The Trouble with Mourning

by Sarah Peyton

Note from Miki: I continually hear from people about wanting to mourn and not knowing how to access it or what to do. I have in mind to ask people I know who can mourn to write posts on this in support of those who want to deepen their mourning practice. This first one is from Sarah Peyton.

One day about three months after my son died I was on a video call with a new friend. It was an empathy exchange. My friend simply sat with me as I tried to touch the enormous grief. My friend didn’t try to fix anything. She wasn’t trying to help me see things in a different way, she just sat with me. And suddenly I had the sense that I turned from particles into a wave, like the heat rising off a desert road. I stopped being solid and I was just grief.

I was simultaneously so sad, and so surprised to feel myself become vapor, and I was also very embarrassed and had the sense of being too much. I could only endure the combination of feelings for 3 or 4 seconds, but it was the most enormous relief, a bend that turned me away from death. (I often think that there’s a road we travel after someone dies that leads towards death, as we search for our missing person, and that it can be a difficult road to get off of.)

Mourning is our most important integrative movement, but it can be so elusive to find the way to do it. It allows us to step out of blame, it lets us be in relationship with the world as it really is, it regulates our immune system, it is non-negotiable for staying functional in the presence of our world’s structural racism and climate crisis, and it helps us let the people we love die without having to follow them. The trouble with mourning, though, is that it is essentially dyadic. It rests foundationally on the capacity of another person or group of people to be with us. And on our own capacity to believe that others can or would want to accompany us. Even when we are grieving on our own, we are holding ourselves in the way that we learn to do when other people are missing – we provide our own internalized dyad so that our mourning can happen.

The expectation of what other people can bear emotionally starts early. Beatrice Beebe’s research shows us that by the age of four months infants edit their facial expression vocabulary (the range of emotion that they express with their faces) to match the expressions that their mothers can easily reflect. So if mothering people, whatever their gender, can’t easily reflect sadness, or if they turn away from their baby, or ignore the baby crying, the baby relinquishes sadness as a facial expression. The baby still feels the energies of sadness, but never learns what they are, and grows up not to be able to recognize sadness in others. (I was one of these babies – when I was learning to identify facial microexpressions of emotion, it took me eight months to begin to be able to see and name sadness – for the first eight months I kept misidentifying it as fear or surprise.) And these babies (we babies) grow up to believe that their sadness is too much. We see it when people are crying and their mouths try to smile. We see it when people run out of a room rather than let people see them cry, or when people become angry or contemptuous instead of being able to express grief. We see it when people are trying to reflect us, and they reflect every other emotion that we’ve named, but not grief.

Sadness is our most common missing emotion in the western global north. We see it in the way we leave it out of an acknowledgment of our activated nervous system states – we say people are in “fight or flight,” implying that the only emotions that get us upset are anger and fear. These days, I try to say ‘fight, flight or alarmed aloneness,” so that we can start to acknowledge how relational we are, and that we become actively distressed when we are worried about someone we love or about being alone, and that our experience is not anger, and it is not fear, but is rather a distressed and activated grief and loneliness that is rarely named or acknowledged.

So, if mourning is so important, how do we do it? The most important first step is to stop stopping it. We need to begin to learn everything that we do to stop our own or others’ mourning. We can’t change our patterns of curtailing mourning unless we can identify them. Here are some of the ways we use language to stop our own or others’ mourning:
• Changing the subject
• Trying to see the bright side (“The gift in this is…”)
• Ignoring mention of sadness
• Offering reframes (“Look at it this way…”)
• Offering advice
• Comparing (“I shouldn’t be so down, I wasn’t beaten and locked in a closet for days…”)
• Dismissing (“Snap out of it.”)
• Minimizing (“It’s not so bad.” “I’m fine.”)
• Shaming (“I shouldn’t be so sensitive.” “You are too sensitive.”)
• Criticizing, judging (“You’re always so negative.”)
• Reassuring (“You’re going to be fine.”)
• Catastrophizing (“If I start to cry, I’ll never stop.”)
• Diagnosing (“You’re just depressed.”)
• Insults (“You aren’t a pretty crier.”)

Any of these responses are likely to cause the other person to close up like a clamshell and stop sharing their emotional life with you. And what do you know about your own response, when you receive these kinds of statements when you are grieving? Do they help you move through your mourning? And how likely are you to use them on yourself when sadness starts to arise? (I’d like to name that we also often move to our addictive substances and behaviors to take care of sadness, as they tend to be much more reliable than people and help us to stay acceptable in terms of what our families of origin were able to bear.)

