petaluma psychologist blog

Grief and Loss: Occupying the Empty Space

Rebecca Stadtner - Thursday, August 08, 2013

Grief and Loss:  Occupying the Empty Space

When my old dog died a couple of years ago, I tumbled into a state of full-blown grief.  My world had changed overnight.  Her presence had provided a kind of punctuation that organized my days—from morning, when her demand to go outside got me out of bed, to the end of the day, when she couldn’t wait for me to set down my things and take her out for her evening stroll.  I felt sad, lost and unanchored without her.    

I had many of the same feelings when my son went away to college and I had to face the empty space he left behind.  He took what he needed for school, leaving behind a chaotic room scattered with selectively abandoned possessions. Without him, his room didn’t make sense any more, and it mirrored the way I felt in his absence—sad, chaotic, off-balance, panicky.

My mind played its usual tricks and the more I filled up that empty space with warm memories of the past and desolate predictions about the future, the worse I felt.   Closing the door to the room and my painful feelings was very tempting, but I knew that would bring only momentary relief.

To regain my footing, I had to occupy that empty space, to tolerate the acute pain that came with stepping over the threshold into that disordered abandoned room.  The aching sadness and panic I felt erupted in tears, and as I cleaned, organized, and transformed the room, I began to feel a kind of grounded relief.  I guess it was a way of embracing the emptiness I felt.  Around the same time, I remember starting the new routine of walking every day as soon as I woke up, no matter how I felt.  And I was lucky that other parts of my life were unchanged.    I had friends who fed me and invited me to go places, and work that kept me busy with other distractions.   Eventually, that empty space was transformed and I regained a sense of balance and direction.

An empty space is a blank canvass, a place of infinite possibility—fertile ground for the mind’s mischief or for transformation and expansion.  Most of us cope with loss and uncertainty by cramming the empty space full with the distraction of activity and whatever our minds make up.  When we can embrace the empty space, dare to walk through the door and look around, we open ourselves to unimagined possibilities, to new ways of defining ourselves.

To go through that door, most of us need the structure of routine, the support of friends and family (the people who make sure we eat and stay engaged with life), and sometimes a therapist who provides a quiet, uncluttered, safe space, in which one can untangle and reweave the range of emotions that rock our world when someone we love leaves it. 

Saying "Yes" When You Want to Say "No"

Rebecca Stadtner - Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Do you find yourself saying “yes” when you want to say “no?”  Maybe you agree to shop with a friend, when you want to spend the day on a project.  Or you say “yes” when your grown kids ask you to come over on a night you’d planned time with your partner.  Perhaps you volunteer to organize a party for your group, when you want that time to plant your garden or take a hike.

The habit of putting yourself last in small ways, can add up to short-changing yourself in big ways.   Sensitivity to what other people need and want is an important and necessary skill.  It only becomes a problem when the part of you that honors others, automatically overwhelms the part of you that honors yourself.  Although we all make compromises at times, some of us do it so often that we actually lose our ability to know what we want and need. 

For example, Denise is a beautiful and talented painter.  She had lived with her boyfriend for three years.  When they fell in love, both of them bent over backwards to please each other.  As time went on and the relationship became more established, Denise’s boyfriend began to focus more on his own interests and goals.  Denise continued to focus on her boyfriend’s preferences, regularly saying, “yes” to what he wanted while gradually losing touch with what she wanted. The relationship ended for a variety of reasons, and six months later, Denise still felt lost and depressed, unable to make decisions, and disconnected from her talents, needs, wants, and self-worth.

Denise came to therapy because she was depressed, but feeling better meant learning to delay saying “yes” or “no” until she considered what she really wanted and needed.  If you are in the habit of automatically saying “yes“ to friends and loved ones, at the cost of your own wants and needs, you may also feel that on those rare occasions, when you ask for something, the other person owes it to you to say “yes.”  You may become bitterly disappointed or even resentful when other people (who are often unaware of the many private sacrifices you make every day) say “no” to your requests.

The cost of regularly giving away time and energy to other people’s agendas adds up in the long run. The fact that your wants and needs are secret, distances you from the very people you seek to please.  Even more important is the loss to you of your sense of what it is you want and need, the things that that reflect and define who you are to yourself as well as other people.  Changing lifelong habits can be challenging, and practice is essential.  Individual and group therapy can provide the scaffolding to help you override your old default settings.  

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