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When feelings bubble to surface

By Signal Staff

Posted: March 14, 2010 12:13 a.m.
Updated: March 14, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Maybe it's a sad movie or listening to a friend's battle with cancer, and slowly you feel your throat tighten. When emotions bubble to the surface, many people push those feelings right back down. "C'mon, heart, be still."

Whether it's a death, divorce or breakup, life's losses can be overwhelming, leaving us stuck in pain, isolation and loneliness. To cope, some lose themselves in religious experience. Others turn to alcohol or drugs as false comforters. Still others try to outrun the pain by working till they collapse into bed. Some people immerse themselves in others' problems.

All offer only temporary relief. Like a rubber band, the pain always seems to snap back. We can continue to stuff the feelings, shove them away or medicate ourselves until the losses become an ever-growing weight being carried around. Then we wonder why life isn't the happy, joy-filled experience we had always imagined.

"We often talk about the pain of loss. Sometimes it's not pain at all any more; it's detachment," said Santa Clarita resident Jeff Zhorne, a grief counselor and director of The Grief Program. "Hurting people can become checked out, turned off and tuned out. Forty-year-old Chris, for example, refused to deal with her grief, even though she knew she had a freight train full of it."

Chris described how a police officer had ticketed her that day for driving 85 mph. The officer had warned her that she could die at that speed. "I told him I didn't care. I'm so detached, why would I care if I died?"

When asked about her children and her husband, Chris replied: "Oh, they'd be all right. The kids are older and could take care of themselves. Besides, they have their grandparents." She added, only half jokingly: "My husband? He'd be married again in three weeks!"

Loss upon loss upon loss can cause people to shut off feelings because they don't want to be hurt any more, Zhorne said.
"If this is the way life is played, then I don't want to play. They have given up on intimacy and quit risking in relationships. As Tina Turner sings, ‘Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?'" he said.

We think pain is permanent
Maybe you have a long-term relationship with pain. Unresolved loss of trust experiences from childhood can keep us in a state of "I have to accept pain as a permanent condition."

"Pain can become so familiar it's like a family member. We built an identity around losses. We maintain a relationship with them. We become our stories," Zhorne said.

"Many of us have suffered so many losses we don't remember why we hurt any more. Loss on top of loss on top of loss, all wound up like a ball of yarn. Along comes another loss, and it's one more wrap around a huge ball of hurt. Over time we can start to feel numb. Life doesn't touch us in the deepest places of our hearts," he said. "Some may wake up one day and discover they have shut off feelings completely. Others call someone like me and say, ‘I can't get over my husband leaving me' or ‘My life stopped when she died.' "

Friends, family and others often are not well prepared to help the hurting cope with the confusion, agony and loneliness that accompany grief.

"I think people mean well when they try to help," said Zhorne. "But they just don't have the right tools. It's as if our task is to mow the lawn, but we're handed scissors and a paint brush. They're the wrong tools for the job. So grieving people wind up faking it and acting like everything is all right. We put on our happy face, our go-to-work face because society gives us about three days to grieve and we'd better be back to work on the fourth day. Later, we hear things like, ‘It's been a year, aren't you over it by now?' Or, ‘You have to be strong"' and ‘Gotta keep busy.'"

Finishing what was
Zhorne said The Grief Program's counseling services help hurting people finish unfinished emotional pain to end isolation and loneliness. It starts by learning to express the thoughts and emotions connected with loss. Maybe it's regret, wishing things had been different, better or more. Or grieving the loss of unrealized hopes, dreams and expectations.

"Grieving people aren't broken, however, and don't need to be fixed," Zhorne said. "They need to be heard in an atmosphere of safety, respect and dignity - without evaluation or advice, which is just criticism in disguise, anyway."

The Grief Program's step-by-step method helps those stuck in confusion and loneliness to move beyond loss by completing incomplete emotional relationships, said Zhorne.

"It is about feeling better, more alive and fulfilled," he said.

The Grief Program is offering a free community presentation on the tools and skills needed for working through significant emotional loss of any kind at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 18, at the Education Center, Christ Lutheran Church, 25816 N. Tournament Road. For more information, call The Grief Program at (661) 733-0692 or visit


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