Loss of any type, rather it be a divorce, a job termination, the end of a friendship that you held dear, or the death of a loved one can send you reeling into unchartered territory. For some, it means the loss of an identity. You may have found pride in calling yourself a CEO, a partner, a wife and now that this title is removed you don't know what to do. For others, loss leaves you emotionally gutted with no sense of direction.
I was 33 when my husband died from advanced adrenal cancer in 2007. I spent over three years interviewing widows about their circumstances for my book, A Widow's Guide to Healing, and often the conversation would shift to a widow telling me that she wants to start a new life for herself and her family, but isn't sure where to begin.
This widow isn't alone in not knowing how to begin a new life post-loss. A few months ago, I was at a dinner party and someone asked about my book. As she began to tell me about her move, new job, and starting over, I thought she was a widow. Actually, she had divorced her husband of 20-plus years and felt the loss was similar to a death.
Loss is very painful. Even thinking about it can give a knot in your stomach and a lump in your throat. And yet you do desire to shift your energy, mind, and heart towards a different direction. In other words, what can you do to begin to create the life that you want after your devastating loss?
Here are 10 things you can do. These items are in no particular order of importance. The key is that you begin somewhere — and these items are here to help you create a new path for yourself. Some of these things may not work for you, while other items you may find to be a better fit.
1. Set a goal. Goal setting is important because your self-esteem likely took a major hit when your loss occurred. At some level, you thought you were able to control things and then you found you couldn't. Setting a goal and being able to achieve it will help you see that you still have control over some things. Reaching the goal will hopefully help to bring back some of your old confidence.
This goal does not have to be work-related. The goal should be small enough that it can be attainable within a reasonable amount of time. For example, if your goal is to exercise more and you have never gotten off the couch, setting a reasonable goal would be to exercise two to three times a week, not running a marathon within four weeks. Do not set yourself up for failure.
2. Seek a mentor. Look for someone who is doing what you desire to have for yourself. It would be ideal if you could actually talk with this person, but if you can't for some reason, carefully study what they have done to be at the level you strive to obtain. For example, if you want to be a yoga teacher, then read the biographies and articles about yoga teachers you admire. You will see what lifestyle habits they adapt and begin to follow their lead. They didn't reach overnight success by taking one teacher training class. It's likely that their lifestyle incorporates multiple things which brought them to a certain level.
3. Become very clear about what you desire. In a time of crisis, which is what loss is, you can feel that you need immediate relief, which can cause you to act erratically or impulsively. If you want stability, then a decision made on a whim may not bring the consequence that you seek, because you are not thinking everything out. If you seek trust, you can't get this from others if you do not trust yourself. Finding clarity after a loss often takes time because the water is very muddy after the upheaval created by the loss. Don't expect to know exactly what you want within days or even weeks of your loss.
4. Observe your thoughts. Begin to monitor this. Don't judge your thoughts, just observe. Do you find yourself perseverating on the loss? Do you find yourself talking about some aspect of the loss in many of your conversations? Are you engaging in critical self-talk? Our thoughts influence our actions. And many times, we are unaware of what we are thinking until we begin to observe our thoughts. You may be in the habit of negative self-talk and you don't even realize that you engage in this behavior several times a day. You can't change something that you are not aware of, so getting an accurate picture of your thoughts is important.
5. Stop one thing. This may sound very remedial but it can change a lot for you. Pick one bad behavior that you find yourself doing and eliminate it. This can be very small. For example, a widow I talked with said that after her husband died, she would eat fast food every time she dropped her daughter off at gymnastics classes. Her daughter was going twice a week and this meant that this widow was eating fast food twice a week. This meal choice was devastating her blood sugar levels, which was impacting her mood and in turn, she found herself being short with her daughter. This didn't mean that this widow never ate fast food, but making this one change helped on multiple levels.
Ending one behavior will allow space for something new. It will also show you that you do have control over something.
6. Engage in new conversations. Engaging in conversations that you haven't had before doesn't always mean that you are seeking out a complete shift in your life. If you have always loved modern art, but have no intention of becoming an artist, then start going to modern art exhibits. Just being around artists and this environment will bring something positive to your day.
Also, be mindful that certain friends are not healthy. Having continuous conversations with a negative tone is not going to spark a new flame. This doesn't mean that all of your friends are not healthy for you. What I am trying to be clear about is that some conversations are not a good fit for you post-loss.
If you are thinking about a new career, then start to enter those conversations as well. For example, if you want to become a physical therapist, then begin to talk with other physical therapists. They will naturally bring up certain topics that are relevant to their profession that you may be unaware of if you had not spoken with them.
7. Practice gratitude. Now, this may sound like a snarky platitude that is overused but often in our sorrow we find it difficult to find things that are good. Part of creating a new path means changing the way we see the world, and when we view things through the lens of gratitude, our world is richer. It is difficult to bring about something new when you are not able to see that which is already present in your life.
8. Be open to all that is unknown. With any loss comes enormous fear, and this fear can cause us to restrict our thoughts and behavior. Some people literally shut down and refuse to listen to anyone. Others are not ready to listen to different opinions or views. When you live with a restricted view, it is like breathing with one lung — you are unable to expand your breath properly.
At some point, opening yourself up is necessary to creating a new path. This doesn't mean that you have to quit your job. What I am referring to is that once you allow yourself to be open without seeking an immediate answer, you will be able to see things in a different light.
9. Accept the unresolved. This is very painful because the loss left you amputated and you may never know why it happened. This item is not for the faint of heart and takes tremendous courage. So, I am providing this suggestion because if you are continuously seeking resolution to your loss, you may find yourself deeply disappointed. Some losses will never bring answers. They do not present themselves with a reason. Seeking a reason for your loss can lead to countless tears and more loss.
10. Ask yourself this deep question. If you can only do one thing on this list, then this is one you may want to seriously consider. With every decision and conversation you find yourself in post-loss, ask yourself this, "Is this going to expand my growth or restrict it?"
Growth after loss is very possible if you properly nurture it. I will write more about this is in a forthcoming Psychology Today piece. The bottom line is that new growth comes with a fertile environment and making healthy choices post-loss promotes this.
Kristin Meekhof is the author of A Widow's Guide to Healing: Gentle Support For The First 5 Years with cover blurbs from Dr. Deepak Chopra and Maria Shriver.