Few months back on my birthday a friend sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I kept those flowers by the window, the sun shining on it and as I was admiring those lovely, fresh flowers, I was reminded that the petals would eventually wither and dry up.
Desperately to capture the beautiful moment that I was having with the fading momento, I tried to take a picture on my mobile. But the result was just a cheap imitation. And it hit me that grief is inextricably tied to love. This was a very small loss but the message was clear, ‘Love exists with the shadow of impending loss’.
The eventuality of loss always exists when we feel love – either for a person, a thing, or an experience. But sometimes people are overcome with the fear of the expected loss and try to protect themselves from the pain by holding onto the moments or avoiding conflicts at all cost, trying to make sure the relationship stays positive. However since they are no longer open or connected, eventually the love dies.
Sometimes people defend against the feared or expected pain from loss by staying emotionally distant from people. They might even keep their lives small and controllable. But this leaves them feeling cut off from an important part of themselves that is curious, wants to explore and grow, or even has a hidden passion. As a result, they remain stifled and feel empty or dead inside.
Loss can take many forms like separation, divorce, moving to distant relationships, death, disability, chronic illness, some of which are more devastating than others making our lives feel upended. Indeed, loss forces us to confront psychological challenges.
In his book ‘Loss and Trauma: Walking on Broken Bones’, Guy Winch, Ph.D. and Licensed Psychologist, mentions about five psychological challenges due to loss.
1. Overcoming Paralyzing Emotional Pain
The most immediate challenge we face in case of a loss, is that of excruciating and paralyzing emotional pain. The initial pain is so severe we might be in shock and feel as though in a haze, trapped in a terrible alternate reality from which we cannot escape. We might lose the ability to think straight or even to function in the most basic ways. The one thing that helps diminish the pain is time. Therefore, our challenge is to find ways to simply get through those first terrible hours, days, and weeks. Once the initial shock begins to fade away and the new realities set in, we face our second challenge.
2. Adjusting to Changes in Our Daily Lives:
Grief and loss can change almost every aspect of our daily routines. We might no longer have a partner to share feelings or having to restrain ourselves to do the most basic tasks. To recover we face the challenge of coming to terms with the changes that are forced upon us. Only then can we begin the process of finding new ways of living and adjusting to the physical lacuna connected to the emotional loss.
3. Reformulating Our Identities:
Sometimes grief and loss can impact our very sense of identity. We might feel as if the person we once were is lost and that the person facing us in the mirror is a stranger. We might have defined ourselves by our career but lost our job (or retired), we might have defined ourselves by being the fun couple but lost our partner, or we might have defined ourselves by our physical fitness but become disabled in an accident. To recover we face the challenge of reexamining and redefining who we are, how we see ourselves, and how we want others to view us. We have to reconstruct our identities and come to peace with our new selves and our new lives.
4. Reconstructing Our Relationships:
It is common for people to respond to profound loss by withdrawing into themselves. We might try to hold on to a deceased loved one by talking to them in our mind. At times, we might avoid other people, as they remind us of our loss. After failing out of college we might lose touch with classmates. Unfortunately, sickness and disability often make others uncomfortable and make them withdraw from us. To recover we face the challenge of reconnecting to those who remain and forming new connections that reflect the new realities of our situation.
5. Adjusting Our Belief Systems:
Trying to make sense of our experiences in life is a compelling human drive. Although some of us articulate it more clearly than others, we each have our perception on how the world works; a unique set of beliefs and assumptions through which we view the world and our place in it. Loss and grief can challenge these basic assumptions and make us question everything we thought we knew. We’re flooded with doubts and questions, the simplest and most compelling of which is often simply—why? Our challenge is to find ways to make sense of what happened and adjust our belief systems accordingly. And to thrive, we must discover a new purpose to drive our existence.
Now that we have identified the challenges with remedies, we need to implement these to reformulate our lives. Face the loss instead of ignoring or denying it. Thus, avoid self medication with alcohol or other drugs, or escapism through excessive sleep, internet use, or any other maladaptive habit that makes you vulnerable to addiction or depression.
It’s also important to talk and share your feelings with other people as it helps our mind to process the loss and often allows us to come to terms with it sooner than if we kept our feelings bottled up. Of course, it is important not to overdo these conversations as one runs the two-prong risk of wallowing in the misery and causing other people to feel compassion fatigue.
Take an inventory of the blessings you have and the various parts of your life that you can feel genuine gratitude for. This helps to refocus the mind on what one has rather than dwelling on what one lost.
As per Clifford N Lazarus, Ph.D., Clinical Director, Lazarus Institute, distracting yourself by keeping busy with enjoyable activities you can [still] do not only helps in moving towards acceptance of the loss but it will also ward off deepening sadness because of a process called “behavioral activation” which has been shown to effectively treat depression.
And the most important thing to remember is that recovering from grief and loss takes time. So think well, act well but give it enough time.
Also remember that there’s no way around experiencing loss. Living is definitely accompanied by risks of choosing to explore new territory and making yourself vulnerable. The raw experience of being in the moment with a deep sense of connection with people and things you love can be both exhilarating as well as putting you at risk for a deeply painful loss. But it also represents opportunities for personal growth and living life fully.
“Live life and accept loss”
Treasure what you lose and look forward to what you have.