Dear Dr. Alasko: I've had several losses in my life lately and I'm having a difficult time dealing with them. A childhood friend in his fifties died unexpectedly, another friend has cancer, and then our dog we've had since a puppy also died. On top of this, our two children took jobs on the other side of the country and are too busy to visit. Do you have any suggestions about how to deal with these issues?
Dear Reader: Human beings form life-long attachments, and when these connections are lost or broken, we suffer considerable emotional—and sometimes physical—pain.
At the same time, though, we've developed an emotional process that allows us to heal from our losses. This process is called grief.
In its simplest form, grief is the open admission that we have lost something very important to our life and well-being. A common synonym of grief is heartache. It feels as though we have pain in our physical hearts.
Interestingly, humans also have a unique way to express grief—and other strong emotions—namely, crying. While some other animals also have tear ducts, those seem to function solely to cleanse the eyes, not to release emotion-based tears.
When we cry, our entire bodies get involved. Along with the outpouring of emotion, there's also a release of concentrated chemicals including manganese, which builds up in the brains of those suffering chronic depression. Crying releases a significant concentration of this chemical, along with a number of other chemicals and hormones related to stress and anxiety.
It's a documented fact that active crying, which is our way to express grief, affects our emotional well-being in a positive way. Feeling and expressing grief, however, is much more than just crying. There's a significant mental component which can make the process much more effective: Consciously "letting go" of the lost person, animal or thing plays a big role in how well we heal.
Research on the issue of grieving points out that recuperating from a loss through grieving is a very individual process. Some people benefit from being in processing groups and others don't.
The common factor, however, in successfully moving through grief is coming to the full and open acceptance of the fact that a loss has occurred. Talking to other people about the loss (and crying over it) brings those feelings into the open. All of our emotions (including the anger that often occurs with loss) tend to dissipate and become less powerful once they are openly expressed.
I know of person who achieved resolution by talking out loud to herself about a painful loss. She would give herself a half-hour a day, alone to openly grieve, walking around her house and saying, "I hurt. My heart is aching." When the time was up she'd stop and get on with the tasks in front of her. Soon her pain lessened and she no longer felt the need to actively grieve.
Intrinsic to this process is the paradox of acceptance. Once we openly accept an issue for what it is, we no longer expend energy on denying or distorting reality. This allows us to focus on the now, to experience gratitude that we have survived. After all, survival is another intrinsic part of life, so why not feel gratitude.
Life will always—always—moves forward. Actively grieving reconnects us to the forward movement of life.