Dealing Without Losses:By now, in life, you’ve faced many losses: loss of a loved one, a parent, divorce, loss of a career, loss of health, physical beauty, sexual desires, a stillbirth, an abortion, loss of your childhood home, or even innocence. Loss is the injury where blood does not flow. It is not defined by the severity of the event but by how you experienced the loss. This article will address how to deal with loss, whether in your life or in the lives of others.
It is not about fixing the loss but about honoring and respecting it. An ancient Chinese proverb says, “You can only go halfway into the dark forest. Then you are coming out the other side.” First, let’s address the issues of grieving losses. Grief shows up in our emotions, depression, anger, physical sensations, and our behaviors. Grief is a hemorrhaging of the self, a loss of passion, sense of purpose, creativity, humor and perspective. Grief can causes feelings of despair, exhaustion, loss of resilience and a blaming of others. Jamie Marich, in her excellent book on grief, says there are four stages of grief: accepting the reality of the loss, experiencing the pain of the loss, adjusting to an environment of loss and a withdrawal of emotional energy and investing in something/someone else. To grief well, we need to work through our sadness, despair, fear, anger, abandonment and powerlessness. From there, we can seek resolution and even celebration of the loss.
Let’s discuss specific losses, beginning with the loss of parents. This is a journey all of us must eventually take. When a parent dies, we may feel abandoned, orphaned, and closer to death ourselves. When both of my parents died, I realized I was “next in line.” We might feel vulnerable, frustrated, relaxed or relieved, or the loss of a protector. “After all, dad was always there when I needed him.” To grieve the loss of parents, it is helpful to pull out the old family pictures and feast on them. Do a family tree, seeing how all of the limbs of the tree are united.
Some of us may have lost a partner, perhaps a life-long companion. We may feel dismembered, a deeper sense of loss than anticipated, or physical and emotional symptoms. Often, loss of a partner can cause intense self-examination. “Was I the best mate I could have been? Was there more I should have done for them, particularly during the latter part of their life?”
When living with someone who is dying, there are many lessons to be learned. Perhaps one of the best resources for how to deal with a dying loved one is Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, a textbook used by groups such as Hospice and other caregiving organizations. Here are some suggestions:
• Be present to them, offering the dying person your unconditional love.
• Let go of your hopes & fears. All of your dreams for the future are gone, and
likely never will happen.
• Listen to the person, especially for “unfinished business.”
• Measure your words & tell the truth. There is always the question of how honest to be with the dying person. One rule might be how you would like to be treated when entering the dying arch.
• Say “Goodbye” to them and let them say “Goodbye.”
Parker Palmer, the Quaker academician, writes, “One of the hardest things we must do is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to fix it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery & misery. Standing there we feel useless & powerless, which is exactly how the person feels–& our own unconscious need is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the soul before us.”
When a sibling dies, we face other feelings: a change in your position in the family, anger, resentment, survivor guilt, an awareness of your mortality or a diminished self-esteem: compared to your deceased sibling. And then there is your own death to face. Buddhist teachers have wisely reminded us when facing death to live in the present moment, in the days given us. The Psalmist wrote that we are to number our days and ask yourself what is unfinished for you. What is on your bucket list? What’s keeping you from doing those things?
The prayer we would offer is, “May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering. May your heart remain open. May you awaken to the light of your own true nature. May you be healed. May you be the source of healing for others.”
Stealing a line from Speedy Alka Seltzer, “how do you spell relief?” (from losses). First, give yourself permission to “lose it” emotionally. Don’t be stoic about the loss. Build in extra time to deal with the loss. Usually it takes the first year of birthdays,
holidays, anniversaries, etc. to realize the person is gone. Give yourself permission
to be alone, but not too much time so you are lonely. Allow yourself to feel your
deepest feelings. Provide a private place in your home and life for remembrance of
that person: a shrine in your house, a space in your heart, to remember them.
In 1993, when two of my daughter’s high school classmates were driving to school, they were blinded by the sun coming over a hill, and plowed their car into the back of a parked dump truck. One of my daughter’s classmates was instantly killed. This loss had a devastating effect on my daughter and me. So, whenever I drive past the cemetery in a nearby town, I silently drive into the graveyard and past Renee’s gravestone, and sit for a few seconds to honor that loss. My silent, secret time and space for remembrance.
How do we let go of our losses? If you are like me, everything in life I’ve had to let go of has claw marks on it—I don’t let go easily. Here are five steps to letting go:
1 Create a space for inquiry. Ask yourself why you are doing this? Does it have a healthy purpose? He who has a WHY can live with any HOW. The antidote for exhaustion is not necessarily rest but wholeheartedness. Even as we teach others, we overcome our losses through activities: writing, breathe work, meditation, muscular relaxation techniques.
• Write a forgiveness note
• A letting go note
• An amends note
• A personal creed, something that you hold dear about the lost loved one
Joseph Campbell wrote, “You must be willing to get rid of the life you’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for you.”
2. Choose a new focus. See the world through a fresh set of eyes. Ask yourself, “What went well today? What should I leave behind now?” Think longer-term not just in the moment. Can you accept yourself as a “good enough” person?
Can you forgive yourself for what has happened in the past, especially with the lost loved one? Rumi wrote, “Let yourself be silently drawn by the pull of what you truly love.” What do you truly love today? Wendell Berry said, “When we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, when we no longer know which way to go, we’ve begun our real journey.”
Emerson wrote, “To laugh often & much; to win the respect of intelligent people & the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics & endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a little bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
3 Find or build a new community, whether that is a self-help group, a faith community, or friends with whom you’ve lost touch over the years.
4 Find a new balance in your life. You can do this by:
• Finding a safe place to go for rest, refreshment and healing
• Make an appointment with sleep
• Mae West said, “When in doubt, take a bath.”
• Practice breathing exercises, laugh a lot, enjoy life’s “small stuff”
• Take care of your body, eat well, walk
• Don’t make any major decisions when fatigued
• Forget the “if onlys” and negative self-talk
• Ask yourself what makes you happy today? When was the last time you had sheer fun?
• Practice an attitude of gratitude for what you have and have been given, especially in the life of the lost loved one. Feast on those memories.
• Practice kindness to others. In giving, we receive.
• Express gratitude to someone everyday.
• Write a gratitude letter, five joys in your life today.
5 Practice centering in your life. Here are ways of having a daily practice of
• Find daily moments of mindfulness, rest
• Give yourself Sabbath days, “lazy day,” time off daily when you have no obligations
• Install a “mindfulness bell” on your computer than rings every hour (or even more often) to bring you back to the present moment. (Google on “Mindfulness Bell” for a free download of the bell).
Grief and loss is one of the most painful experiences we have. Finding tools to deal with our losses is critical, especially if we are to be caregivers to others, and to take care of ourselves.
David J. Powell, Ph.D. is Assistant Clinical Professor, Yale University School of Medicine and President of the International Center for Health Concerns, Inc. He has been a mental health and substance abuse professional since 1965 and is widely regarded as the leading expert on clinical supervision in the substance abuse field.