This is kind of part three of a series. I lost a friend of many years on April 15th to brain cancer. It kind of feels so long ago, but also only like yesterday. There are times when I cannot stop thinking about her, other times I'm intent on paying attention to the lessons she left, and other times—most of the time--when I feel like it just isn’t fair.
Those different waves of emotions are always there. But, I know I am allowed them. I am seeing myself moving through them, and am learning an awful lot on what really matters.
This is a review of an article from the August 2018 issue of Psychology Today magazine. The point being made by Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D. is that, “The pain of loss is unavoidable, yet millions harm themselves trying to escape it. But, loss has a sweet side, and when you open yourself to the pain, you open yourself to joy.”
The most valuable lessons I’ve learned have came from the toughest struggles I’ve endured. To make it through something rough usually is when we learn the most. What is the most painful thing you’ve ever been through?
The question above, certain sounds or smells, or something that reminds you that the pain is still there, does just that. Losses are painful. Your feelings can be extremely difficult to shake.
When something cues or triggers you, that’s an opportunity you have to change directions. Physically changing direction to try to avoid events, people, or things associated with your pain may seem the easiest remedy. But, the psychological pain you feel cannot be removed or diminished by a change in physical direction.
Just like when you pull your hand away from an unknowingly hot stove, that’s just our instinct. Even before we know the physical pain we’re feeling, our hand has already very quickly moved away. Doing whatever we can to move away from pain started way before we were even a thought, through our ancestors. We’ve had millions of years to practice avoiding things.
Yet, our efforts to suppress and avoid come at a high cost. They stop us from doing anything else. Suppressing and avoiding is exhausting, and eventually doesn’t work. Reality always seems to pop up, and you inevitably work harder and harder to suppress your pain.
Experiencing the pain of loss is important. It’s not only because it challenges us, but also because it has huge lessons to teach us. Avoidance keeps us from this.
Pain teaches us that we care, and lets us know we’re vulnerable. Feeling pain teaches us what’s important in life. It tells us how to love, and gives us an opportunity to expand ourselves to find strength and flexibility from within to be able to prosper. Pain can expand us, and encourage us to live larger than we had, living a life of meaning.
When you grieve, you may feel the heaviness from it’s burden on you. You may tell yourself that the loss isn’t that heavy. You may question if you “should” be over it. When you deny yourself your own pain, you deny your wound from healing.
Some of our oldest rituals of death have wisdom in them. People gather together, typically telling stories about the sweet, silly, or loving things the person did. We honor their courage, perseverance, and contributions to our lives. At the same time, we weep over the knowledge that we will not see them again.
Our rituals teach us that the pain involved in our loss is rich and varied. It reflects our caring and connection. We honor what our loved ones stood for, and promise to carry that forward.
We find instructions through the way they lived what to appreciate and value. We laugh and we cry. We learn what really matters.
Inside our pain is the opportunity to see opportunities on how to live life more purposefully and fully. We cannot learn these valuable lessons if we run away from them.
So, how do we cope with any type of loss? There is no right or wrong way to grieve--although there are unhealthy or unhelpful ways. There also is no timeline. Healing takes time. It cannot be forced. Healing will not always be uncomfortable nor be easy, but here are some things you can do to help you get your life back.
Acknowledge loss. So healing can happen, we have to acknowledge there is a wound that needs healing. Acknowledge that you have lost someone or something, and that it hurts. The pain can feel uncomfortable and unbearable at times. To know about a loss, you have to know what was there before your loss. In your own way, start with a remembrance of the positive experiences that cannot now be repeated.
Embrace feelings of loss. Often, we want to push the discomfort of pain away. We may try to distract ourselves with food, alcohol, television, drugs, work—anything we can think of. But, numbing ourselves from pain can numb our entire existence. If we focus all of our attention on controlling the pain, sooner or later when the pain surfaces, and we only have to numb it even more.
Instead, try embracing your feelings of loss. You may feel hurt, shocked, sad, angry, guilty, anxious, bitter, helpless, depressed, or all of these. Allow yourself these emotions. It may help to make a list of your emotions as you experience them, and see if over time you’re better able to touch the range of your feelings.
Expand your scope of vision. As you open yourself up, see what else may be there in the form of emotion, thought, or memory—especially things that are unexpected. Include reactions that superficially, “do not belong” because they seem positive or confident—feelings of freedom, relief, laughter, pride. Those are normal too.
Prepare to be overwhelmed. There will be times where your feelings will rush in like a surging wave. Your feelings may run high, crash down, knock you over, and seem to carry you away. Again, this is normal, especially during your early stages of grief. There are times when you may feel completely numb, or times when you feel irritated by everyone. Your emotions may feel all over the place, or go back and forth, but they won’t harm you. Measure your progress over days and weeks, not a single difficult hour or day.
Watch out for unhelpful thoughts. Life is unfair. If only I’d done something different. All the thoughts you have also are a part of the grieving process. But, it’s important to notice them with a healthy sense of distance.
Try practicing looking at your thoughts as reactions to be noticed, not dictates to be followed. If your thoughts have you hooked. you can unhook. Try singing your thoughts when they come up, or saying them very slowly. Recognize that they are there, but don’t let them take control over your actions.
Connect with what matters. Despite what your thoughts or mind may be telling you, there’s still meaning in your life. There are still people or activities that matter to you. You’re pain is proof that you are still alive. Know that your feelings identify what is close to your heart.
Determine who or what is important to you. Use that information to become they type of person you want to be. Your loss can be an opportunity to carry what is most meaningful towards a life worth living. What concrete steps can you take to start putting these qualities into action?
Take committed action. After identifying what is close to your heart, act on it. Your behavior is then guided by your goals and values. It might mean you reach out to other people. It might mean going back to work, or maybe volunteering for an organization that means something to you. You get to define what’s important to you. While you’re acting on your values, be sure to treat yourself with kindness and compassion.
If this resonated with you, I hope it helps you start to find your way. Please reach out if you feel like you need help moving through your pain. Always feel free to share with anyone.
1. Acknowledge loss.
2. Embrace feelings of loss.
3. Expand your scope of vision.
4. Prepare to be overwhelmed.
5. Watch out for unhelpful thoughts.
6. Connect with what matters.
7. Take committed action.