The Difference between Dealing with Stress and Grieving a Shattered Dream: A Two-Part Article

“All connections are infused with dreams of what is possible in the future. Thus, when we lose something or someone important to us, we aren’t just grieving the loss, we are grieving the shattered dream.” 
~ Bill Crawford


As a psychologist and someone who has experienced loss firsthand (both of my parents died of cancer within about six months of each other when I was 21), I have come to understand that the natural, normal, healthy reaction to loss is grief. Unfortunately, our western culture doesn’t seem to see this way. Possibly, because of this lack of vision, or because grieving can be so intensely emotional, we try to avoid it and/or describe the feelings associated with the experience of grieving in rather pejorative terms. For example, we call it “breaking down, falling to pieces, losing it, becoming a basket case,” etc., and thus we find it hard to move through this process when we experience a loss.

I know that this was my experience when I lost my parents. Being a male raised in the piney woods of North East Texas, I thought that the way to deal with grief was to resist feeling anything, and so, when faced with the loss of my parents (and given that I was an only child in my family), I shut down and tried to feel nothing. Unfortunately, not only was I successful in this resistance, I received a lot of support for this position. People would come up to me and congratulate me for “doing so well” and “being so strong.” Little did they know that I had shut down altogether, and was just going through the motions.

Finally, after years of denial, I entered a master’s program in psychology that had the wisdom to insist that the students deal with their issues before they were let loose on the public. This requirement turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it allowed me to get in touch with these long-repressed emotions in a safe place with people that I trusted. As a result, I finally began open up and allow myself to feel the emotions that had been buried for so long, and a very strange thing happened.

For the first time in my life, it felt really, really good to feel really, really bad.

You see, when I had decided to feel no pain at the loss of my parents, I also had unwittingly shut off my connection to my love for them as well. Thus, when I was willing to open to the pain and allow it to be a reflection of my love, I was able to give the experience of grieving a sense of purpose and meaning. The tears became a testimony to my love for the two people who had given me life.

I also noticed that I was not only grieving the loss of my parents, but also what would never be. As I mentioned, I was only 21 at the time of their death, and was just beginning to reconnect with them after my “teenage independence” phase. Not only was that reconciliation cut short, but I realized that they would never see their grandchildren, never see me earn my Ph.D., and I would never have the opportunity to give to them as they had given to me.

This “Shattered Dream” concept (developed by Chicago psychologist, Ken Moses) has come to be a major component in my work with others who have experienced a loss. Whether grieving the loss of a relationship, a loved one, a job, a pet, or even just the discovery that what we thought was going to happen will never come to pass, what we are all grieving is a shattered dream. Plus, since the dream, or our vision of the future is always perfect, always about hope and what we see as possible, the resulting grief reflects this depth of this pain.

Next week I will conclude this two-part discussion with another quote on grief, and some ideas about how to move through this process in a way that facilitates healing and wholeness. For now, however, I encourage you to think back about the losses in your life. Did any of them have a shattered dream attached? Did you find yourself resisting the feelings associated with the loss because you either didn’t want to feel that pain and/or you felt you had to be “strong” for those around you? If so, maybe now is the time to begin to reconsider our feelings in this area and discover whether there might be some reason that the experience of grief is so universally consistent . . . some wisdom in the way our body feels after a loss . . . some way to move through this process in a way that allows us to not only grieve the shattered dream, but to begin to create more purposeful dreams of the future.


“Grieving is not the problem, it’s part of the solution. It is an unlearned, self-sufficient process that helps us to move from the past to the future, from inaction to action… from shattered dreams to more purposeful dreams based upon who we really are and what we can create.”
~ adapted from Ken Moses

In the previous quote and comment on grieving, I spoke to my experience of grief that was brought on by the death of my parents when I was 21. As I mentioned, being an only child, this was understandably traumatic, and unfortunately, my lack of information and insight into the process of grieving left me ill-equipped to deal with the experience. Thus, I found myself retreating to the only option that seemed feasible, which was to stuff my emotions and generally feel nothing. The problem with this tactic, of course, was that in shutting down all feelings of grief, I also shut down my feelings of joy and love for my parents (and life in general), and it wasn’t until I purposefully and fully surrendered to the emotions of grief that I was able to reconnect with this love.

As promised, in this second quote and comment on grief, I am going to attempt to offer some thoughts on how we might move through this emotional minefield and not only survive, but actually find meaning in the process . . . how we can move from grieving our shattered dreams to a place where we can create new, more purposeful dreams, and how the experience of grieving can be a both an honoring of the past and a pathway to the future.

