February 2024 – The Ghosts of Stalled Grief

In this month’s article, I’m writing about grief again, given that it is so central to the process of depression, its emergence and resolution. Specifically, I’m discussing how “ghosts” get created when our capacity to tolerate the loss of something that has been life-structuring gets overwhelmed. There’s no quick solution, but more of my point here is that knowing that you are camped out in a necropolis, and not actually in life anymore, is the necessary step to restarting grief and returning to life.

May your winter be progressing with only a manageable level of chill, and may you have the grace to remember that it is always just a phase in the rotation of the seasons.

A description of stalled grief and life in the necropolis.

“Why can recognition of what has happened [i.e., loss] not occur in an instant?…[F]ully comprehending that a person one cares about deeply has died is not merely a matter of confidently endorsing the appropriate propositions. It also involves coming to reconcile the structure of one’s experiential world with an explicit acknowledgment of loss. A world that operated as a presupposed backdrop to one’s experiences, thoughts, and activities may have come to depend on that person in all manner of ways. Established projects, habits, commitments, and pastimes that shape how the surrounding world is experienced all presuppose the person, in ways that render them unsustainable or even unintelligible in the face of loss. For instance, where goal-directed projects are built around doing something for that person or for us, associated activities cease to make sense. However, an experiential world is not something that can be revised instantaneously; it often takes a great deal of time. It is in this…that the unity of grief is to be found. A grief process is unified to the extent that the life disturbance it negotiates is unified. And a life disturbance is unified to the extent that a human life involves patterns of implication that bind together various values, projects, commitments, habits, and relationships.”

–Matthew Ratcliffe (“Grief worlds: A study of emotional experience”, 2023)

In this newsletter, I have focused many times on grief in its different aspects (search for “grief” at my website, here), because it and its stalling are so fundamental to the process of depression. The process in its abstract purity moves in a looping, but unobstructed, way from the initial registration of loss to the stable alteration of our worldview that includes that loss. But if grief is a river (per last month’s article), then the actual experience of loss involves various eddies, rapids, and whirlpools, if not outright frozenness.

The quote from Matthew Ratcliffe above points both to the time dimension of grief when he says, “it often takes a great deal of time,” as well as why it is lengthy, in that the world surrounding the lost attachment is presupposed on that attachment (Ratcliffe is clear in the book that he is not just talking about the loss of people). We cannot simply know that the loss has occurred and be done with it; our “I” was structured around the attachment (whether person, belief, or object), and it’s that “I” that has to be restructured to be finished with grief, to be in a relatively full acceptance.

This means that, ideally, we are surrendering to this process of restructuring without resistance, but that rarely happens. There are many parts of us with many different agendas, and some of them are interested in control, not surrender. Since grief is both a loss of an attached object, as well the ability to control that loss of both the object and the coherency of our world built around that object, parts of us rebel against the process and try to stop it from going through its full arc. This can look like denial (“I never really cared anyway”), perseveration (“I can’t let go, I can’t go on”), or numbness/dissociation. All three strategies of stalling grief create ghosts out of the dead which, like all ghosts, will haunt us with their here-but-not-here presences.

The nature of ghosts (talking about them here just as metaphor) is to occupy the space and attention of the living without being able to participate meaningfully. Essentially, they pull energy away from the act of living and a focus on what is here and vibrant; as a recent TV show (“Night Country”) has a character say, “Some ghosts want you to follow them.” This is what the ghosts created by stalled or resisted grief do: to avoid the pain of living without the lost object, we take up residence in cities of the dead.

For example: John was a dedicated socialist, having been raised as a “red diaper baby,” and continuing into adulthood with an ardent attachment to that political philosophy. He was a writer and activist working for that cause, and his social and professional life centered on working for a political and economic revolution. But in his late 20’s, he started encountering both experiences of infighting in his work group, as well as real challenges to aspects of the philosophy, as he witnessed socialist countries fall apart or turn towards authoritarian regimes. This was on top of internal changes in which a desire for more conventional involvement with work and family started emerging. Socialism as an object that he was deeply attached to starting decaying, slipping through his fingers. But because it was such an organizing principle of the other aspects of his life, he felt the fear of his whole life decomposing in front of him. (Ratcliffe says, “where goal-directed projects are built around doing something for that person or for us, associated activities cease to make sense”.) The natural course of things would be to start into the experience of grief and the restructuring of the “I”, but what felt like the loss of the other attending parts of his life made it overwhelming to John. So “socialism”, instead of continuing as a vibrant, lived, energized and energizing core of his life, became the ghost of its living version. John continued with the previous work, study, groups and relationships, but increasingly as a hollow affectation rather than a lived relationship. His life came to feel more and more desiccated and empty, with his beloved philosophy more and more unreal and historical.

You can fill in “socialism” with any number of structuring attachments (parents, partners, job title, etc.), but the point is that whatever the nature of the loss, it is so central to the identity and life structure of the person that its loss is experienced—and in many ways actually is—a loss of their whole life (as it has been structured). Hence, the mind decides at a deep level that it is better to live in a necropolis than in the real world, because although the vibrancy of reciprocal life with that attached object is gone, the structure around the loss is maintained. Whether the ghosts are hidden behind shiny facades (denial), or are made front-and-center aspects of our “life” (perseveration), or joined in half-life (numbness/dissociation and depression), the result and reason is the same: the loss of the world anchored by that attached object is too much to bear.

What is the way out of a necropolis (of what psychology often refers to as “complicated grief”)? Simply put, it is recognizing that one has set up camp amongst the tombstones, and that continuance of that does not move out into life again, nor does it actually protect our lives against restructuring (things will keep decaying), nor does it keep the ghost itself alive. Death is non-reversable, and while this is a brutal recognition which needs to happen, for the living to survive it has to happen with a lot of support. Unfortunately, some people never make it out of the cemetery, and that’s because of a lack of these necessary resources, both inner (spirituality, philosophy, something like “grit”) and outer (institutions, social networks, resources for healing practices).

There is no simple step-by-step to abandoning our attachment to ghosts, to leaving the necropolis, but the “protocols of grief” I suggested previously (here) are a decent summary. These protocols are: identify the loss, identify supports for nervous system, identify faith, focus on feelings, don’t force the process, and watch for depression. But probably most important, to allow entry into these protocols, is a rephrase of the 12 Steps first first step: Admit you are powerless over the ghosts, and your life has become unmanageable, deadened. If you are able to do that, then you ask for help and when some comes, you cling to it like a rope over quicksand. By starting to attach to the world of the living world again, the stalled grieving and restructuring process is allowed to restart. With enough support, and willingness to grab onto whatever ropes of life are there, the shattered world can be allowed to die so that the next real one can come about.

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