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How do I actively grieve my past?

How Do I Actively Grieve My Past? | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

“But Annie, what does it mean to grieve my past? I mean, what does it mean practically?”

In emails and blog comments, I’ve been receiving some iteration of this question more and more frequently.

And I completely understand why this question is coming up!

Very often in my articles, I talk about the need to grieve the childhood you didn’t and won’t have.

I talk about how this grieving stage is necessary and a fundamental step for anyone on a healing journey from a relational trauma history.

But what does it mean – actually mean – to actively grieve your past? 

How do we make this abstract concept tangible and practical so that we can better engage in this process?

How Do I Actively Grieve My Past? | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

How do I actively grieve my past?

Why is it important to actively grieve my past?

“But pain’s like water. It finds a way to push through any seal. There’s no way to stop it. Sometimes you have to let yourself sink inside of it before you can learn how to swim to the surface.” ― Katie Kacvinsky

Grief is, I believe, the innate emotional process we as humans have to help us heal from the inherent losses that come along with being human.

It’s the pathway through our suffering (which is inevitable in this human condition).

It’s the body and brain’s natural and intuitive way of shepherding ourselves through heartbreak and anguish that, at times, seems like it might destroy us.

Why is it important to actively grieve our past? 

Because that’s the pathway through the pain into a future that might feel better. 

Because if we don’t, we run the risk of staying in our suffering, in our anguish longer.

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Abstract grief and loss count as much as tangible grief and loss.

“Honey, you’re a survivor. No shame in that. Your daddy hurt you something fierce. Life hurt you. Lies are one of the easiest places for survivors to run. They give you a sense of safety, a place where you have to depend only on yourself. But it’s a dark place, isn’t it?” – William P. Young

Often in my work, I’ll witness people rejecting the idea that they get to grieve their past and dismissing the idea that they get to mourn their childhood.

“It’s not like my best friend died. My childhood was bad, sure, but it doesn’t mean I get to be sad about it. It’s pathetic to feel sad about something I can’t change that happened so long ago.”

I firmly and strongly believe that abstract and intangible losses – like a childhood we never got to have, or the end of freedoms we enjoyed before becoming parents, or the passing of time and life paths you didn’t take – count as much as any concrete losses we might experience (such as the death of a loved one).

Loss is loss. 

No one gets to define what kind of loss is more important and “counts” more than another. 

And personally, as a trauma therapist and parent, I truly think that it’s every child’s innate right to have a safe, stable, loving, and emotionally nurturing childhood. 

And when this doesn’t happen, when a child is robbed of their childhood, it is a profound loss.

And that loss must be grieved by the individual who experienced it.

How do I actively grieve my past?

“I felt my throat tighten and constrict. My hearts ached with a pain I could not describe. I wondered if I were dying. I felt not sadness. I felt pity. For myself. For us all. We were children no longer. And we never would be again.” ― K. A. Applegate

Actively grieving your past is, in my professional opinion, at its heart, processing, and sense-making. 

It means admitting to ourselves that we experienced a loss, allowing ourselves to feel the full extent of our feelings about this loss for as long as it takes, and then integrating our reality into our life story.

But again, what do each of these abstract concepts actually mean?

  • Admitting to ourselves that we experienced a loss: This means being willing to confront (meaning facing and turning towards versus turning away from) our past experiences. Looking backward into the shadows of time, the half-remembered moments and, yes, especially the painful parts of our past experiences that we would otherwise prefer to avoid. And in doing so, in turning backward, we look at our experiences with sobriety, with more knowledge about what is normal, functional, and healthy behavior and what is not normal, functional, and healthy behavior so that we can see our pasts with more truth and reality.
  • Feeling the full extent of our loss: This, to me, mandates that we reduce and stop any of the myriad ways we psychologically defend ourselves from feeling our feelings (intellectualizing, dismissing and diminishing your past, using substances and behaviors compulsively to numb ourselves, etc.) and then, with more access to our feelings, with more capacity to be embodied, allowing ourselves to feel whatever comes up about our past and then to safely and appropriately express those feelings no matter what they are – despair, sadness, rage, anguish, and more. And then we keep doing that for as long as it takes whenever and however our body and heart communicate to us that we still have feelings about what happened to us.
  • Integrating our past experiences into our present reality: This is the sense-making part. It means seeing our pasts plainly and understanding how our past may have impacted us in myriad biopsychosocial ways. Being curious about how we formed in response to our past, how those responses are evident in our present, assessing if those responses are working well for us, and, if not, making movement towards changing maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. All the while understanding (with self-compassion) that we formed in response to our pasts but that we have different choices and chances now.

