Applying Hopefulness Within Hopelessness: Dialectical Thinking in Grief

Grief: When I tell people that philosophy is what got me through my dad’s death, they look at me like I have two heads. I won’t bore you with the details. I haven’t talked much about how philosophy is almost as helpful as my background in mental health as a grief therapist.

Seriously, from existential dread to the phenomenological structures of human experience, grief pushes us to examine “big” questions. It also pushes us to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense. People often find themselves stuck between thoughts and feelings that feel like contradictions. Plato or Hegel would have called this a dialectic, though most people grieving would find that a useless description. Because, though dialectical thinking in grief is incredibly common, almost no one has heard of it.

On the surface, dialectical thinking feels confusing at best, terrible at worst. You’re in a black hole of grief, trying to make sense of the zillions of feelings that come with that. And then suddenly you’re trying to reconcile feelings and thoughts that feel like they can’t possibly go together. Or you worry that a certain feeling mean that your grief isn’t as bad as you know that it is.

Dialectical thinking is holding two things that are contradictions. Plato explored this through debates – his famous Socratic method. As two philosophers debated, what was most important was the clarity that came from exploring these contradictions. Hegel later had some harsh words about Plato’s dialectic, refining his own. I won’t bore you with the details. But the incredible insight Hegel had (one that I’m sure he absolutely, positively sure he never imagined some grief therapist-blogger would be waxing poetic about 200+ years later) was that almost everything distills down to contradictions. He thought that there was value in the work we do exploring these contradictions, finding ideas that replace the previous but still retain the contradictions.

Uh, what on earth does this have to do with grief?

Eeek, this probably is reinforcing every stereotype that philosophy is abstract hooey. But I promise it isn’t. Hegel’s idea that these contradictions are not problems, but rather things that exist and can move us forward, translated beautifully into psychology. Klaus F. Riegel suggested that development through life is predicated on contradiction. He suggested that, as we age, we learn the inevitability of these contradictions. We sit with them rather than trying to escape them.

Even if you aren’t comfortable with the dialectical nature of the world, learning to recognize and sit with these dialectical thoughts can be of use in grief. As humans, we like things to be in nice, neat, tidy boxes. Things are good or bad. This is right; this is wrong. I am happy, or I am sad. It would be so nice and simple if life worked that way, wouldn’t it? But the older we get, the more moments we encounter that challenge that reality. Humans are complicated; life is complicated; we’re complicated.

So how do you notice and get comfortable with dialectical thinking? The first thing to do is look for all-or-nothing thinking, either-or thinking, or any extremes in your grief-thinking.

Uhhhh . . . like what?
  • I will never be happy again
  • My friends are terrible. They keep [insert insensitive thing here]
  • No one can help me because no one understands my grief.
  • I tried a support group once and I didn’t like it, so therapy and groups aren’t for me.

Needless to say, there are many, many more.

Now consider what it would look like to take any of these thoughts and consider if something contradictory could also be true. This is not replacing the thought with another thought that is true instead. Rather, it is sitting with the contradiction that both are true.

  • I will never be happy in the way I imagined, and I am still capable of happiness.
  • My friends are not providing me the grief support I need right now, but they have been good friends in the past and may be capable of being good friends again.
  • No one understands my grief, but they may still be able to help me in other ways.
  • I tried a support group that I did not like. It wasn’t right for me, but another group or therapist might be a better fit.

In each of these cases, the initial thought is not false or replaced. Rather, a thought exists alongside it. When we can still have both thoughts, there is often new flexibility or space that emerges.

Okay, so I need to introduce dialectical thinking into my thoughts?

Yes and no. There are places where you are probably already thinking dialectically, but you might not be comfortable with these thoughts. In these situations, it is helpful to notice the uncomfortable dialectical thoughts and explore and sit with them.

  • I’m devastated by this loss, and I am relieved that my loved one is no longer suffering.
  • I would give anything to have my loved one back, and I have grown as a result of this loss.
  • I’ve been destroyed by what I lost, and I am grateful for what I still have.

In each of these, it can be easy to imagine that the second thought somehow reduces the pain or truth of the first. The reality is that both are wholly true. Neither diminishes the other because that is not how emotions work. One emotion does not take away from another. We can feel each in their entirety, all at once.

This either makes tons of sense or is as clear as mud. Either way, we really do believe spending some time with dialectical thinking can be really useful. So we hope you’ll give it a shot.

Authored by LITSA
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