Loss-Great Lessons-rich-bittersweet stew-love
What is the most psychologically painful thing you have experienced? That pain is still there and always will be. Loss is painful.
Acute pain signals us to stop doing what we are doing. If I touch something hot, I quickly recoil my hand. Your hand will automatically change directions.
If any cues predict acute pain, they too will readily lead you to stop and change direction. Changing direction will not remove or diminish psychological pain. Psychological pain cannot be addressed by running or hiding. That kind of pain is permanent and ever present.
My brother died in a car accident at age 18. The funeral home presented a view for the family first before the guests would arrive. There he was. My brother’s body was there but not my brother. That moment filled me with reverence for the fragility of life. It was awe-full and awe-inspiring. It was profoundly painful, yet profoundly precious.
The pain of loss is important. It has huge lessons to teach us, and avoidance keeps us from a significant source of wisdom. Pain is really an instructor about caring. It tells us we’re vulnerable. We care where we hurt and we hurt where we care. The gift of pain is a message about what is important in life. It not only tells us how to love; it also provides us with an opportunity to discover sources of strength and flexibility within us that help us prosper. Looking inside the pain expands us, encouraging us to become larger than we are and to live a life of meaning. To open your heart to pain is to open your heart to joy.
The word grief comes from the Old French greve, meaning “a heavy burden.” When you grieve for a loss, you have to carry a heavy burden. If you tell yourself that the loss isn’t that heavy, or that you should be over it by now, you deny your own pain. You deny your wound and thus hinder it from healing.
Loss serves up a rich and bittersweet stew of love and wisdom about what matters. Inside the pain of loss, we see how to live life more fully. However, we can’t learn the lessons that loss contains while fighting or funning from it. If we fail to learn how to deal with the pain of loss in a kind and self-compassionate way, the desire to escape and avoid can dominate our moments.
Loss is a reminder of the impermanence of life, and sadness signals that you cared. What was taken away mattered to you. Love Matters. People matter.
If you look inside the pain, with gentleness, making room for discomfort, you can discover what mattered. Turn toward the pain? Who in their right mind would do that?
Feedback Loop From Hell is Pain Mishandled
Today’s world is so committed to avoidance that it has not made room for grieving a loss. Love and loss come as a package deal. If you are unable to risk loss, you are unable to live a vital life. If you are unwilling to be hurt, you are unable to love. The pain of loss is the price we pay for love.
Our culture leaves little or no room for any experience of difficult. For example, the DSM-5 is the psychiatric bible for therapists. It allows for two weeks of bereavement-anything longer is grounds for diagnosis and, likely, medication. Two weeks! You are married for 40 years and after 14 days of grieving for a deceased spouse, your time’s up!
Our entire culture is denying the pain of loss. Television commercials relentlessly suggest that we can and should be able to manipulate our emotions with the right beer, video game, the perfect vacation spot, or the latest car. These advertisers are really promising avoidance of difficult emotions. Research shows that using material goods as a way to avoid discomfort actually worsens anxiety, depression, and low life satisfaction.
Rather than acknowledging loss as an uncomfortable, inevitable, and profoundly meaningful part of life, we treat it as a disease. Pain is not a problem to be solved. We need to engage with it and learn how to live with it as a part of our life. That gives pain an unhealthy power to control our lives and tends to increase our pain, creating the feedback loop from hell.
For example, a patient comes in with a panic disorder. As soon as anxiety became something he was not supposed to feel, anxiety became something to be anxious about. Notice, amplify, react. Notice, amplify, react.
It was only when the client found a way to turn toward the anxiety with curiosity and self compassion, he had the chance to understand what his feelings had to teach him. He had witnessed domestic violence as a child and had suppressed memories of the fear. His anxiety helped explain what he wanted to do with his life. he decided to make a career as a social worker.
Pain often starts out as acute pain. But treating pain as something to run from through powerful medications, risks turning acute pain chronic. If we mishandle pain, pain will mishandle us.
The Path to Healing
- Acknowledge Loss – Acknowledge that you have lost someone or something and it hurts. You are in pain and it’s uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable. To know a loss, you have to know what was there before the loss.
- Embrace Feelings of Loss – Pain is uncomfortable. Often, we want to push it was or distract ourselves from it with food, alcohol, television, drugs, or work. But numbing ourselves from pain numbs our entire existence. We focus our attention and energy on controlling the pain. But sooner or later the pain will surface again, and we have to numb it even more. Embrace the feelings of loss. It is normal to feel hurt, sad, shocked, angry, or/and depressed. We can’t fix what’s normal. Over time, the intensity of these emotions will lessen.
- Expand Your Scope of Vision – There may be other feelings there too. Include reactions that “do not belong” because they seem positive. Those feelings may include relief, freedom, laughter, and pride. Those are normal, too. It’s okay to have a happy day in your days of grief. It does not mean that you love that person any less by having a good day.
- Prepare To Be Overwhelmed – At times, your emotions will run high and crash down. That’s normal and natural, especially in the early stages of grief. Sometimes you may feel numb. Other times you may be extremely irritable. These emotions may sway back and forth, but they won’t harm you.
- Watch out for Unhelpful Thoughts – I should be over it by now. Things will never the same. Life is unfair. If only I’d done something different. It’s all my fault. I’ll never get over this. These thoughts are all normal in the grieving process. We can’t fix what is normal. However, give them a healthy sense of distance. These thoughts should be noticed and not judged. The thoughts are there and do not let them control your actions.
- Connect With What Matters – There is still meaning in your life. There are still people and activities that are important to you. Your feelings of loss identify what is close to your heart. Determine what that is so you can identify what is important to you. Use that information to become the type of person you want to be.
- Take Committed Action – After having identified what is truly close to your heart, act on it, so your behavior is guided by your goals and values. It might mean reaching out to other people. It might mean going back to work, or maybe volunteering at a local animal shelter. And while you are acting on your values, be sure to treat yourself with kindness and compassion.
We can learn to be present with our pain without altering it in any way or form. We can learn to acknowledge and accept our loss and its emotional impact without pushing it away. And inside that very process we become better able to focus our attention on what makes life rich and meaningful, learning how to live lives connected to our deepest values and yearnings. By learning the lessons of loss, we learn how to open up and live. Loss becomes a stimulus for growth.
The person we loved and lost had great qualities. You want to invest the time and learn what is that you miss most about the person you lost. Take those qualities with you and integrate them into your life. You will want to carry them forward. You have an opportunity to reinvent your life.
I heard this quote on the Dr. Laura show, “We are given a chance to rewrite the story of our lives when a major event happens that throws us off course. It is a gift. Unwrap it. Use it to create a brilliant new life from the crucible of loss. Loss is not the end but an invitation to change.”