What is 'Grief Debt' and How Can We Get Rid of It?

As we’ve become all too familiar with over the past year, grief isn’t limited to losing a loved one (although that is its own, particularly painful type of grief). Whether it’s losing a job, not getting to see family...

What is 'Grief Debt' and How Can We Get Rid of It?

Illustration for article titled What is 'Grief Debt' and How Can We Get Rid of It?

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As we’ve become all too familiar with over the past year, grief isn’t limited to losing a loved one (although that is its own, particularly painful type of grief). Whether it’s losing a job, not getting to see family and friends for extended periods of time, or simply mourning our pre-pandemic lives, we still have no idea how much of an impact this collective grief and trauma will have on us in years to come.

Not only can this grief accumulate over time, but after a year of nonstop racial injustices, natural disasters, and all the damage caused by the former presidential administration, we never really have time to process one trauma before the next one happens. This leaves us with something called “grief debt”—and like monetary debt, it’s difficult to pay off. Here’s what to know about grief debt and how to deal with it.

What is grief debt?

As Emily Laurence writes for Well+Good, grief debt “happens when we withdraw energy from our emotional bank to process every instance of strife, and those instances compound one another, depleting energy further until there’s nothing left to withdraw.”

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Having to process a single trauma is hard enough, but multiple traumas at the same time is a different challenge altogether. That’s because if we don’t have a chance to fully work through the first trauma, “what tends to happen is that you start focusing on the next tragedy before you’ve worked through the first one,” clinical psychologist Dr. Kahina A. Louis tells Well+Good.

And so in order to cope with life, we suppress the trauma, and “when you suppress a trauma, you may push down certain emotions, but [they don’t] go away,” Louis adds. “They can surface in your thoughts and actions without you even realizing it.”

How to get rid of grief debt

While it’s certainly possible (and advisable) to process and work through grief, the idea there is to learn coping strategies to manage it moving forward—not expect it to vanish over a certain period of time. But when we’re in a situation involving grief debt, it’s crucial to at least do something to work through it, rather than letting the traumas continue to pile up.

Everyone has their preferred techniques, whether it’s journaling, mindfulness exercises, talking to a therapist and/or grief counselor, or just letting yourself scream and cry, psychiatrist Dr. James S. Gordon tells Well+Good. The important thing is to find what works for you and actually give yourself the time and space to do it, without focusing on the next bad thing to come along.