Holding the Space for Anger & Love: Using DBT to Heal Through Grief
Updated: Jun 8, 2022
Written by: Heather Gibson, LMFT
When I found out that my grandma had passed away two years ago, one of the first things that I did was to sit down and write every single memory of her from my childhood that I could recollect. One conjured memory would trigger another, then another. I wrote how she would call me pet names like “sugar babe” or “darling hearts”. I wanted to capture the feeling of her long nails giving a comforting tingle when she would roll up my sleeves or fix my hair. Standing on my tip-toes on a blue wooden bench, making ‘Mickey Mouse’ shaped pancakes when I was 3. It was like an instinct to want to chronicle every sweet, happy, loving memory; perhaps for posterity, or because I felt like grief was supposed to be nostalgic.
As I continued to write, the memories started to shift. I found myself replaying the time she took scissors and cut my hair without my permission, leaving me crying in my parents bathroom as a little girl. I replayed the last time I spoke with her on the phone, how it was filled with her hurtful, passive-aggressive comments. I remembered a lot of family conflict and division. Suddenly I felt confused. This was supposed to be a space to document the loss of my grandma; was it ok that it included negative emotions and hurtful memories? On the one hand, I felt (and still feel) tremendous gratitude for how she shaped who I am. She was so involved in my life as a little girl. On the other hand, I couldn’t deny that I also felt anger, and indifference toward her. She had a difficult personality and a lot of family conflict seemed to surround her. Gratitude, anger, and indifference are three totally differing sentiments though, how could I feel all of them at the same time?
We tend to see a lot of things in extremes - ‘black-or-white’ thinking. We have thoughts like “my partner is mad at me, they must not love me”. “ If I yell at my kids then that means I’m a bad mom”. “My friend has been really quiet so they must hate me now”. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) teaches us to get out of that ‘black-or-white’ thinking, and to instead see all possibilities, all shades of gray. We can learn to hold space for two things at once, the “both/and” rather than the ‘either/or’. You can be an exhausted mom who is frustrated with your kids AND still be a loving amazing mom. You and your partner can have a fight and feel anger and hurt, AND still love and care about one another.
Relationships are not dichotomous. Almost everything in life falls somewhere on a spectrum. Our experiences, emotions, and thoughts do not have to be “black or white”. When my grandma passed I realized that I can hold space simultaneously for many sentiments: regret and at the same time, being at peace. Nostalgia and indifference, confusion and acceptance, frustration and gratitude, hurt and love. Grief evolves with time, and regret is a normative part of the healing journey. I can regret that I didn’t see my grandma one last time, and at the same time I know that I am at peace with that decision. I ended my list that night by setting an intention to be able to hold space for all of the emotions that flow through me, not labeling them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but understanding that they are normal parts of any relationship and normal parts of grief. May you find the space for the ‘both/and’ on your healing journey.
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