When we suffer loss in our lives, we can have a sense of being in a tail-spin as we go through a range of emotions while we try to make sense of our life without who or what we've lost.
While there is no way of avoiding all the emotions that arise following a loss, this article provides a way of looking at loss that may help to move through those emotions more quickly, and so avoid unnecessarily prolonging to suffering, and approach the rest of life with more hope.
If you are in the thick of the emotions racing through you, don't read any further, as it requires being in a frame of mind where you are ready to start looking at your emotions. Unless ready for that, this will all just sound like a whole bunch of useless platitudes. Be in your own space now. Other people will just have to accept that.
Grief is the process of letting our emotions catch up with reality.
Loss is a sense that something we believed was an essential part of us has gone. The depth of the loss is the amount of emotion we invested in that part.
After a loss, we will have a range of emotions arise, such as denial, grief, depression, anger and acceptance. We will need to work through the emotions to the depth, intensity and time required as a way of coming to terms with the loss. Excessively trying to avoid dealing with the emotions may stop us moving beyond them.
The core of the problem is that it was us that was identifying with what has been shown to us as not really being a part of us, because we still remain. In a way, the acceptance is about acknowledging that that part was not really us. We identify with so much that is not really us, but things and roles that by habit we have adopted into the family of the self. They never were a part of the real self, but we believed for so long that they were, and the loss challenges that belief.
When we accept that what was lost was not really us, then there is no
missing piece of the puzzle, as we now know that its loss was a part of the process of us learning about ourselves. We have the opportunity to be more free and make new choices for our life.
None of this is to say that all that what we experienced while holding onto the belief was not worthwhile, because what we experienced in the depths of that belief was real, and that has allowed us to experience thoughts, feelings and sense of accomplishment that we otherwise may not have done. That belief was a leap of faith that began a chapter of our life that we would otherwise not have written.
Every part of the adopted
family of the self has to eventually be let go of, which is why it is good to reflect/contemplate/meditate upon what is really us, before we are forced to part with it. Each loss of what we believed was part of our identity forces us to learn to think and feel independently of what we do, to free us to be our true selves, and thus act according to its wishes. In our living of the experience, the real us has been changed. The improved us will utilise the new parts, so find our new us's new agenda.
Look forwards, with the new eyes that we have, and see the past as what got us to here, and enabling us to see the new vision of what our life can be. The past is always
shoes that no longer fit as we cannot go back to it and it will feel retrograde, because we would be trying to negate what we have learned. But we don't necessarily have to be radically different, but be whatever feels the new natural.
A sense of bewilderment can come from the wider context to which we are trying to adapt. Identity helps us grow, but when we clutch onto that identity, we start to shrink. A loss can highlight how much of the world we have blocked out.
Our careers can so envelop us that we may not be able to see ourselves doing anything else. We see them as part of who we are and what we do.
It used to be that the average public servant died two years after retirement, just because all that they knew about themselves was intimately tied to the one job that they had held all their lives. The greater incidence of job mobility has meant that people have learnt that they are not one particular job, but they are their career, a meta job. But employment revolutions teach us that we are not even our careers, so we need to cease seeing particular lines of work as part of ourselves.
Sometimes, we hold onto careers where we have learned what we needed to from them. We get given lots of hints to make changes, but if we ignore those because we are really attached to the role, it may be removed from our grasp. We have invested too much of our identity in it, and that continued indulgence was preventing us moving on to better things for ourselves. When we can no longer do a job that we have identified with for so long, trying to find a living without that crutch can be daunting.
The key is transcendence, where, ideally, we perform roles, but are not attached to them. We live them, but know they are not us, so we can adjust them as required, or even abandon them, if their use has expired. We may need to find a new vocation, but there may be many that, while not what we've been used to, use the same thinking and approach. We need to be open to them coming our way.
Life doesn't waste energy, and our past contains the building blocks for our future, framed by our current situation. If we are prepared to stretch our thinking, we may be surprised at what opportunities are now available to us. We can talk to a friend, mentor or vocational guidance counsellor who might be able to point out some skills we have that we might be discounting.
Loss of a partner or children, through separation or death, can be most distressing, as we imagined the rest of our lives with them around.
There are so many ties involved with having a family, which is why we can be so debilitated by such losses. We put a lot of expectations upon ourselves and our families, by how we imagine life will proceed, and what the future will hold for the expanded us. That can put a lot of tension in the relationships, which can feed entrenchment in those expectations. That strengthens the investment in the family remaining as is.
