Lesson 3 of 7 - learn how to grieve well

Grow Inner and Outer
Permissions to Grieve Well

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/grief/permits.htm

Updated 01/22/2015

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      This is one of a series of articles comprising online Lesson-3 in the Break the Cycle! self-improvement course. This lesson aims to educate readers on healthy grieving basics so they can spot and complete unfinished mourning and evolve pro-grief relationships and families.

      This brief YouTube video provides context for what you're about to read:

      Typical survivors of childhood trauma (Grown Wounded Children - GWCs) never learned these basics, and risk psychological, physical, and relationship problems from incomplete mourning.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

       This article overviews two of seven requisites for healthy mourning: (a) personal attitudes and beliefs ("inner permission") and (b) consistent grief-support from other people ("outer permission").

      Inner Permission to Grieve

       Reflect for a moment on your definition of "permission." Illustrate your definition by identifying several things you "aren't permitted" to do now (e.g. "I can't drive past stop signs without risking a traffic ticket"). Then identify several things you are currently permitted to do ("I can drive ahead when the light is green.")

      Permissions come from some authority's (a) rules [should (not)s, ought (not)s, can(not)s, have to's, and must (not)s], and from (b) consequences for following or breaking their rules.

      Accepting and adjusting well to the impacts of life losses (broken bonds) depends partly on having stable inner permission to process grief on mental, emotional, and perhaps spiritual levels. Our conscious and unconscious rules about feeling and expressing strong emotions help or hinder our vital mourning process.

      These rules can be called a personal grief policy. We each unconsciously form our grief policy early, mostly from observing family adults, teachers, friends, hero/ines, and the media.

       Our feel-good, frenetic Western culture and hyper-stimulating media don't promote personal and family awareness - in general, and of our values about mourning. So  most people (like you?) seldom evaluate and discuss their grieving policies or teach the kids in their lives to grieve well. Yet our attitudes and beliefs powerfully affect our loss-related feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

       Inner permission to grieve well is firmly believing something like this:

"When I lose something I value, it is healthy, safe, and good for me to...

  • consciously identify and admit (vs. deny) my significant losses (broken bonds),

  • fully feel and openly express my shock, confusion, anger, and sadness; and to

  • talk about my losses and their effects as often as I need to;

      And it's healthy for me to...

  • identify and evolve clear answers to my questions about my losses and their personal and family effects, without significant anxiety, guilt, and/or shame."

      If an adult or child believes something different [e.g. "It’s not necessary, safe, or acceptable now for me to (do these things.)"], they lack healthy inner permission to mourn well, and risk the toxic effects of incomplete grief.

      Inner mourning permissions can be conditional - e.g. "it's OK for me to get angry, but not OK to cry" or vice versa; or "it's OK to cry, but only (alone / at night / in the car /...)"; or "grieving is women's work"; or "It's proper to feel these things, but I selfishly burden others if I show my feelings."

      Reflect: as a child, what did you see your key caregivers (parents, key relatives, teachers, older sibs, clergy) do about acknowledging and mourning significant losses? What rules and values did you inherit about feeling and expressing the full range of normal emotions? Did the adults who raised you promote healthy grief completion mentally, emotionally, and spiritually? How do you judge that?

Premiseif you were discouraged from grieving well as a child, you can identify and replace old inhibitions with healthier beliefs and behaviors. You can also intentionally teach young people in your life to (a) have guilt-free inner permission to grieve well, and to (b) empathically help others do the same. Not doing this  passes on toxic blocked grief to future generations.

Reality Check: choose a quiet, undistracted state and place, and meditate and write down your key beliefs about...

  • bonding,

  • broken bonds (losses), and...

  • healthy mourning.

      Then reflect on what the young people in your life have been taught about how to mourn well. If you postpone or avoid this, or try this and "can't think of anything," what does that mean?  This exercise is about growing your awareness, not about blame or shame!

      We just explored half of a vital requisite for healthy mourning - inner permissions to grieve well. The other half is...

        Outer (Social) Permissions to Mourn

       Kids or adults with healthy inner permissions to grieve well may still be blocked from mourning by key people around them. If such people understand and encourage healthy multi-level grief, they give "outer permission" (support) for it. There are many ways to do this.

       Review these traits of a good-grief supporter. Then decide (a) if you need to edit them, and (b) if you and/or other family members provide them consistently to grieving adults and kids. Providing effective grieving support (permissions) can be a challenge if we're...

  • unaware of healthy-grieving basics (Lesson 3), and/or we...

  • are significantly wounded, and/or we...

  • are in our own pain.

      The quality of our supporting other mourners (ineffective > effective) reflects (a) who rules our personality (our true or false self), (b) our ruling-subselves' current priorities, and (c) our semi-conscious personal and family grieving policies.

      Do you generally encourage healthy three-level grief in other family members and supporters? Would adults and kids who know you well say you do? Have you ever been consistently comforted by a grief-supporter? Remember what it felt like, over time. That's experiencing full outer "permission" to mourn well.

       People who lack some or many of the grief-support traits often unintentionally hinder healthy mourning. Their ruling subselves may be fearful, shamed, needy, and ignorant. Their subselves will often discount or deny this (and their denial) to themselves and others to avoid personal and social conflict and stress.

      Such people are usually Grown Wounded Children (GWCs), not "bad" people. Most GWCs have survived significant childhood neglect, fear, confusion, loneliness, and pain. They can be blunt or subtle about withholding permission to mourn. Some are very clear:

  "Stop being such a wimp!"

