I’ve been thinking about loss a lot recently. I know that I wrote about a lost wallet several years ago. But I think I’d like to go over it again. Because inside and outside the therapy room we seem to face it almost daily. Losing money, keys, the plot. Loss of relationships, hair, love, a job, respect. The death of a loved one, a business, a puppy, a dream. It seems that the proverbial door keeps closing, and sometimes it seems difficult to even think about looking for a window. In this month when many countries around the world remember the loss of those who fought in wars, I’d like to focus on dealing with loss and grief in our lives and world today.
The Stages of Grief (no, you aren’t crazy)
There are some cute and funny videos on YouTube on the various stages of grief – I think it was even performed by Homer in The Simpsons TV show. The Kubler-Ross model, or the ‘big five’ are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. While this was originally created to explain the psychological process of getting to acceptance of death, this can be broadened to everyday life. Just take a moment and think about a loss you’ve had – it could be ‘little’ or ‘big’ and you’ll probably recognize that they showed up at that time. While in theory they do, the problem is that these stages don’t happen from one to five in real life. You can’t think “oh, I’m bargaining now, so I’m done with anger”. Well, you can, but it doesn’t necessarily happen that way. And that can be one of the trickiest issues to deal with. You might feel like you’re a walking emotions-bomb, and you might be right. These stages don’t necessarily take a long time – within minutes you could be shifting from one to another. And from what I’ve seen, there’s a second layer of internal berating, including feelings like anger, depression, frustration and sadness that tend to make it more difficult for us to cope and move through it. I believe that one of the liberating things to acknowledge is that these are NORMAL. “But I’ve only been rejected from a university program…”, “It’s a paycut, no one has died…”, “There are so many people out there who have it tougher than me, why am I complaining…” Yes, and no. The person affected most greatly by the things you are going through right now is you. We’re not looking at it on a global level of deserving of loss, it just is. And it’s ok to grieve. And it might shift around, through the five over time – there’s no single way to grieve.
Real or Imagined – Same Thing
When a beautiful, slim, young woman looks in the mirror and is disgusted by her ‘huge’ weight problem, does it matter whether the actual is the same as the perceived? Not really. Human beings are magnificent at creating a story that may or may not truthfully reflect what is actually going on. What happens when the fallible, human professor is revealed behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz? We lose the all-powerful, smoke and mirrors that have surrounded us, or protected us, over time. Whether it’s a perception that may not tease out in someone else’s ‘reality’, this truth is true for us.
And that’s where it gets tricky – what makes one truth better than another. I know that over time differently thinking inventors and philosophers were at first ridiculed and then later accepted, so it may be sometime in the future that currently established thought may take a tumble and be replaced by something different. So it might come down to ‘what works’. Even that is sometimes in direct conflict with what works for others, for a culture, a society… Sometimes we might also be faced with the loss of general acceptance of our approach and perspective – which can give us pause to reflect on what might work now or better in another way.
If I’m Not ____, Who AM I Anyway?
So what happens when we’ve labeled ourselves a ‘winner’ and we lose? What are we when our roles are terminated? For example, the breadwinner of a household finds him or herself unable to be employed. A parent’s children grow up and leave the home. In our active, ‘doing’ lives, the absence or removal of an important (or perceived important) function can leave a gap in our self-concept. Within the first few minutes of a networking event, you might hear, “I’m Spanish”, “I work in advertising”, “I’ve been in Asia for 22 years”… a while later you might hear, “I play rugby”, “I have two beautiful girls, 14 and 11.”
Over time, you might hear about secret talents or dream, confessions of personality traits (however, often they are expressed as a defense), getting closer to the essence of the human being. Because we have a tendency to believe what we say about ourselves, we may get into the habit of creating that internal conversational hierarchy as well. If I’m not doing the task I ‘fit’ with, what am I? Often a dominant position will eclipse other key attributes that still exist in spite of a change in status. Often this rediscovery requires the support of others – highlighting (and physically listing) the strengths, values and transferable skills that may help in transitioning to new roles or spaces. BTW, keep the list, whenever you do it, in a safe place. You’ll want to have it handy when you need it.
How Loss Can Grow
One of the reasons the opinions from others is so important is because one of the ways that loss can grow on its own. It’s true that some of our greatest breakthroughs can happen in the silence of being alone; however, many people give that time and space to reinforce loss. I know that some of my strengths are my ability to imagine, to recall, and to make multiple plans. Unfortunately, that has provided me with the skills to create many “what if” scenarios that “woulda, coulda, or shoulda” created different outcome rather than loss. A tendency of many individuals who feel ‘injured’ is to isolate and lick our wounds, rather than go out in our vulnerable state and interact with others. Yet, it is our connection with others that helps us to heal. It is in finding those who can help or support us (strength list makers included), that strengthens us. It is in others that we can discover that all is not lost.
What Letting Go Means
When we decide and are able to move on, it doesn’t mean that we like what has happened. It doesn’t mean that we agree with the way things were or are because of it. We don’t have to exclude it from our memories. We just give ourselves more space to start again, to focus differently, to move into the future (no matter how different it may seem because of our loss). Forgiveness is a little but monumental step that changes lives. While the questions may pop up like “but what if it happens again” or “can my heart take another loss like this”, the moving through it, at your own time, may give you another strength. Like steel that is put through excessive heat to be ‘tempered’ and stronger than before, we can find a temperance and understanding of ourselves more deeply than before. It can happen quite quickly, the way we feel about ourselves and others, or it may take some time, but giving ourselves the option of this possibility for change is, in itself, a treasure found.
I hope your losses are few and you find love, health and happiness in your lives right now.