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Processing Grief Experientially

Tian Dayton MA, PhD, TEP
There are few things more difficult for a survivor of trauma than to be asked the question, “Can you tell me about your trauma?” That’s because the part of the brain that organizes our experience and converts it into language—the prefrontal cortex—partially shuts down when we’re feeling threatened, and therefore doesn’t process the experience as it normally would. 


When we’re facing danger, whether that danger is a charging elephant or a drunk and raging parent, our thinking mind shuts down as our body is being supercharged with adrenaline and extra blood flow to enable us to flee for safety or stand and fight. When we can do neither, we freeze; we stand there in body, but disappear in mind. Our limbic self goes on absorbing sense impressions—smells, sights, sounds, textures, and tastes—and we feel the fear, hurt or anger, but our thinking mind is too stunned and shaken to order these experiences and feelings into a coherent picture that can be held and easily recalled. Rather these fragments of self, these pieces of the puzzle of personal experience, live within the mind-body without a voice because they haven’t been converted into language and thought about. 


Therefore, the very nature of trauma is that feelings become frozen and cast out of conscious awareness. These “frozen moments” live within us, vibrating with life, but lacking thought and understanding. They simply were never processed and filed away into the picture of us. They hang somewhere in inner space, caught in a sort of psychic celluloid. We catch glimpses of them, but their real and visceral content can elude us. 


Later, sometimes much later, when a well-dressed therapist in a nicely furnished office asks us to reenter those disparate splinters of personal experience and drag them from their hidden world into comprehendible, well-ordered sentences, we feel anxious and on the spot. What are we supposed to say? It was so long ago and it feels so very far away. But it is those very moments that hold the pieces of our aliveness that we yearn to have back.


Questioning the person who has been traumatized can leave them at a loss for words. Therefore, talking about trauma also becomes an exercise in frustration. Allowing the internal experience to emerge in the here and now is exactly the opposite of what happened at the moment of trauma. The interior world goes underground in times of terror.


We need to create a process through which tears can be shed, anger and despair can be vented, and the pain of disillusionment can surface and be expressed so that these emotional and psychic boulders that disturb our psyches and block the flow of our very life force can be moved out of the way and inner balance restored. We need rooms where we can not only say we need a hug, but where we can actually be hugged and hug in return; where we can restore ruptured limbic bonds and where we can connect through our brokenness, rather than hide all over again. Where we can think, hope, dream, live, and love again.  


The Spectrogram


The spectrogram is an enormously versatile and usable sociometric exercise. I have used it in locales all over the country—treatment facilities, workshops, staff trainings, therapy groups, nontherapy groups, and trainings. It consistently does its job of sociometrically aligning the group according to particular criterion questions. Group sizes for this exercise have ranged from eight to over one hundred participants, with an ideal range being twelve to about thirty-five. The spectrogram reveals significant information about the group very quickly. Then it provides opportunities for many small encounters and connections within the group.


Think of the spectrogram as a graph that is laid out on a floor. Rather than using lines or dots to represent graphed placement as one would with paper, the spectrogram asks the criterion question then invites group members to stand in the location that best represents their self-assessment. This moving from one’s seat and committing to a standing, choice-making position encourages a greater engagement in the process. As people share, group members are able to express the thoughts and feelings behind their choice.


Processing Grief


Grief is an issue that is central to the resolution of relationship trauma. Grief can be seen as a natural and necessary emotion that is a part of human, and even animal, attachment. Without these powerful bonds of attachment and hence the pain that accompanies them when those attachments are threatened, interrupted or broken, our species would not survive. Because these survival bonds are so strong, the level of pain that comes up throughout grief work can be extremely intense and cathartic. In fact, when we move through feeling sad, lonely or abandoned, we are able to unblock many other feelings that will eventually allow us to reattach or to feel loving, trusting, vulnerable, and connected once again. 


As you do these exercises, make sure to keep the tissues handy and just allow the group process to work its magic. Clients will be sharing powerful emotions and comforting and supporting each other throughout. They will likely learn that grief is good for the soul and that “this too shall pass.”


