What Does It Mean to Compartmentalize Grief?

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Grieving can be emotionally taxing and leave you unable to concentrate on everyday tasks and responsibilities. For some grieving individuals, profound pain and sorrow can mean the inability to fully function or perform at work or school. Others might suffer when they feel they have no choice but to withdraw from their friends and loved ones. In either event, grief can be paralyzing. 

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Individuals suffer from many different types of grief in their lifetimes. Sometimes bad things happen to make life challenging to cope with. When added to everything else a person deals with daily, the overwhelming emotions of pain and suffering can severely impact how one recovers from significant losses.

Here, you’ll learn about the stages of grief, how they can affect you, and what you can do to manage your grief-related stress better so that you can thrive at work, in school, or wherever else you need focus and concentration.

Definition of Compartmentalizing Grief

Compartmentalizing your grief means that you effectively break down your grief into smaller, more manageable chunks to mitigate the grieving process. Compartmentalization involves the ability to separate your feelings of grief and loss from either a task, job, or any way that grief might interfere with your daily life.

People, including children suffering from profound loss, can learn to set aside their suffering to cope with overwhelming thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The separation of pain and suffering from their everyday existence can be a helpful coping mechanism for many.

Examples of Compartmentalizing Grief

Bereaved individuals tend to store their grief until they're ready to distance themselves from the pain of loss or the feelings, emotions, and triggers that make them think about what they lost and how it affects them. There are many reasons why someone might choose to set aside their grief, and some of the main reasons can include having the ability to concentrate on work or school that otherwise profound grieving might interfere with. 

Doctors, primarily, are known to separate their feelings from their work effectively. Dealing with death daily can be challenging if not for grief compartmentalization. If doctors were to feel the pain and suffering associated with each dying patient, they might suffer unnecessarily from these difficult emotions causing their work to suffer from this distraction.  

Another example of the compartmentalization of grief might include a young child that doesn't yet understand the pain of loss and suffering. Children may find it easier to put their grief aside than to confront their feelings when they don't know why they're feeling the way they are. Children who do not yet know what death is won't comprehend that their anger, sadness, and pain are associated with a particular loss. 

What Are the Downsides of Compartmentalizing Grief?

People have different ways of coping and dealing with their loss. While grief compartmentalizing can positively manage distress, it can sometimes hinder growth and healing. Compartmentalization can lead to avoidance, escalating to complications in the grieving process.

When you don't confront your pain and deal directly with your suffering, the effects of grief compound from one loss to the next. Then, when you suffer from another setback, regardless of how minor it is, your grief reactions may be much more intense than they were after a significant loss. 

Another way grief compartmentalization can be harmful is when you set your pain aside, you don't benefit from talking about it with others who can lend their comfort and support. Grief tends to be a lonely experience because people usually suffer in silence. They may be too embarrassed or ashamed to admit their feelings, so instead, they hide them from others, making it appear as if everything's okay. 

How Can You Stop Compartmentalizing Your Grief?

When you can't stop compartmentalizing your grief, it signals an opportunity to learn and grow from your experience. Once you develop a habit of tempering your pain and sorrow, allowing those emotions to resurface can be painful. You can expect any strong feelings and emotions you've set aside to resurface when least expected. To avoid this future pain and hardship, consider some of the ways below to stop boxing in your grief. 

Integrate your grief 

Integrating your grief involves finding ways to make time for grief and mourning in your daily life. While it's okay to set your grief aside so you can come back to it later, avoiding your grief is not only unhealthy but damaging to your overall healing process.

Remember to return to your pain and suffering often so you can learn to deal with and move past it. Your overall grief journey may take months, even years, for you to complete, and the more you work on resolving your pain and suffering, the quicker you can grow from your experiences.

Share what you’re feeling

Find ways to share your emotional experiences with the people you know and trust. Although sharing your grief with others can be challenging and make you feel uncomfortable, it can be one of the best things you can do for yourself as you learn to cope with loss and heartache. Making genuine connections with others helps with healing because it makes you feel less alone and more supported.

