Loss can take many forms, some of which are more devastating than others. When our spouse blindsides us by asking for a divorce, when an immediate family member dies, when we get let go from our long-term place of employment or when we become disabled by chronic illness or injury—our lives can feel as if they have been upended. Indeed, loss forces us to confront five specific psychological challenges.
1. Overcoming Paralyzing Emotional Pain: The first and most immediate challenge we face is that of excruciating and paralyzing emotional pain. At first, the 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 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 spouse with whom to socialize, losing our jobs means we have nowhere to go each morning, becoming disabled can mean having to retrain ourselves to do the most basic tasks. To recover we face the challenge of coming to terms with the changes that were forced upon us. Only then can we begin the process of finding new ways of living and being that can substitute for those we’ve lost.
3. Reformulating Our Identities: Significant grief and loss can impact our very sense of identity—how we define who we are. We 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 our couplehood but lost our spouse, or we might have defined ourselves by our physicality but become crippled by Multiple Sclerosis. 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 heads throughout the day, trying to keep them alive and present in our minds. At times, we might avoid other people, as they provide stark reminders of our loss. After failing out of college or losing our jobs we might lose touch with classmates and colleagues. 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 do, we each have our way of understanding how the world works; a unique set of beliefs and assumptions that form the lens 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 of making sense of what happened and adjusting our belief systems accordingly. And to thrive, we must find within ourselves a way to ascribe meaning to the events and discover a new purpose to drive our existence.
Recovering from grief and loss takes time but the best way to treat our psychological injuries is to consider the five challenges we face and at our own pace, within our own time frames, confront and overcome them one by one.
For numerous strategies and techniques for dealing with grief and loss check out chapter 3 in my new book (Loss and Trauma: Walking on Broken Bones), Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
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