Your wife dies after a long and brutal battle with cancer. Your friends and family all expect you to plummet into grief, yet what you’re really thinking is: “At last that whiny witch is dead!” You feel really bad about thinking such nasty thoughts, but they just keep surfacing against your will.
Your young son gets hit by a car and killed and your primary emotion is relief, not sorrow. Your wife is the one who is heartbroken, but all you can think about is how she tricked you into becoming a father by lying about taking birth control. She knew you didn’t want kids and she agreed not to have them before you got married. The death of the child you never wanted makes you feel like a huge burden has been lifted off of you, but it’s also raked up all of the rage you’ve been suppressing for the last six years.
When someone close to you dies, your mind and soul automatically do a fresh analysis of your relationship with that person. Your mind–specifically, your subconscious–is primarily concerned with how the loss of that relationship will affect your safety, emotional resources, and material well-being. Your subconscious is very focused on the present. The more involved someone was in your daily routine, the more impact their sudden absence will have on you.
Your soul is primarily concerned with morality, and its moral code is strongly influenced by input you receive from your culture, family, and religious community. Perhaps you’ve been taught that you must “honor your parents” if you want to be a good person. Your soul does want to be able to feel that you are a morally good person, so when part of you wants to celebrate when your tyrannical father finally kicks it, your soul will feel appalled by this attitude. When your soul is upset by something that your mind and body are thinking, doing, or feeling, it tends to express its disapproval with angry, shaming lectures. Here is where you find yourself feeling intense waves of guilt and shame as you think thoughts like “What a terrible son I am to not see any good in my own father.”
Now in real life, demons often get involved in these situations, helping your soul work itself into a state of distress by suggesting a variety of negative assessments about you which your soul instantly agrees with. Demons are malicious supernatural creatures who have their own reasons for wanting to make you feel rotten. But what makes the yammering of demons so effective in dragging you down is the fact that your soul keeps agreeing with what they say about you.
“What kind of father feels happy when his own kid dies? You’re a monster.”
“Here your wife was suffering horribly from her disease and all you could think about was yourself and what a chore it was to take care of her. You’re such a selfish dirtbag.”
“So what if your sister stole your boyfriend? Does that justify you being glad when her life ends tragically? How immature are you to still be holding a grudge after all this time?”
Many people believe that the real God is a moody nitpicker who is super hard to succeed with. But the truth is that your own soul is the most merciless judge you’ll ever meet (see Your Soul vs. God: Two Different Judges). Your soul has to learn concepts like mercy, compassion, and grace. It isn’t born with a solid understanding of what these things are and how they work. While it’s instinctive to want other people to be merciful towards you when you are the one at fault, with the encouragement of demons, you can easily be persuaded to withhold all mercy from yourself. A lack of mercy and self-compassion are often key factors in the intense guilt people feel when their internal response to someone dying seems “inappropriate.” And yet is it really fair to write your own feelings off as wrong and unreasonable before you even take the time to understand what they are based on?
A Being With Many Needs
As a human, you are a limited creature who must carefully budget limited resources in order to get through each day. The immense task of managing and allocating your various internal resources is carried out by your subconscious. When you suddenly find yourself having to take care of an ailing child or dying relative, your subconscious is the one who gets hit the hardest by your change of circumstances. Suddenly it’s being expected to spend way more resources than it is comfortable with on a daily basis. As you constantly step and fetch it for the person you’re taking care of, you deplete your physical and emotional energy reserves. As you feed yourself quick, low quality meals that aren’t meeting your nutritional needs, and as you keep having your sleep interrupted by the needs of your patient, your subconscious gets more and more upset. Your subconscious is very protective over your well-being, and it resents having its warnings and instructions constantly vetoed by your soul. As you feel morally forced to run yourself into the ground in order to “do right” by your patient, your subconscious ends up having to pull resources from critical areas just to keep up with your soul’s demands. Increasing irritability, chronic fatigue, and a growing number of personal health problems are all signs that your subconscious is unable to keep up with the demands that you are putting on it. So when your patient finally dies and all of that extra pressure is lifted off of you, is it reasonable for your subconscious to feel relieved and want to celebrate? Of course it is. When your soul then starts heaping on the shame, it’s acting like your subconscious’ needs are completely invalid. This really isn’t a reasonable position for your soul to take.