  "Jeez - get on with your life!"

" 'Morning, Captain Gloom."

"What's the big deal?"

"Isn't Jean great? Nothing gets her down!"

"Aren't you over moping yet?"

 "C'mon, cheer up - it could be a lot worse. Look at George’s situation" …"

       At other times, their discouragement comes via a disapproving glance, a silence, a sigh, a turn of the head, an overdue phone call, or a reproving or sarcastic voice tone. Some dependent people will block another's grief because they (unconsciously) fear the Loser will "collapse" and won't be there to lean on. Some people with misty personal boundaries deeply feel others' emotions, and dread feeling overwhelmed if they let others fully express their grief.

       Children of divorce can unconsciously hinder a parent's mourning in order to (a) save their cherished dream of parental reunion, and/or to (b) protect the parent from feared "collapse." Stressed single parents may covertly discourage a child's grieving, fearing (a) intense guilt and remorse, and/or (b) the child's "collapse."

      An elderly or infirm parent can fear loss of support because of "probable" emotional collapse of their newly-divorced or widowed adult child. They can hinder their adult child's grief by increasing their calls for attention. All such blockers lack solid confidence in their own - and/or their loser’s - ability to survive grief’s intensities.

      Kids learn how to mourn from their family, friends, church, school, community, nation, and race. TV, sports, music, and fantasy heroes can powerfully model or inhibit good grieving for kids and teens. Do the Chicago Bears, Ninja Turtles, Barbie, GI Joe, Batman, Madonna, Santa Claus, Captain Kirk, Led Zeppelin, Jesus, or the Masters of the Universe have losses? Obsess and cry? Rage? Talk about their broken bonds and what they mean? Get deeply sad and depressed? Seek counseling?

      Who are your hero/ines and mentors, and what grieving permissions have they given or withheld from you, your partner/s, and/or your kids?

       Inherited cultural values are important factors too. Some British, Scandinavian, Oriental, Native American, African, and Central European cultures prize stoicism - at least among males. Other Mediterranean, Latin, Arabic, and Indian groups expect males to feel and express passions intensely and spontaneously. Some "permit" showing anger, but not weeping. Some the reverse. Some also inhibit kids and/or females from feeling and/or expressing strong emotions.

      What culture/s do you identify with? Do you know what ethnic traditions are shaping your and your kids' grieving policies and behaviors? Can your adults and kids discuss this together?

      Are you in a divorcing family or stepfamily? Do you know people in such a family? They have special grieving challenges .

Stepfamily Grief

       Getting consistent outer grieving support ("permission") can be hard for average divorcing-family and stepfamily grievers. Typical stepfamilies have more members than typical intact biofamilies, and three or more sets of ancestral and cultural customs to merge (vs. two) about feeling and expressing shock, confusion, rage and anguish. These value-sets may clash significantly.

      One biofamily's tradition may be "Boys grieve alone, and real men don't grieve," while the new partner's ancestors taught "Males who cry and mourn openly are strong and healthy." Living with new people can impede healthy grieving because full trust in their acceptance and approval hasn't stabilized yet.

       Paradoxically, close relatives and friends may not provide stable outer permissions to grieve well. If they (a) have a high stake in the mourner's quick recovery, (b) don't understand the grief process, and/or (c) carry strong biases about divorce, death, and stepfamily cohabiting and mergers, they can unintentionally hinder mourning progress.

      Some wounded, unaware clergy can accidentally discount grief feelings by urging exclusive focus on humility, piety, and gratitude for God's blessings, rather than empathically affirming and patiently encouraging multi-level mourning. Each response reflects the clergyperson's personal and denominational  grieving policies and priorities.

       Grief support groups (like Compassionate Friends, Rainbows, and Kaleidoscope); (some) divorce-recovery groups; and qualified therapists can provide more objective and effective support. If you or a loved one have "It's OK to grieve well" inner permission, and get "not OK" outer messages from key other people (or vice versa), confusion and stress can be high - specially without clear awareness of this conflict. Do you know anyone with such stress?

       If such a "someone" is you or a dear child, you have clear choices:

  • do nothing, or...

  • defer action, and endure the toxic personal and family effects of incomplete grief, or...

  • accept the wholistic necessity of grieving well and intentionally learn and apply good-grief basics, and...

  • intentionally choose supporters who provide genuine outer permissions to mourn well on all levels.

      After 36 years' clinical research, I believe that incomplete grief in kids and adults is one of four or five related reasons for major family stress and psychological and legal divorce. Do you agree? Do your other family adults and supporters?


      This article proposes that personal and family permissions are someone's rules and consequences that define acceptable social attitudes, behaviors, and boundaries. Lesson 3 in this nonprofit educational Web site proposes that one of seven requisites for healthy personal and family mourning is well-informed inner and outer permissions to grieve.

      The article explains and illustrates inner and outer permissions. It proposes that widespread psychological wounds and ignorance of healthy grieving basics commonly hinder these vital permissions and healthy personal and family grieving policies. The tragic - preventable - result is the toxic effects of incomplete grief in our families and society.

      Implication - an essential safeguard for every adult (like you) is to (a) study Lessons 1-3 here, (b) honestly assess the health of their personal and family grieving policies and permissions, and (c) check honestly for signs of incomplete grief. Unwillingness to do this is a form of self and family neglect, and probably indicates the protective denial of well-meaning false selves.

      Are you motivated to take these three steps now? Encourage your family adults to study Lesson 3, and discuss these questions about bonding. losses, and healthy grieving

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or someone else?

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