Of course, with so many people involved, that can lead to stresses in the relationships, perhaps resulting in intransigent positions being adopted, which, if no means of easing the tensions is embarked upon, may lead to the breakdown of the principal relationship, resulting in separation, which puts more presssure on the split family.
Death can hit the hardest, because, unlike with separation, there is no chance of being together again. It is final. Death of a child is more so, because there is always a way of us seeing that we failed them. If there were already strains in the principal relationship, loss of a child can trigger a lot of blame, further highlighting the loss.
While we may be very attached to our careers, a lot of the justification for the need to have a career can come back to how we see ourselves providing for our families. Loss can threaten that link, as all the assumptions that underpinned the career may be challenged. That can lead many to give up and bury their consciousness in alcohol or drugs, as they have lost the reason to be driven.
Despite many things having to be done after family loss, time must be given to grieving, so that the strong emotions don't get directed at others. Each person will grieve differently, and in different timeframes, so all must learn to be tolerant of where others are in the process. Discuss it, with others in the family, or with a counsellor, but don't expect others to be where they are not ready to be. It is important not to be judgmental, as there is no normal way to work through it all.
For the remaining spouse of a long married couple, the realisation that they need to get out in the world that they have been relatively insulated from (like for dating or other social activities), is daunting and can bring up a lot of fears, which they have not had to feel for a long time. It may take time to be ready and confident to do that. There will be expectations set by what has been before, but it is a new phase of the life, so it may be better to see it as an opportunity to explore the new self, and find out what it is made of.
Beliefs provide a lot of the mental framework by which we run our lives, so when they get challenged too much, it can rock our world.
We often take on beliefs, like religious or political ones, that we have grown up around, or come across in the course of our lives. They appeal to us because they seem to answer a lot of questions we have about ourselves and the world. We then invest a lot of emotional energy in them, as we direct our enthusiasm to living their ideals.
No two people's beliefs are going to be exactly the same, so we tolerate some minor variance of interpretation of the tenets of the belief systems we have taken on, in others, as well as ourselves. When faced with different beliefs, either by reading or from others, even if fairly close to our own in many respects, we may accept some and reject others. However, if some of those other beliefs may ring true for us, we are faced with choices about what to believe.
Mostly, for our own sanity, we will accept those that seem close enough that it largely does not matter, as beliefs are open to some interpretation. But when they are too much at variance, we have a choice to:
We may select the first, as it is the path of least resistance, or if we like to keep an open mind, or have some doubts about the universal applicability of our current belief set, will ponder upon them and see how well they actually align. That pondering may lead to us to rejecting the alternate beliefs, and so go on with our life. However, if we cannot reconcile the new, seemingly valid, beliefs with those we currently hold, we may face a crisis of belief, where the validity of our current beliefs is challenged.
Our identification with the current beliefs can be very strong, just because of how much we have relied upon them, and emotionally invested in their validity. It becomes not just a matter of the particular alternate belief we came across, but it brings into consideration whether the whole body of our current belief system is valid. That is a huge challenge, as it may mean the loss of a whole lifestyle and set of friendships and alliances.
The challenge is whether to follow what we now perceive as the truth, or continue with what now seems as a lie of a life, just because it has been a relatively reliable, and perhaps comfortable, existance. The choice is compounded in difficulty if family members are not willing to change.
We may be faced with the reversal of such choices because of politico-religious reasons, such as when the state or new rulers mandate the change, or we are forced by circumstances to move to a new country where our former practices are not accepted. Expediency, especially if dire consequences result for one of the choices, is to choose the one with safer consequences. Loss of standing is a powerful deterrent, but we may make the choice to stand by our conscience, and live with the consequences.
It comes down to how valuable our beliefs are to us, and how much we have to bend our behaviour to accommodate any compromises. We can keep our beliefs even if we pretend to others that we have accepted theirs. It depends upon the behaviours required to keep that pretense. If there is too much of a disconnect between the belief system and the practices we would now have to carry out, we may choose defiance, and suffer for our conscience.
In all this, we have to look at history, as many wars have been fought over issues peripheral to the main tenets of a religion or political system. Most Christian sects preach love, but wars have been fought with hate over who can represent the authority of Jesus, mainly because it would define who had the political advantages, so the choice was often not about the beliefs themselves, but who one aligned with. Islam has a similar power inheritance dispute between Sunni and Shiites, exacerbated by nations aligning themselves with each, as in earlier Christian wars.
