In our society, and in the field of psychology, we have largely been taught that it is essential for people to experience their emotions fully and that this is the only way to move forward. Especially within the context of loss and grief, it is important to honor your feelings and who or what you have lost. Research and clinical experience indicates that emotions come and go as waves and it is only by trying to stifle them, avoid them, or push them away that people inadvertently end up perpetuating them. Psychologists work with clients to approach rather than avoid their emotions, sit with their emotions, and develop strategies (such as coping skills or emotion regulation skills) to navigate strong emotions.
A common misconception about grief in particular is that proper grieving should look a certain way and that all people who are doing it properly are 100% in the process, going through Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s well known stages of grief ranging from denial to acceptance with a defined path in between that includes anger and bargaining. Prominent trauma experts in the field have also developed treatments for trauma and grief that emphasize exposure to negative emotions and processing the traumatic event or loss fully. The truth is that there is no correct way to grieve or process a loss and that in many instances, it is actually beneficial for people to utilize distraction in order to get through incredibly difficult situations. Psychologist, Dr. George Bonnano, of Columbia University Teacher’s College is a bereavement expert and has done research that backs the concept that not all people process grief or trauma the same way and that the differentiating factor that leads to healthier outcomes is resilience which he describes as the ability to maintain healthy psychological functioning by using emotion regulation and coping skills. Bonnano talks about a range of coping or emotion regulation strategies, including distraction, that are effective and healthy (Bonnano, 2013)
When people are confronted with extraordinarily intense emotions or challenging situations, it is not so easy to just sit with them. Healthy emotional functioning involves utilizing a range of strategies to manage emotions. Distraction is one of many forms of emotion regulation that is adaptive to use. It is helpful when faced with extremely intense emotions, in instances when someone just needs to get through a situation and tolerate distress and there is nothing proactive that can be done at that moment, and in situations when people are just learning how to cope and before they are fluent in a range of strategies.
If someone is experiencing grief or loss (which may be accompanied by trauma), distraction can have the positive effects of keeping people grounded in the present rather than getting lost in grief, developing confidence in their ability to manage the intense feelings, and enabling them to titrate their emotional response so they are able to also experience and honor their feelings. In fact, a psychiatric disorder called Complicated Grief can develop if people are unable to use coping skills with an orientation toward managing the loss and instead maintain a single-minded focus on the loss and nonacceptance of the loss. Complicated Grief can lead to dangerous habits like creating shrines to the person they lost and an unwillingness to live in the present and move forward. In most extreme circumstances, Complicated Grief can lead to feelings of wanting to reunite with their loved one and can result in suicide.
The bottom line is that it is healthiest to respond to difficult situations like loss with cognitive and emotional flexibility and a willingness to use coping skills to manage intense emotions so that people do not either completely block their emotional response or get consumed by it. Seeing a licensed therapist after a loss can be extremely helpful, as therapy can aid in the development of a range of coping skills.