Sometimes, all you need is someone to talk to who will listen, even if they don't understand your pain. Telling your story provides immense grief release, and the more you can talk about your experiences, the easier it'll become for you to accept your loss.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable

Vulnerability after a significant loss can feel intimidating. Many grieving individuals find it challenging to open up about their feelings and show emotion in front of others. For example, in Western culture, men, first responders, and medical professionals tend to hide their feelings, whether it’s because they’re reluctant to show their weaknesses in front of others or because their discomfort with death and dying keeps them from doing so.

Holding back on tears and physical contact can negatively affect grief and extend the healing process. 

Allow yourself to mourn

Allowing yourself to experience your grief instead of tucking it away takes a lot of courage, especially if you’re unaccustomed to grieving openly. To get comfortable with your pain and suffering:

  1. Take some time each day to process your thoughts and emotions.
  2. Find a safe place for you to go and grieve privately.
  3. Consider incorporating self-healing techniques such as yoga and hiking.

The solitude these activities provide is good for the soul and connecting with your grief. After a few weeks of releasing your grief, you'll begin feeling better and won't need to compartmentalize your emotions.

Get professional help

Grief counseling is an excellent tool to help you overcome the need to compartmentalize your grief. A grief counselor helps you learn why you may be struggling with your grief and uncover the hidden trauma from your past. You can find some excellent grief resources online to find a counselor near you or one that can meet with you virtually.

Every grief experience is unique, and you shouldn’t expect immediate results. Instead, surrender to the process and take the needed time to find healing and closure. 

How to Help a Loved One Who’s Compartmentalizing Their Grief

Whenever your loved one seems withdrawn or disconnected after suffering the loss of a loved one, they may be trying to protect themselves from the vulnerability they’re feeling. Grief compartmentalization is a highly effective defense mechanism that some individuals use to hide their pain and suffering from the outside world. They may feel more in control of their suffering by taking their grief and boxing it in.

Unfortunately, this type of grief avoidance can also play a prominent role in why relationships fall apart after a significant loss. Here are some ways to help your loved one who’s having trouble managing their grief.  

Pay attention to hidden cues

Your loved one who’s recently suffered a life-altering loss may appear to be coping just fine on the outside, but the reality may be that they’re profoundly hurting on the inside. Offering help and support to someone hiding their pain may not be easy, especially if they’re unwilling to let you in on their pain.

If this happens to someone you love, try approaching the conversation when they feel relaxed and rested, making them less defensive. Open the conversation by talking to them about behaviors you’ve observed without sounding judgmental or accusatory.

Gift them books on grief

Your loved one may not know how to process their grief or what to do with their feelings or emotions. Sometimes, individuals may not recognize what they’re going through or why they feel the way they do. Books on grief help explain the different stages of grief and what to expect along the way, from the time you first experience loss to finding healing and new meaning in life.

Many books on grief have workbooks to accompany the lessons found within them that allow bereaved individuals to connect with their suffering to learn and move past their pain. 

Give them space

Suffering from a significant loss takes time to process and understand the overall effect on a person’s mental, physical, and psychological well-being. Whenever your loved one exhibits signs of grief avoidance, it may mean that they struggle to cope with the painful emotions they’re experiencing.

A bereaved person needs time and space to deal with their loss. A certain amount of withdrawal and grief avoidance is necessary in the beginning to keep from becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Set some time each week to get together to talk about how they’re coping and to see what, if anything, you can do to help them feel better.

Setting Aside Grief

For individuals struggling with grief and sadness, it’s only natural for them to want to put that pain away. Dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy, and one way of coping with the emotional effects of loss is to categorize the sadness you feel inside. While setting grief aside is a necessary survival tool, avoiding it altogether has a lasting adverse impact on the grief process. 

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