Each of these steps and their attendant nuances is, in my opinion, how we actively grieve our pasts.

How we grieve our lost childhoods.

Actively grieving the past is one of the four cornerstone pillars of my relational trauma recovery work and it’s a critical and large part of the work I do with my individual therapy clients and with students inside Relational Trauma Recovery School.

For instance, if, after reading this essay you’re still curious about what would help you recall memories about your past, or if you hunger for tools and interventions that would help you learn how to become more embodied and feel more of your feelings, or if you haven’t a clue about how to stop the psychological defenses you use to guard against painful feelings and memories — I teach all of this and more to my therapy clients and students inside Hard Families, Good Boundaries.

So if you live in California and you’re eager for help so that you can actively grieve your past, please consider reaching out for relational trauma-informed therapy support.

And if you live outside of California, please explore enrolling in Hard Families, Good Boundaries – my signature group coaching program designed to help those who come from relational trauma backgrounds finally get the trauma-informed, comprehensive support they need and want to live a beautiful adulthood, despite adverse early beginnings.

And now, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:  

What does actively grieving your past mean and look like to you? What’s one practice, tool, or behavior you use to help yourself actively grieve?

Please, if you feel so inclined, leave a message in the comments below so our monthly blog readership of 20,000 plus people can benefit from your wisdom and experience.

And please, remember these words that guide my work in the world and buoyed my soul the first time I read them:

“She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do was move forward and make the whole beautiful.” ― Terri St. Cloud

Here’s to making the whole beautiful with you.

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Noemi says

    When I encounter a trigger and I go to one of my many avoidance mechanisms I now know that it is the past knocking and I’m turning away from it. So I often make the conscious choice to make a u-turn. I stop doing the thing and I sigh with frustration “here it is again”. Then I see what happens inside of me as I have to hold back over and over again the urge to do the thing I stopped myself from doing. It typically feels like an imminent explosion. Crazy making. My skin crawling. But here it gets confusing and I want to understand what happens. Are these feelings part of the grief? Or are they just withdrawal symptoms? Do I have to first feel my way through this crazy making frustration before the real grief comes? Or is this already the real grief? And if I manage to stay away from my avoidance behavior will these withdrawal feelings give way to real grief and when? In minutes or days? The whole situation feels like I’m trying to stay on a thin tight rope while the gravitational pull off avoidance is almost irresistible and I don’t even know how long the rope is. And would it be true that the difficulty of staying away from avoidance is an indicator of how much grieving is still left to do? Is this just me and if it is true for me, might it be true for others too? I would love some concrete answers Thank you!!

    • Annie says

      Hi Noemi,

      Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing your experience with us. I love your analogy of “making a u-turn”! I understand how uncomfortable it can be to break those patterns and I’d like to encourage you to seek support while you work through processing the grief of your past. In the meantime, take good care of yourself.

      Warmly, Annie

  2. Lynne Naughton says

    I bought myself a giant teddy bear. She is my wounded self. When I’m triggered or struggling with a difficult feeling, I hold and cuddle and nurture my bear just as I wish someone would have done with me. This help me hold space for the feeling instead of detaching from it and allows me to move its energy. Sometimes it’s just a minute; other times I have held my bear and cried for a very long time. Flower essences help, too!

    • Annie says

      Hi Lynne,

      This is just wonderful, I truly love this idea! Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Take such good care of yourself (and your bear), you’re so worth it.

      Warmly, Annie

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