Learning to Cope with Life's Losses, Little & Big
“Happy is as happy does,” to paraphrase Forrest Gump. At least one may think. However, what happens when real life strikes? Are we supposed to contort events and circumstances in order to stay happy? Is that the secret to a fulfilling life?
After hearing for the second time in a week that a friend had lost his job, and for the second time feeling my heart sink into the pit of my stomach, I started to wonder about the hundreds and thousands who’ve lost their jobs and how they’ve learned to cope. Optimistic well-wishers offer the same platitudes of one door opening after one door closing, or that it was meant to be because no doubt something better is in store. While any supportive words are always helpful, I wonder if these sentiments land with a bit of hollowness to the one facing the struggle?
Psychology boasts clinical evidence that positive thinking and an optimistic outlook to life lend to greater personal health and success. Given our cultural tendency to strive for perpetual happiness, it’s common to hear our own internal voices echo external voices when a negative event happens. It often says, “Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. Embrace life’s latest challenge. Be strong.” Sound familiar?
However, why do we have to keep reminding ourselves of this, if it’s simply a matter of a positive outlook? Why the repetitive internal dialogue if we know the drill so well? I’d like to offer that perhaps we’re missing a step.
Our modern culture, in its quest to conquer, misses an important part of what it means to be human. Our tendency is to disregard, minimize or trivialize what it feels like to experience loss. We have very little in the way of cultural skills to process loss. The only ritual we recognize is the mourning process in the event of death. Funerals symbolize a passage, and give a time and space for people to grieve. Other than that, we have very little in the way of processing small, medium and large everyday losses that are, in effect, deaths.
Our cultural mechanisms essentially ask us to suppress the pain and move forward with little or no acknowledgement of how the loss affects us. We’re conditioned to show no outward emotional distress, as that would be a sign of weakness. A consequence of this conditioning is that others also don’t do well in the presence of a person’s distress. They often get destabilized themselves, and/or feel the need to try and “fix” things when clearly they can’t. What happens then? We end up stuffing our feelings inside. We retreat to a myriad of distractions and numbing techniques. These responses are groomed from our early childhood. This is our cultural training. In turn, stuffing our pain can manifest into depression, anxiety, frustration, or other disharmony.
What’s needed perhaps is a way, and a chance, for us to grieve. We may benefit from learning to feel strength in giving ourselves permission to explore and feel what we are really feeling. Tools and mechanisms to process losses could transform the struggles we face on a regular basis. When we’re given the time, space and methods to understand what the loss means to us, we are able to fully integrate the symbology into our lives. No longer having to stuff feelings below the surface, the loss can be transformed into a meaningful part of our experience.
The life losses to which I refer take on many shapes, sizes, forms and intensities. It can be as small as a teenager losing her favorite charm bracelet, a wallet gone missing with one-of-a-kind photos inside, or failing a licensing exam. Chronic loss might look like a permanent change in a relationship with no hope for it meeting the partners’ needs the way it once did. Unseen or unheard loss may be a quiet pregnancy lost in the first trimester before anyone publicly knew it existed. Then, there are losses built-in to our existence – the loss of youth and beauty, the loss of our children when they become adults, the loss of interactions with dear friends and loved ones when they move away or because of other disconnections.
This of course is nested in the larger context of changes in a world we once knew. Our world is becoming defined by chaos and instability of various magnitudes affecting living systems, and man-made constructs. The daily news of another catastrophe, Ponzie scheme, upheaval or toxicity has become too much to bear for many, whose primary response is to tune it out. Don’t worry, be happy. Again, we have very little in the way to process such enormous losses.
What should we provide ourselves? What could we invite in to ease the burden of losses we encounter? Can we give ourselves permission to grieve? If so, what would that look like? Here are some thoughts.
It is said, time heals all wounds. However, perhaps integrating ways to deal with loss may facilitate the healing process, strengthen inner capacities, and enable greater pathways for creative solutions to life’s challenges. What makes us resilient is the ability to integrate our experiences, rather than dismissing or stuffing them down. We may best serve ourselves through acknowledgement, allowing time and being kind to ourselves in the process. It could look like allowing for some time and space free from judgment, to think about what’s happened. Let whatever emotions it triggers come forth and have a voice. Understand what the loss really meant to you.
For some, the time and space to process loss may be in the act of doing. This means some hobby or activity that puts you in a mental space to focus on what you love, and at the same time be able to process. In the act of doing, your mind is free to experience your thoughts uninterrupted. For others, it may look like an act of being, time alone in place where you feel most at home, and most nurtured. There again, giving yourself permission to explore what the loss meant to you.
As for my friends who lost their jobs this week, I hope you can give yourselves a little time, take part in whatever replenishes you, allow what you feel about the experience to have a say, let the new knowledge you gained make you stronger, and know you have what it takes to begin the next part of your life.