Tian’s newest book, The Soulful Journey of Recovery has just been published and its available now to buy from Amazon. Within it she describes the process of grieving and offers exercises to help with personal reflection. She also discusses how the process of grieving can help families struggling with addiction and relational trauma to get past their pain. As this week our social media theme is about bereavement and grief, I asked Tian if she’d mind me interviewing her for our channels. In the interview we cover some of what she looks at in Chapter 14 of The Soulful Journey of Recovery.
In this chapter of the book, you discuss your father dying and the impact that had on you and your family. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Although my father died when I was around 23, and we had had a funeral for him, it wasn’t until I was in a therapy session, with my family of origin, a little while later, that I realized I had lost my father well before the date he actually died. Through my parents’ divorce, my father’s addictions to alcohol and sex, and the fact that we, as a family, were unable to communicate with each other effectively about these things, (they were just too loaded with complicated emotion) we never were able to enter the mourning process together in a healthy way. We had lost our father, and indeed something from within my family unit had also gone awry, many years before my father passed. When the therapist suggested that my family and I needed another funeral, I knew he was right. We needed to mourn more than just his death. We needed to mourn the death that he, and we’d, experienced while he was alive.
Funerals are rituals created for us to legitimately grieve the loss of loved ones. In that sense they are extremely helpful and necessary celebrations to honour a life once lived. However, we have no similar construct, ceremony or tradition that helps us grieve those we have lost in some other way, or those we have lost a comfortable connection to. Or for that matter periods in life we have lost or a family who is no longer together, divorce etc. We need living rituals like psychodrama to address these kinds of losses.
When you say “grieve those who are lost but still alive”, do you mean someone lost to addiction?
Yes I do, but there are other ways you can lose someone, as well…. through divorce, neglect, process addictions like sex, work etc. Using addiction as an example I’d say that when we lose someone as a result of addiction, our wish to avoid the pain of our own grief makes us want to avoid the mourning process. Instead we bury the pain and continue, we do “work arounds” but in avoiding our own pain we lose touch with important pieces of ourselves. We are denied any healthy reminiscing of what once was. Furthermore, because addiction often causes us to lose the addict time and time again, we may suffer the pain of the rupture repeatedly. This can make the grieving process much more complicated, and the feelings that go with it are equally complex. We may experience various types of guilt: guilt for not having done enough, or perhaps for doing too much; guilt around their suffering, guilt for wishing that they would just go away, so we could mourn them properly and get on with our lives or survival guilt, guilt for getting away. We will also feel angry, disappointed, frustrated and a whole load of emotions in between. On top of all of that is the loss, the loss of someone we loved who has been ripped from our lives.
In this chapter, you also mention having to grieve something else particular to ACAs?
Yes, as an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACA), there is one more thing that often needs grieving: the life that never got a chance to happen, the love we didn’t get to express, the comfortable and predictable childhood that was undermined. Unless we do something to process these “memories”, they will stay with us, becoming distorted and resurfacing at unexpected moments. We may get triggered and overreact due to this unprocessed, unacknowledged pain from the past that’s getting triggered and reexperienced in the present, but it’s at the wrong time, the wrong place and over the wrong thing. Because we never processed the pain to begin with, because we avoided “going there” we don’t really know what’s happening when we get triggered. That’s what I go into in depth in the book.
Why is it so important to grieve do you think?
We need to find the time and space to properly grieve relational trauma, because otherwise it can crop up in other ways. Pushing it down can cause us to loose connection with the parts of ourselves we had to numb in order to get through. We need to allow ourselves to feel and heal these parts of ourselves so that we can fill them up with life again and feel whole.
We often fear grief, and revisiting past trauma. We hide from what hurt us the most. However, contrary to what we may think, if we don’t allow ourselves to grieve, we can remain stuck with the pain that we are trying to rid ourselves from by avoiding it. We will never truly be able to move away from our families and the source of our pain.
Where does psychodrama come in?
Although we live in the present, we carry the past within us. Psychodrama is a way that we can make the past manifest in the present. It allows us to fully engage with, express and process the emotions that are tied up with past events. This isn’t to let people from our past off the hook, it’s to let ourselves off the hook. By using role play, and really accessing the young person within us that was so hurt, and using surrogates to act as the people who hurt us, we don’t have to worry about negatively impacting the relationship we have with that person in the present. Often when the parent of an ACA gets sober, the ACA may love the relationship they currently have and not want to rock the boat. The parent may also have a hard time revisiting all the hurt they caused their child; in fact, they may not even remember some of it. However, not being able to revisit the past hurts with their now sober parents, doesn’t mean that the ACA doesn’t need to somehow deal with them. Or for that matter with their other parent or siblings as well. Psychodrama provides a safe space for our own healing; we’re containing some of the blast in a safe and supportive manner and giving ourselves time and space to understand ourselves. By processing some or most of it therapeutically, we’re better able to deal with it inside of ourselves and it becomes easier to talk about with those others should we decide to do that.
Reliving these moments through psychodrama, makes the dynamic much clearer than simple words ever could. We are able to be transported back to the moment (s) of pain, to revisit, relive, and release, or as J. L. Moreno said, to “do, undo, and redo.”
You talk about the adult self, learning to listen to the wounded self, can you say more about that?
When working with ACAs I try to encourage them to create a dialogue between their wounded inner child and their present oriented adult self. The first person who needs to hear us, is ourselves. We need to be in a sense, our own healthy friend or parent, and listen to all the parts of ourselves that need to be heard. When we have had this dialogue with ourselves, we are often more able to find the right words for the feelings we need to express, and can express them with a level of awareness, compassion and emotional intelligence that we may not have had if we’d just blurted them out. Blurting them out an expecting people to right size them for is can create problems.
Role play can also give us practice in listening; we learn to hear what other people might be trying to tell us. It’s relationship training, it can help us to practice the skills of connection whether with partners, friends or colleagues. Going through this process doesn’t mean we will never have angry outbursts again, or feel anxious, get upset or frustrated – It just gives us a better shot at right-sizing these emotions and making them contained and temporary, we can experience them and move on.
Thanks so much for your time Tian, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Only that I think it’s too bad that many of us fear and avoid grief, because the truth is - the fastest way to reach joy is to process this withheld pain. Feeling the intensity of our inner world in a safe context and reliving some of that pain we’ve pushed down releases pressure and clears the air in a big way. The way out is the way through, feeling and healing pain is its own reward, and on the other side is relief and even joy.
Dr Tian Dayton
Senior Fellow at Meadows Behavioral Health & Director at The New York Psychodrama Training Institute
Dr. Tian Dayton is a senior fellow at The Meadows and Director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute, author of fifteen books including, Neuropsychodrama in the...