As with my other ideas and philosophies on dealing with stress, frustration, anger, etc., the first thing I feel we need to understand is how the experience of grieving is tied to the physiology of our body. For example, most people know that we have two nervous systems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is designed to gear us up to be able to fight or flee when faced with a threat or trauma of some sort. The parasympathetic nervous system is designed to bring us back to normal after facing this sort of trauma (such as loss). What many people don’t know, however, is that one of the functions of this parasympathetic nervous system is the stimulation of the tear glands! Thus, crying (and the experience of grieving, in general) isn’t in the way… it is the way! It’s our parasympathetic nervous system kicking in to help us deal with the loss, return to “normal,” and go on with life.

As mentioned in the previous quote and comment on grief, this unfortunately isn’t how our culture views the experience. We in the West tend to define crying and the other emotions associated with grief as “losing it, breaking down, falling to pieces,” etc., and thus we tend to resist these emotions when they come upon us. Unfortunately, this has us exerting a tremendous amount of energy to keep these feelings at bay, and thus not only do we feel exhausted as a result, we are blocking the very process that is designed to help us heal and move on.

This is where Chicago psychologist, Ken Moses, does an exceptional job of helping us see these emotions for the natural, normal, and even healthy “feeling states” that they are. First, the fact that he defines these as “seven feeling states of grieving,” versus “five stages of grief” is very helpful. While Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was very instrumental in helping us normalize the experience of grieving, as anyone who has experienced a loss knows, we don’t move smoothly from one stage to another until we arrive at acceptance. We might start with shock and denial, but then we might feel (in no particular order) confusion, anxiety, anger, fear, depression, and even guilt. Further, we can easily find ourselves re-experiencing these feeling states as they seem to wash over us much like a wave in the ocean. In fact, as with a wave, if we try to fight it, we will be unceremoniously up-ended, tossed around, and eventually thrown to the bottom. If, however, we are willing to let the wave roll over us, surrender to its natural, gravitational forces, and avoid trying to fight the experience, we can ride the current, eventually break the surface of the water, and begin to swim for shore.

In order to do this, we must first see the process of feeling not as the problem, but part of the solution . . . as our parasympathetic nervous system kicking in to help us deal with the trauma of loss. Next, we must understand why the loss affects us in this profound way. As mentioned in last week’s quote, we are grieving not just the loss of a person or situation (job, relationship, etc.) we are also grieving a shattered dream and/or the hopes and dreams of what we thought was possible, but will now never come to pass. Plus, we are also very likely grieving any past shattered dreams that we resisted grieving at the time of the loss.

One way to help with this process of moving through the feeling states of grieving is to give them meaning. Unfortunately, for many of us, the emotions we feel after a loss only serve to underline how much pain we are in, and since we think (intellectually) that this only makes things worse, we resist feeling the feelings. This is understandable, it just doesn’t work.

What we need to do instead is to first see these emotions as the parasympathetic nervous system kicking in to bring us back to normal, and then give each of the feelings meaning other than just to remind us of the pain of the loss. For example, Ken Moses speaks of how shock and denial (generally the first of the feeling states) allow us to retreat into ourselves so that we can begin to marshall resources to deal with the loss. In other words, the reason it initially feels too overwhelming to deal with the loss is because it is actually too overwhelming. What is needed is a time of numbness so that we can create internal and external resources to help us face and accept what seems unacceptable. Anger and anxiety then move us from inaction to action, and help us begin to establish the kind of boundaries we need at times like these . . . boundaries that allow us to take care of ourselves versus always being so concerned about the needs of others that we put ourselves last on the list.

As mentioned in my previous quote and comment on the subject of grief (Grieving the Shattered Dream, Part I –, crying can also be given a purpose. Instead of it being a sign of our failure to cope, or what we must hide to avoid making others uncomfortable, it can be a behavioral representation of our love for what or who we lost. When working with people who are grieving (or when grieving myself), I recommend allowing the tears to flow all the way down our cheeks and even drip onto our clothes, versus stopping them cold with a tissue at the edge of our eyes the way most people do.

Regardless of how we cry, however, what’s important is that we cry with purpose, or in a way that is meaningful, because if we can give these tears meaning, if we can see them as “liquid love” or as a way to connect to and even celebrate our love for who or what we have lost, then we can allow the wave to sweep over us, cleanse us, and even begin to wash away the pain.

Anyone who has ever had a “good cry” knows this feeling. We surrender to the emotion, temporarily “losing control” and the natural, normal, healthy experience of grieving takes us to a new place . . . a place where the pain is not quite as bad and yet the memory of the lost love is still as strong, or maybe even stronger because now we have learned to feel the love through the pain and give them both new meaning…a place where we move from the past to the future, from inaction to action, from shattered dreams to more purposeful dreams based upon who we really are and what we can create.

As a client I had the privilege to work with once said: “Tears are a river that takes us to places we’ve never been.” Here’s to our willingness to allow the current of that river to take us to a new place where loss is painful but not debilitating because we have learned the art of grieving the shattered dream.