meditation where you will not be interrupted by the normal sounds of your life when you are teaching yourself how to to do this. Meditation for beginners can be frustrating when you can’t seem to get it right the first time. Just hang in there.

Stay focused on your breathing.

The key is to stay focused on meditating and to focus on your breathing techniques. The thoughts of frustration are ones that can take over and ruin relaxation methods for you. One great practice in meditation for beginners learning how to relax is to concentrate on the parts of the body. Start with your toes and focus on them as you feel them relax. Then move upward concentrating for a few minutes on each body part and how it relaxes. As you get to your head, your body will be completely relaxed. Ahhhhhh. It feels so good.

If meditation is not for you, don’t worry.

The reason I like using The Wild Divine, a biofeedback tool designed to aid in the learning of relaxation and meditation, is because it’s easy to sit at the computer and watch “a video game.” (It’s really not a video game, but it looks like one.) I find The Wild Divine works well with beginners, children, and people who suffer from anxiety. So, if the breathing and meditation techniques aren’t helpful for you, use The Wild Divine instead. Biofeedback is a simple, but powerful tool that helps you to communicate with your body. You’ll wear finger cuffs which measure your skin temperature and allows you to move through levels of the games. You can watch the demo below and see what I mean. Be well.

Be Happier by Complaining Less

July 5, 2009 by  
Filed under Anxiety, Burnout

One very rainy day I met with several clients and kept track of how many complaints about the weather I heard. Twenty-four! Even the cashier in the grocery store complained about the weather. And not one complaint changed the weather. I guess that’s my complaint about complaints. Complaining is not effective in creating change. Lily Tomlin tells this joke: “Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.”


The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “complain” as “to express pain, grief or discontent.” And certainly there are appropriate times that you need to complain. We all have the right to express pain. And yet dozens of complaints every day can have a very negative impact on your health, your relationships, and your quality of life. Studies have shown that complaining about your health actually tends to make your health worse.

From my point of view, incessant complaining is a self-destructive habit. If you want to claim your power, feel happier, and less stressed in life, then stop complaining. Take up assertiveness instead to state the facts. For example, a simple statement of fact (“The shipment didn’t arrive as scheduled.”) is very different from a complaint (“You people always mess up my orders.”)

Here’s my advice:

1. Stop and Notice.

Notice every time you whine, judge yourself or others, make nasty comments (even in your head), or negatively vent your feelings. Just take note that you’re doing it. Perhaps you can jot it down. Your complaints may be about the weather, your boss, the kids, your spouse, the flavor of the mustard in your sandwich, the crazy drivers on the road, your too tight jeans, your bad hair day, or not having enough time. Count your complaints each day.

2. Analyze for Control.

So many complaints are outside of your control. There’s absolutely nothing you can do to change the situation. This would include things like the weather, the other drivers on the road, or your country’s foreign policy. If that’s the case, you need to let it go. If you can control it, then change it. If you can’t control a situation, do you have some influence? Then use your influence in a positive way to effect some change.

3. Analyze for Effectiveness.

Then ask yourself if your complaints helped the matter.  Or did your complaints cause you to focus more on what you didn’t want? In other words, is complaining effective as a strategy for getting what you want? If it is, then keep complaining. If not, learn to let go. And give yourself some time to do this. Deeply ingrained habits take some time.

4. Beware of Secondary Gain.

If you just can’t give up complaining, then you may want to look at your secondary gains. This is a psychological term meaning the benefits of undesirable behavior. It implies that you’re getting something out of complaining that keeps the bad habit in place. It may be personal attention, self-pity, or release from unpleasant responsibilities. You remain in a “victim consciousness.” And feeling like a victim contributes to both depression and anxiety. Is that really what you want?

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”          –Maya Angelou

Copyright © 2009 Kathie Keeler, All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transferred by any print or electronic means without the express written consent of the copyright owner. Thank you!

Perspective–Tools for Tough Times

April 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Anxiety, Burnout

If you stand high on a mountaintop looking down at the valley below, you have a unique perspective. You can see a bigger picture. Sometimes we need to step back and search for a bigger picture in life. The view is different.


We may not have the same perspective when the crisis has passed. If you’re anything like me, you can look back on a past crisis and wonder why you got so upset about it at the time. Because things changed, as they always do.

When you’re looking at alternatives, you will often find things you wouldn’t have seen had you not been forced to look.