To solve such dilemmas, we can look to what is actually being challenged within us. Do we really have to deny core beliefs, or is it about how they are lived? Then the choice of action should be clearer.
Independence is freedom to make our own choices, and when that is restricted, a lot of frustration and anger can result, especially if faced with a progressively debilitating condition.
Conditions like dementia and Alzheimer's are especially difficult to come to terms with, because they reduce the mental capacity to decide how to come to terms with it. With our aging population, more will be faced with such conditions, but, unlike with loss of a loved one or career, while intense at the time, there is still the hope of a better future. With aging, the future does not hold the same promise.
If we especially identify with our sense of independence, not being able to pursue the same interests is frustrating, which often leads to a lot of anger. It may help to come to terms with some of the loss by contemplating how our past has relied upon others for our wellbeing. Perhaps learn to see the present as an extension of that reliance into the more personal physical. It is also difficult if we have to helplessly watch our loved ones go through their aging difficulties, as it challenges our own sense of mortality.
It may be that the reality is to think in terms of an end-of-life phase, where each day is seen as an opportunity to experience the day at hand, by pursuing interests that are within our capabilities on that day. We don't need be afraid of starting things that we may not be able to finish, as it is in the doing that we experience the life we have. Perhaps that is the way we all could approach our days, by doing, but not being attached to outcomes.
In a way, a part of our emotional body was dedicated to what we have lost. It has the same shape, but that upon which it relied is now gone, so we seem emptier without it.
The depth of grief and loss is that part, and is the amount of emotion we had invested in that part. We had grown attached to being with that part, though consciously associating it with something external to us, and thus identifying that external form as essential to us, even though it was only our beliefs that enabled that attachment.
However, the emotions that form that shape now highlight the loss, as they begin to free-wheel in us, and the three choices we have to deal with them are:
Locking in the emotions is our attempt to hold onto the experiences that we have had, but since they can no longer be fulfilled as they were, we can feel more lonely and empty the longer we hold onto them, as there is no real outlet for them. Rather than go through the pain, we try to blot it out, and go on with life as if we are over the loss. However, that does not really deal with the emotions, so we may keep being sabotaged by them trying to escape into our consciousness, where we may be overcome with the grief whenever we come across situations that remind us of the loss.
Holding onto, or suppressing, the emotions that loss leads to will not bring us long-lasting peace. The only way to really deal with them is to let them pass through our consciousness, as uncomfortable as that may be, for the time that we need to allow them to find their new place in our consciousness. Once we allow the emotions to be free, we can use them as a force in our lives, to do with what we will.
Of course, we are only human, so there will be residuals of the various emotions we have felt before and after the loss that we will not ever really deal with. That is OK, as it helps us to remember the process for how to deal with future losses.
Freeing the emotions is transmutation, where their essence is no longer tied to what cannot be. With the power of the released emotions, we can be transformed, because we are no longer tied to identifying with the forms in which the emotions were invested. It is not a betrayal to let go of the people and things we have lost, as that emotion has enabled us to become who we can be heading into the rest of our lives, fully conscious of how what we haved lost got us there.
Eventually, grieving will become toned down, and our thoughts begin to focus more on what happens from now on, and what we can do.
Just be wary of thinking we are ready before we actually are. Less emotional sensitively is not the same as being ready to face the new challenges life has in store. Some people find being busy takes their mind off things, and it can be therapeutic to reassert our ability to control some of our circumstances and aspects of our lives. However, we can periodically take space to reflect upon our current state of mind, and what healing still needs to take place.
If we are used to being a rock or guide for our clients or those around us, starting to feel better may lead to wanting to get back into the thick of it. Be aware that people that have been reliant upon us draw some of our emotional energy, and we may find that we now do not have the emotional reserves we have been used to. We can ease into taking on emotional responsibilities, and so be kind to ourselves.
We cannot feign to become a helper to others who are going through the same experience until we have really worked through the depths of our emotions and thoughts about our experiences and have let them transform us. We cannot really help others unless we have got the understanding of the dynamics of our experiences, and the wisdom to be able to deconstruct them so that we can identify what parts of them will help each individual. Each person's loss and grief is different, so no one approach will work for all.