After a Loss: How Do I Protect Myself?
A painful loss drives us to create a plan to prevent it from happening again.
Posted Feb 03, 2018
We all know of people, have heard stories, may have unfortunately experienced ourselves real physical and emotional trauma — the assault, the horrible car accident. When such traumatic events happen, we are understandably easily triggered — we fear crowds or strangers or dark places, avoid highway traffic or trucks, or develop road rage. And we act differently — we avoid the crowds, or never walk alone, or get extra locks on our doors, or we buy the biggest SUV there is, or avoid highways, or stop driving. What drives this is an instinctual need for safety, and with that safety comes a plan: What is it we need to do to keep this from happening again?
The same thing can happen in relationships when there is a death, or more simply an ending. What can ignite that same need for safety and prevention is the degree of hurt, wounding, and grief, obviously made all the worse when the ending is unexpected — the death from an unexpected heart attack or violence, the breakup that seems to come out of nowhere.
We can't help reacting in some way, even if it is to appear to not react. We cannot walk away from the experience without some story, and from the story some decision of what we need to do to protect and prevent.
Here are three common reactions following a traumatic loss:
If we now are emotionally crushed by the abandonment, one way of coping is to hold tight — to those already close to us or to new relationships. Here parents, for example, supervise their children more or limit their involvement outside the home or become panicky when they haven’t heard from them, even after a short time. Here you become more anxious and clingy, insisting that your new boyfriend check in with you several times a day, peppering him with questions about whether he is happy. Or you instead take a more controlling stance overall in the relationship, micromanaging his everyday life or peppering with him questions about his other relationships.
This is the other end of the pole: Instead of making sure that others don’t go too far away, you stay far away. By not connecting, you save yourself from the possible pain of loss once again. Here you may be critical of those you date or meet, quickly eliminating them from a closer relationship. Or you may develop commitment phobia, creating a close relationship that only goes so far. Or you decide to not engage at all, and throw yourself into a less emotional world of work, or school, or hobbies.
Choose someone totally different
You may realize that your ex drank too much, and it contributed to the hurtful arguments that you both often had, and so you decide the next time around to use how much the new person drinks as a potential red flag to watch out for. That makes sense; it is part of a relationship lesson learned.
That’s not what we are talking about here. Here you bundle, you go for a totally new package. If your ex was the drinker, but also the risk-taker, the emotional one, the impulsive one, now you move towards someone more routinized, less emotional, more steady and heady.
What these reactions have in common is a potential for swinging too far in the other direction — developing a black-and-white thinking, all with the goal of protecting and preventing. You are trying to change the dynamics, change the unfolding of the new story to avoid another loss. And in cases where the hurt and grief goes underground — where these feelings are pushed down or to the side for whatever reason — the danger is that the new plan is more unconscious and potentially more extreme.
How do you avoid these extremes and find some middle ground?
You need to grieve.
Grief that goes underground is deadly. The shutting down or pushing aside means that it will eventually back up on you. If you have had other losses that you never really grieved, both the tendency to do this and potential damage is even stronger, because losses all tend to be connected. If you find that you are seemingly out-of-touch with your feelings, if you're marching ahead with business as usual, if you are telling yourself that this was just meant to be or somehow is for the best, question yourself.
If you have trouble identifying those underlying feelings, go talk to someone — a counselor, a good friend, someone you feel safe with.
You need to process.
The talking is the entrée to processing. Just as those traumatized in assaults or car accidents need to tell their stories to put words to and counter the raw images that they are left with, you too need to tell your story. Partly this is to get it off your chest, out of your head, but also to create a more complex story.
The black-and-white decisions and behaviors come because the story that you have told yourself is too black and white and simple. You need to deconstruct it to see the nuances, the bigger picture, in order to form an explanation that is more real, less distorted or filled with magical thinking.
You need to slow down.
Here we are talking about avoiding the infamous rebound, but also simply giving yourself time to heal. Grief has its own process and its own timeline: three weeks in shock, three months to get out of the fog, a year or longer to feel like you are getting back to yourself. Don’t rush it.
That said, don’t get stuck. Don’t close yourself off, don’t avoid getting out or stepping outside your comfort zone. If you do withdraw too much, too long, your anxiety and fear will remain, and over time your world will be increasingly smaller.
These are difficult times. You need safety, you need support, you need time to heal while continuing to live your life. What you want to avoid is overcompensating, and in the process, losing more of yourself.