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Handling Despair in Loss

Chapter 6: Handling Despair

Tools for Handling Loss

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What forms does despair in loss take?

Despair is:

  • An uncontrollable emotional response to loss, which involves reacting to the pain and anguish involved.
  • Sobbing and crying, physical responses to the hurt and suffering of the loss.
  • Physically tightening the chest and involuntary muscular contractions that occur at the time one “lets go" and feels the total emotion of a loss.
  • Often seen as deep depression in which one withdraws completely into oneself and pulls away from others, suffering privately the pain and anguish of the loss.
  • Wailing, ranting, and invective aimed at God, self, or others in response to the wave of emotional grief experienced in a loss.
  • The sense of being “ungrounded" “unsettled" “lost" “disenfranchised" or “forgotten" as a result of a loss.
  • A feeling of overwhelming insecurity and fear after realizing the magnitude of the loss involved.
  • The unwillingness of the human spirit to accept the loss and the crying out for justice, redemption, forgiveness, and compassion for the loss event.
  • Questioning the “fairness" of treatment resulting from the loss and flailing out against it.
  • The emotional response most commonly misunderstood as the "only" response to grief.

What irrational beliefs inhibit the resolution of despair?

  • If I cry, I will show my weakness.
  • If I become emotional, I will reveal my lack of control to others.
  • Life should always be fair.
  • You must be strong in the face of adversity.
  • I must be strong to carry everyone in my family during this crisis.
  • If I ignore this problem long enough, it will go away.
  • I must be going crazy or else I wouldn't be responding this way.
  • It's not ladylike (or manly) to cry in public.
  • I'm the only one going through this problem; no one else could understand.
  • If I let others see my anguish and pain, they will lose respect for me.
  • If I have a problem accepting my loss, and let others know, they will ostracize me.
  • It is not normal to be feeling this way.
  • There are certain social expectations we have to meet in facing a loss like this.
  • If I go through this anguish once, I'll never have to grieve over this loss again.
  • I can't believe I still find myself crying uncontrollably after so much time has passed
  • No one should ever have to hurt like this.
  • I should be able to resume normal activities as soon as possible.
  • It is abnormal to act this way; if others see me act this way they will think I'm abnormal.
  • I should never admit to anyone how I really feel because it is my personal business, and I shouldn't burden anyone else with my problems.
  • If I allow myself to feel and act this way, I'm going to feel guilty later on for such feelings and actions.

What are the results of blocked or unresolved despair?


People with blocked despair:

  • have difficulty tuning in to real human emotion.
  • feel guilty for the hidden feelings of despair they are harboring.
  • feel uncomfortable when others despair over a similar loss.
  • become guarded about letting others know their feelings.
  • can fall into a deep depression.
  • often withdraw from others and keep to themselves.
  • can become “autistic-like'' in their response to life's ups and downs.
  • are unable to accept their loss; therefore they do not adjust to the changes which result.
  • keep up a “happy face'' or “mask of strength'' for others but are scared inside.
  • are often never able to seek or accept help in dealing with their loss.


People with unresolved despair:

  • become hysterical in response to any human emotion displayed openly to them.
  • become crusaders of a ”cause" trying to change the way things are in the hard, cruel world.
  • find it difficult to associate with others who have or are currently suffering a similar loss.
  • are in a constant state of letting others know about their loss and how much anguish and pain has resulted from the loss.
  • believe that they are responding normally to their loss and deny their behavior is a form of clinical depression.
  • seek out an audience to whom they can ventilate their despair.
  • become “self-centered" ignoring the needs and wants of others and pursuing only self-interests.
  • mask their lack of coping with their loss in a veneer of strength and gusto.
  • are never able to cope or adjust to the changes in life resulting from their loss.
  • become convinced that no one can help them, and so they become “lone rangers" and begin to challenge the system to change things.

How can we recognize an inappropriate response to despair?

We know we are having an inappropriate response to despair when we:

  • Can't think of anything but our loss.
  • Feel guilt for our loss and find no end to the contempt we feel for ourself and others.
  • Find it difficult to carry on the normal course of our life.
  • Find it difficult to face life as a result of our loss.
  • Feel lost and unable to find the answers to resolving our despair.
  • Can't speak to anyone about what we are feeling.
  • Find that our only topic of conversation is our loss.
  • Have lost all hope or trust in finding a way out of our problem.
  • Have withdrawn from all of our old friends and social network.
  • Can no longer enjoy life, find meaning in life, or find a reason for carrying on.


The ultimate inappropriate responses to despair include:

  • Suicide - overwhelming unhealthy despair response can lead to this final solution.
  • Divorce - a couple dealing with despair at different levels often cannot reconcile their differing viewpoints, leading to dissolution of their marriage.
  • Mental illness - unresolved despair can lead to a mental breakdown or break from reality. Psychotic-like behavior is one possible result of uncontrolled despair.
  • Physical illness - the physical response to unresolved despair can lead to acute or chronic illness.
  • Acts of violence - in a wild rage of despair a person can commit an act such as murder, physical, or sexual abuse to relieve the pain and anguish of the loss.
  • Chemical dependency - alcohol or drug abuse can be used to mask the pain and hurt of the loss.
  • Food addiction - food becomes an end in itself, not only to satisfy hunger but to gratify the need to relieve the stress of despair.
  • Extreme risk taking or self-destructive behavior - gambling, sex addiction, taking foolish chances, and avoiding normal precautions can result when one's mind is clouded with the pain and anguish of despair.
Steps to resolve blocked despair


Step 1 Take an honest inventory of your behavioral response to the target loss; identify your inappropriate or unhealthy responses to despair. If you find you have unresolved despair, go to Step 2.


Step 2 Identify the irrational beliefs blocking the resolution of your despair.


Step 3 Systematically refute each irrational belief keeping you from resolving your despair.


Step 4 Seek help from someone to assist you in dealing with your irrational beliefs openly and honestly. Such helpers can include:
  • parents
  • a trusted relative or friend
  • a church person
  • an allied health professional
  • a mental health professional


Step 5 In working with a helper, share the cause of your despair. Be free to reveal your inner pain and turmoil. Do not hold back the emotional tide. Trust the helper to respect your emotional response. Ask the helper to provide a ”rational" thinking and emotional approach to the loss.


Step 6 With the assistance of the helper, imagine or picture the loss and allow yourself to feel the pain and hurt of your experience. Use this simulation to bring out your feelings of despair. Bring the simulation to closure by substituting a rational response to the loss, such as:
  • Forgiveness - forgive the real or perceived perpetrators of your loss be it yourself or others.
  • Permission giving - give permission to yourself and others to suffer the loss appropriately and to adjust to the changes resulting from it.
  • Guilt reduction - free yourself from the guilt that is exacerbating your pain and despair.
  • Gentleness and kindness - treat yourself and others kindly and softly, don't be hard on yourself or others, give up trying to be so “perfect."
  • Transferring of responsibility - give up the need to carry the responsibility for others' feelings and reactions, free yourself to be more open and honest in the response to your loss.
  • Recognition of self-worth - allow yourself to believe that you deserve to grieve openly, you have the right to adjust to the resulting change, and the right to be given the understanding and respect of others as your cope with your loss.


Step 7 If, in working with your helper, you are unable to resolve your despair, return to Step one.  Use a professionally trained helper, e.g., a mental health counselor, in addressing this unresolved despair. Shop around, if necessary, for someone with whom you can relate.