Once we know what not to do, what do we actually do or say that will help the mourning process happen? Here is a process I like to use to support mourning:
If possible, ask a friend or support person who is not afraid of grief to support you. (Someone who tends not to do the list of distractions from grief shown above.)

Think of the difficult issue you are having trouble grieving.

Ask your body’s consent to proceed.

If you can, notice your body sensations.

Working with your partner, (if you have one) both of you make guesses for yourself with feelings and needs words and metaphor guesses (“Is the grief like… ?”). See what happens to your body. When you starts to change or respond, you are on a good track. Continue to follow the responsiveness of your body. As the grief arises, let it move in you in waves. Let the words stop while the waves are moving, and stay with the waves – they can come out in silence, in pain, in words, in tears, in laments, in wailing, or in sobbing. When the wave stops, return to the words to describe your body sensations until the waves are complete and your body is calm. Allow this cycle to repeat as many times as are needed, and as long as you have your body’s consent to work on the issue.

If you are having trouble accessing mourning, explore to see if you have agreements with yourself not to cry, or not to let others see you cry, or not to burden others with your sadness, or not to be vulnerable. You saw in my story above that I could only bear to be supported for 3-4 seconds. These kinds of contracts were in force for me at that time. If you have a sense that such an agreement is blocking your grief, name the unconscious contract you have with yourself aloud. Name 1. What, 2, Why and 3. The cost:

  1. I solemnly swear to my essential self that I will not let others see me cry,
  2. in order to keep from being left entirely alone or humiliated,
  3. no matter the cost to myself.

Once you have a sense of the completeness of the contract, ask yourself if you want to keep it. Was it a very good agreement when you were a child, and is it blocking your growth and healing now? If you no longer want it, do a formal release and blessing: “I release you from this vow and I revoke this contract, and instead I give you my blessing to… (maybe ‘start to enjoy crying with warm and resonant others.’)” After the release, check to see if it has become any easier to mourn. If you tell yourself that you don’t want to release it, don’t worry, you can keep these contracts as long as you need them to keep yourself safe, and just the naming of them often reduces their absolute power.

What if it were true that the world needs our mourning? I believe it is true, and that we transform our world as we cry, with hearts or eyes, in honor of all the losses. These suggestions form one possible avenue toward mourning. There are many others. May you find the ways that work best for you.


Photo credit

Group of people wearing white and blue helmet – Photo by Ryan Clark on Unsplash
Cumulus clouds – by Daoudi Aissa on Unsplash
Boy sitting near glass wall – Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash
Girl crying – Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash
Person wearing gold wedding band – Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash
Grey scale photo of rain drops – Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash


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4 thoughts on “The Trouble with Mourning

  1. lennie stappers

    This sentence is really helpful and eye-opening for me. I try to say ‘fight, flight or alarmed aloneness,” Thank you for posting this article

    1. Andria

      Yes. And we have to feel safe to share grief. And sometimes the time and place are wrong. And sometimes absolutely right. Very helpful piece of writing about mourning Sarah: Thank you. So sorry for your loss.
      I am a Mum of a teen. I was in DC at a Rally of The Peace Caravan against the drugwar. The Poet Javier Sicilia, who lost his 24yr old son in a shoot out related to drug turf wars spoke there and many mothers, who had lost their teens and adult children in similar violence. One of the Mums , through her tears spoke of how it is natural for the son to bury the parent ( but not the other way round.) I cried as another kind victim of the drugwar: my life partner was killed by AIDS because he happened to have been born in a country where Catholicism would not allow clean needles and condoms to be provided, though the research evidence is clear on how to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.
      People in Xtinction Rebellion speak of Grief as the ongoing work of Life and I wanted to reject that idea when I first read it, but it is certainly true that most of us regularly lose big and little things. People we really loved deeply where it feels like you head has just been blown off..
      That script of avoidance tactics is spot on!

  2. Thuan


    I read your text with my eyes full of water, and as I went deeper I realized that regardless of how much emotion I carry after my eyes fill with water, the tears do not come down.

    my father died when I was 1, I grew up thinking that regretting his absence would make me vulnerable, that people would feel sorry for me. I want to say this to my mother. thanks.


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