The key principle I want you to learn from this post is that as a human, you have multiple aspects to your being and a long list of needs which often conflict with each other. Your body needs sleep and rest. Your mind needs to be able to zone out and recharge. Your soul needs you to be the sunny superstar who always follows that golden rule of “treat others the way you’d want to be treated.” You simply can’t meet all of these needs at the same time. If you start starving your body and exhausting your mind in an effort to be supermom who always greets her dying child with an upbeat attitude and energetic smile, you’re just going to send your whole system crashing into major burnout.
Souls with strict moral codes are often afraid of honesty, because they see it as a grave threat to their fortitude. But in real life, you will do much better at keeping all three of your elements happy if you get a lot more honest about how you feel in your relationships. All humans have needs, and in every relationship we hope to have certain needs met. When we choose relationships, we mainly choose them based on how we think the other person will benefit us. When our expectations aren’t met, or when those optional relationships go south, we feel upset and stressed. If we can’t untangle ourselves from them without being punished, we feel trapped and scared–two emotions that we often convert into anger.
Many of the relationships in our lives are not ones that we feel we had any say over. Family is a classic example here. We’re born into a web of grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, and siblings that we’re then expected to feel some moral debt of loyalty to for our entire lives. Every family system has its difficult characters, and the whole idea of being stuck with people that we don’t like just because they are genetically related to us is naturally going to make us feel trapped and threatened. When mean Aunt Polly falls ill and the whole family system thrusts you into the role of her full time caretaker based on the fact that you live the closest and you’re the only one “without a life,” of course you’re going to be angry. Refusing to admit to yourself how upset you are is only going to prevent you from ever getting down to the real reasons for that upset. Until you identify the specific reasons why you are so upset over having to move in with Aunt Polly, you won’t be able to do anything to help yourself.
The good news is that there are always positive steps you can take to better manage difficult situations. Just because someone is dying doesn’t mean you have to play the role of their doormat and absorb any abuse they want to fling at you. You can be kind and still draw boundaries. You can be compassionate and still demand respect. But as long as you’re simmering with rage that you’re refusing to examine, you won’t be able to identify any positive steps that you can take.
The Logic of Emotions
When someone’s death triggers a bunch of “inappropriate” emotions in you, trying to ram those emotions down into some hidden part of yourself is not going to make them go away. Emotional suppression is a psychological defense that can be very helpful in getting you through crisis situations, but using this strategy longterm will always result in misery. Whenever you find yourself alarmed by your emotional response to something, the first thing to remember is that all emotional responses are fueled by logic. Emotions and logic are inseparably linked, and taking the time to uncover the logical argument that is triggering a specific emotional reaction in you is the quickest way to adjust that reaction. (There are cases in which emotions can be triggered by physiological factors, such as imbalanced hormones. In such cases, bringing those physiological factors into balance is more helpful than self-analysis.)
Emotional reactions that feel “inappropriate” or “too intense” are often indications that you’ve been trying to prevent your mind from expressing what it needs to express. Take the man whose child dies and his main reactions are relief and anger at his wife for tricking him into getting her pregnant years before. This man’s honest truth is: “I’m glad my son died because I never wanted to be a father.” Plenty of people don’t relish the idea of parenthood, and yet the instinct to become emotionally bonded to your own child is extremely strong. It requires intentional resistance on the part of your subconscious to block that instinct from taking over. Minds that fight hard against the natural desire to bond do so out of fear. For our non-grieving father, an important question to ask would be “WHY am I so afraid to be a father?” Rather than sit around shaming himself for being relieved that his own child has died, he needs to see his relief as an important indicator of unresolved stress.
