This piece grew out of a meeting I was in charge of that occurred after I had lost both my parents and several other people close to our family (Carolyn’s Uncle Dick) in the previous 6 months, and was in the middle of dealing with practical issues like getting their affairs settled as well as natural emotional issues. My thoughts from the time about this topic are included here as I had to write about the topic in order to order my mind and tell myself what I was doing, as I was processing these losses, and why.
Dealing with loss. We are at the stage in life where we are beginning to lose people close to us or close to those around us, in greater frequency, whether it is forever from death by sickness or accident, or geographic distancing of people who are moving far away as part of their own journey in life, or the unexpected change or loss in friendship of an important person in our lives.
What is in your own playbook for handling the stress, grief and loss that comes from these events?
- For me, this includes giving myself permission to grieve, to feel sorrow, to feel sorry for myself, but not indefinitely. Name the cause of our stress, grief or loss – say it out loud, whether it is “I miss my dad,” or, “I thought this friend was going to be here with me as we grew old together, but he decided to move to Florida.”
- Listen to yourself say it out loud, and change it if it sounds off to your own ear. Try it over again; discover your feelings.
- After that, or really in the midst of it, I look for physical activity, even if it is token and unenthusiastic at first; I try to get outdoors and to observe people and nature; avoiding isolation and picking up benefits of sunlight to lighten my mood; I avoid the overconsumption of alcohol, though that has never been much of a problem for me; I stay as busy as possible, interacting with people as much as I can stand, but being around people, even if my interaction is minimal, is helpful.
- Have my coping strategies changed over time? Yes, practice has not made perfect, but I have confidence that if I follow the playbook I will come out the other side quicker than if I do not. I have taken advantage of prescription antidepressants and believe they are useful, but by themselves they are just a little bit numbing. Don’t try to go off them while coping with crises.
- How have you seen other people respond, in helpful or unhelpful ways? I think simple physical presence says a lot. Staying in touch, seeing people face to face, having patience when your friend is struggling and you think things have gone on long enough, or for too long. Stick with it and don’t project negative attitudes if you can help it. Yes, sometimes a person does need a kick in the pants but you had better be sure!
- From your remembered observations, how did your parents respond to loss? I honestly have no idea. I know that my mother never stopped grieving her two babies that died. My dad was so uncommunicative when I was a kid, how could I tell?
- Does time really heal all wounds? Some wounds, yes. Others, no – we end up with a permanent “limp” from some emotional injuries. Most of us have seen examples of parents who have lost their children who cannot overcome their grief, and are crushed by the weight of loss and of despair. Most others eventually become reconciled to the situation and find a way past their impediments to peace of mind, and life going on. After life has gone on for a while the pain of most losses recedes. Some losses, after all, seemed important at the time but in the larger scheme of life were not (like high school, college break-ups), time does heal the wound. Similarly, my divorce was incredibly painful at the moment but as I began moving forward it quickly transformed from processing a loss to regaining and redefining my life.