6. Places We Go When We’re Hurting

Anguish, Hopelessness, Despair, Sadness, Grief


Three foundational elements of grief:

Loss — Death and separation = tangible losses. Others include loss of normality, the loss of what could be, and the loss of what we thought we knew or understood about something or someone.

Longing — Longing is not conscious wanting; it’s an involuntary yearning for wholeness, for understanding, for meaning, for the opportunity to regain or even simply touch what we’ve lost. Longing is a vital and important part of grief, yet many of us feel we need to keep our longings to ourselves for fear we will be misunderstood, perceived as engaging in magical or unrealistic thinking, or lacking in fortitude and resilience.

Feeling lost — Grief requires us to reorient every part of our physical, emotional, and social worlds = a painful struggle to adjust to a tangible change.

Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. But what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.

Acute Griefoccurs in the initial period after a loss. It almost always includes strong feelings of yearning, longing, and sadness along with anxiety, bitterness, anger, remorse, guilt, and/or shame. Thoughts are mostly focused on the person who died and it can be difficult to concentrate on anything else.

Integrated Grief is the result of adaptation to the loss. When a person adapts to a loss grief is not over. Instead, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to their loss are integrated in ways that allow them to remember and honor the person who died. Grief finds a place in their life.

Complicated Grief occurs when something interferes with adaptation. When this happens, acute grief can persist for very long periods of time. A person with complicated grief feels intense emotional pain. They can’t stop feeling that their loved one might somehow reappear and they don’t see a pathway forward. People often think this is depression, but complicated grief and depression are not the same thing.

Disenfranchised Grief is a less-studied form of grief: grief that “is not openly acknowledged or publicly supported through mourning practices or rituals because the experience is not valued or counted [by others] as a loss.” Examples of disenfranchised grief include loss of a partner or parent due to divorce, loss of an unborn child and/or infertility, the multitude of losses experienced by a survivor of sexual assault, and loss of a loved one to suicide.

Sexual assault survivors suffer from numerous losses, many of which are invisible to others. Some of these losses include loss of one’s prior worldview, loss of trust, loss of self-identity and self-esteem, loss of freedom and independence, loss of a sense of safety and security, and loss of sexual interest.


Feeling sad is a normal response to loss or defeat, or even the perception of loss or defeat. Owning our sadness is courageous and a necessary step in finding our way back to ourselves and each other.

  1. Sadness and depression are not the same thing.
  2. Sadness and grief are not the same thing.
  3. There are positive aspects to sadness. Acknowledging and naming our own sadness is critical in the formation of compassion and empathy. We want to be held by or feel connected to someone who has known that same ache, even if what caused it is completely different.
  4. There’s a reason we love sad movies. We like to feel connected to one another. Sadness moves the individual “us” toward the collective “us.” Sadness leads to feeling moved, which in turn leads to enjoyment.

Hope, Hopelessness, and Despair

We experience hope when:

  1. We have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go).
  2. We are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative pathways (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try new paths again and again).
  3. We have agency—we believe in ourselves (I can do this!)

We develop hope not during the easy or comfortable times, but through adversity and discomfort. Hope is forged when our goals, pathways, and agency are tested and when change is actually possible.

While hope is not an emotion, hopelessness and despair are emotions.

Hopelessness arises out of a combination of negative life events and negative thought patterns, particularly self-blame and the perceived inability to change our circumstances.

Despair is a sense of hopelessness about a person’s entire life and future. When extreme hopelessness seeps into all the corners of our lives and combines with extreme sadness, we feel despair.

Martin Seligman’s 3 Ps: personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness.

Personalization: When we experience despair and hopelessness, we often believe that we are the problem and forget to think about larger issues and context. Realize that outside factors play a role in our struggles.

Permanence: Thinking that our struggle will never end is built in to the experiences of despair and hopelessness. Build resilience by thinking about the temporary nature of most setbacks.

Pervasiveness: Sometimes, when we’re struggling, we fall into the trap of believing that whatever we’re up against has stained or changed every single thing in our life. Nothing good is left.


Anguish is an almost unbearable and traumatic swirl of shock, incredulity, grief, and powerlessness.

The element of powerlessness is what makes anguish traumatic. We are unable to change, reverse, or negotiate what has happened.