Notes to Therapist


The purpose of the grief spectrogram is to 


  • Educate clients about grief symptoms
  • Help them self-identify as to how much of any one symptom they may be experiencing 
  • Connect them to each other through identification and sharing


The exercise places the locus of control within each group member in terms of self-identifying where they are on the continuum in relationship to each symptom. Both trauma and grief are on a continuum and individuals will vary considerably as to how they experience even the same trauma depending on previously identified factors. Consequently, their level of grief, sadness, anger, disruption, and so on will depend upon the individual. The spectrogram allows clients to assess themselves. Clients may move around if they change their minds as to where they belong as sharing progresses.




  • To discern levels of emotional intensity so that clients can understand how much or how little of any particular emotion they may be experiencing
  • To work with the pain, sadness, and anger that can drive depression, anxiety, and relapse 
  • To make unconscious material conscious by experiencing the frozen feelings that are blocking real emotion
  • To allow group members to identify with and connect with each other




  1. Draw an imaginary line dividing the room down the middle, showing group members where it is as you do so. 
  2. Explain to the participants that each end of the room represents an extreme and that the bisecting line is the midpoint. For example, in depression work one side of the room can represent very much and one side very little. 
  3. Now choose some of the questions from the list below that are relevant to your particular group and ask participants to stand at whatever point along the continuum that feels right for them in response. 
  • How much yearning do you feel? 
  • How much sadness do you feel? 
  • How much anger do you feel? 
  • How much unresolved emotion do you feel surrounding this loss? 
  • How blocked are you from getting in touch with your genuine feelings involved in this issue? 
  • How disrupted in your daily routines do you feel? 
  • How much fear of the future do you feel? 
  • How much is your sleep affected? 
  • How much trouble are you having organizing yourself? 
  • How uninterested in your life do you feel? 
  • How much do you feel your grief has contributed to your becoming a deeper person? 
  • How much old, unresolved grief is being activated and remembered as a result of this current issue? 
  • How tired do you feel? 
  • How much hope do you feel about your life and the future? 
  • How much regret do you feel? 
  • How much self-recrimination do you feel? 
  • How much shame or embarrassment do you feel? 
  • How much depression do you feel? 


  1. After each question, allow people to spontaneously share feelings that come up for them while doing this exercise, either with the group at large or, if the group is large, in subgroups with those who are next to them on the spectrogram. You can do a mixture of forms of sharing. For example, on one question you can let the group share in the large group and on another they can share in subgroups with those who are standing near them along the spectrogram. I generally allow the group to choose however they would like to share by simply asking, “Would you like to share in the large group or subgroups on this one?”
  2. Repeat this process for as many questions as can be absorbed; generally three or four will be plenty, but you can do more if the group wishes. 
  3. Next, invite group members to go to their personal journals or Emotional Sobriety Workbook to write a letter. Write a letter beginning with “Dear_____” and ending with an appropriate closing. Letters can be shared in group, subgroups or read to an empty chair or role-player.


Journaling: Letter Writing


  • Write a letter to someone (or some group) to whom you wish to say goodbye. 
  • Write a letter to yourself at a particular time of life that you may be letting go of. 
  • Write a letter to a substance or behavior that you’re giving up. 
  • Write a letter to a role or part of yourself. (e.g., the role of the addict) that you’re saying goodbye to. 
  • Write what you need to write to bring closure and relief.


These letters can be read to an empty chair, a role-player or simply out loud to the rest of the group. Leave plenty of time for sharing about the experience.

To view a video example of a grief processing session, click here

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Tian Dayton, PhD, is the author of sixteen books, including The ACoA Trauma Syndrome; Emotional Sobriety; Trauma and Addiction; Forgiving and Moving On; and The Living Stage. In addition, Dr. Dayton has developed a model for using sociometry and psychodrama to resolve issues related to relationship trauma repair. She is a board-certified trainer in psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy and is the director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute.


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