Marriage is a type of intimate relationship, and healthy intimate relationships are built on trust. The fact that our man feels his wife intentionally betrayed his trust six years ago is certainly a problem. Attacking the foundation of an intimate relationship can do irreparable damage. But when we find ourselves unable to move past a betrayal, there are other issues at hand. Our man clearly brought some major fears and stresses into his marriage that were linked to the issue of fatherhood in his mind. Those unprocessed stresses amplified his reaction to his wife’s shenanigans. Certainly she was wrong to deceive him like she did. But in intimate relationships, partners will do things that upset each other. Even when a relationship becomes damaged to the point that it must end, you still don’t want to remain stuck in the past. There is always a way to move forward and put past wounds in perspective. This is a step that our father now needs to work on for his own benefit.
The death of a child can easily take down a marriage when family members don’t know how to deal with their own grief effectively. Casting blame is always easier than facing your own fears and pain. Yet until you deal with yourself, you will carry your misery with you into all of your future relationships. This is why it is so important to sort out the logic that is driving your reactions to someone’s death, especially when those reactions feel “wrong.”
Listening to Gain Understanding
When Marie’s father dies, she feels relieved. Then she feels bad for feeling relieved. The relief is her mind talking. The guilt is her soul talking. Marie now needs to realize that her mind has valid reasons for reacting the way it is, and her soul needs to listen to what that logic is before it casts judgment. Often writing out thoughts can be helpful here, so Marie tries a journal exercise in which she tries to answer the question: Why do I feel relieved that my father is dead? First she closes her eyes and tries to listen for her mind to supply logical answers to this question. While she listens, she tries to suspend judgment and focuses instead on gaining a better understanding of herself. Soon some thoughts begin to surface which she jots down.
He would always say hurtful things to me. I never felt like I could succeed with him. He talked as though he was going to try to block me from pursuing the career I’ve always wanted. Ever since that time he got really drunk and hit me when I was a kid, I’ve been afraid he might get physically violent towards me again.
What do you think of Marie’s list? If this is how she honestly felt in her relationship with her father, isn’t it reasonable for her to be relieved that he’s now out of her life? When Marie listens to her mind, instead of just telling it to shut up, she realizes that her relationship with her father has been very upsetting to her for a very long time. She can then see that she does need to do some mourning–not because her father died, but because she is never going to have the father-daughter bond she always wanted.
Mourning What Will Never Be
When someone dies, we don’t just need to deal with the impact they had on us while they were alive. We also need to accept that certain things will never be. Often the grief that death triggers is partly linked to future hopes being destroyed. Even when those hopes are unrealistic (which they often are), they are still important to us, and letting go of them is a painful yet necessary process. Making lists can be a very helpful exercise here. Start by listing out the specific hopes you had for the relationship you just lost. When Marie does this exercise, she writes things like:
I hoped my father would one day give me away at my wedding.
I hoped one day he’d actually say the words “I love you” and “I’m proud of you.”
After you make your list, look it over and consider how you feel about the statement: I do not need these things to have a joyful life. How you react to that statement can reveal some harmful beliefs that you have. For example, Marie’s response to that statement is:
I feel like I can never be a complete person without my father’s love and approval.
This is the main false belief that is making it difficult for Marie to move forward. Until she uncovers this belief, it will continue to impact her in negative ways, causing her to feel unable to accept and move past the death of her father. But once she is able to spell out this belief, she has a chance to recognize how incorrect it is.
Humans are individual units who can greatly impact each other, but they do not “complete” each other. It simply isn’t true that “a part of you dies” with someone else. When it feels this way, it’s because you have formed some unhealthy beliefs that your future joy is dependent on the actions of a specific human being. In real life, you are a complete unit that cannot be split apart by someone else. Certainly you have needs which other people can help to meet, but you don’t want to confuse your needs with your identity. A man doesn’t become half a man when he is in a state of physical hunger, and you don’t become less than a full person when you are in a state of mourning. When you lose one best friend, it is possible to get another. The theory that there is only one person in the world who could be your soulmate or true love is complete rubbish. There are countless people in the world who could enrich your life in many ways. When one person exits your life, they make room for someone new to enter. Even powerful figures like parents, siblings and spouses are unable to halt your self-development. How you choose to respond to your own needs and feelings has a far greater impact on your future than the actions of other people.
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