For example, a client of mine was laid off from his job.  He found that he had some marketable skills which he could now focus on full time. It turned out that the crisis was actually an opportunity for growth for him. Here are some practical tips for you to take a bigger perspective during challenging times.

  • Be flexible in your thinking. Keep your mind open. It will help you to see the diamond in the pile of coal.
  • This too shall pass. There’s an ebb and flow to life.  Sometimes life is great; sometimes it’s not. Knowing that you’ve survived rough times before should give you some hope that you can do it again.
  • Choose optimism. Decide right now that you’re going to see the glass half full, not half empty. Look for the positive in every crisis. It’s there. But it may take some looking.
  • List the tasks that need to be done. For example, if there has been a death in the family, there may be a lot of things to do. As you start listing those things (call relatives and friends, arrange for the funeral, write an obituary, etc.) you can then see what needs to be done, and what is less important. Number the high priority items by importance.
  • Let go of what’s not important. As you work with your list of tasks, start eliminating the things that aren’t high priority. Let them go.
  • Let go of what you can’t control. There are certain things in every crisis that you just can’t control.  The trick is to identify and then let go of those things.
  • Ask the experts. If you have a financial crisis, talk to a financial expert. If it’s a legal problem, talk to an attorney. People often forget this important tool.
  • Ask yourself, “What am I learning through this crisis?” Write it down. The lessons that we learn in life can help us through the next difficulty.
  • Tune into your faith. A lot of people smarter than me have said that we can choose fear or we can choose  faith. What if you absolutely knew that you would be able to find some higher purpose in the crisis that you’re going through. Would it make a difference? When pressed, most people can identify the higher purpose from previous rough times. If you choose faith that there is, in fact, some higher purpose for your challenge, would you fight against it so much?

What Does it Mean to Take Good Care of Yourself?

March 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Burnout

What does it mean to take good care of yourself? From my point of view it can mean all of these things:

  • Putting yourself first sometimes
  • Enforcing healthy boundaries between yourself and others
  • Taking the time to nourish your soul–doing what you love
  • Taking the time to nourish your body–with healthy foods
  • Taking the time for relaxation techniques to reduce stress
  • Claiming your power. If you claim your power, you speak up for yourself in a kind, but firm way
  • Taking the time to exercise
  • Loving yourself enough to address self-destructive habits

Although these are common sense things, we often have to train ourselves to do these things in our adult life. I have found that I tend to do better if I keep a journal of what I’m doing to take good care of myself. It helps me to be more self-aware. This whole web site is dedicated to helping you to take better care of yourself. Remember, it’s a journey, a process, not a destination.

Prescription for Burnout–Caregiver Syndrome

March 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Burnout

Caregiver Syndrome can happen to anyone.

Caregiver Syndrome can happen to anyone.

Caregiver Syndrome is the name for the ongoing emotional stress and physical strain of caring for a loved one.

You may feel exhausted, fatigued, powerless, anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed.

You may have physical symptoms such as high blood pressure and a compromised immune system. Perhaps you feel sad or resentful.

There’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. You’re not getting enough sleep and not watching your nutrition. There are so many demands and not enough help in your life.

Who’s prone to burnout?

  • Those who can’t say no.
  • People who sacrifice themselves, putting themselves last
  • Perfectionists
  • Nonassertive people
  • People who are impatient with themselves
  • People who have difficulty setting limits with others
  • People who have control issues
  • People who are unwilling to confront their own fears
  • People who have big hearts, who are empathetic

What do I do?

The articles on this website are designed to help you to overcome caregiver syndrome. What you really need to do is learn to take good care of yourself. That’s a process, a journey. As you learn to take time for yourself, give back to yourself, you’re going to get better and better.

You will need to look at your self-destructive habits–those habits that rob you of your energy, health, vitality, and well-being. If you’re going to be there for others, you will need to first be there for yourself.

Claim your power. You can change things. One day at a time. Start looking at those areas of your life where you have given away your power. Assertiveness is absolutely essential if you’re going to take good care of yourself.

Finding support

If you don’t have enough support in your life, it’s time to change things. You need support. We all need each other. Do you have family members who can be supportive of you? Make a list of extended family members who may be able to be supportive of you in one way or another.

Start connecting with others.  What do they do to get the relief that they need? Ask. Spend time with others–either in person, on the phone, or on the internet.

Good luck.