How do we face the inevitable losses in our lives? Not only face them, but to grow through the process. Healthy grieving can open our hearts and help us to become more empathetic and authentic human beings.
To be human means coming to know loss as a part of life. Every human being will experience multiple losses, some more painful than others. Losses are never singular in nature, meaning each loss triggers a cascade of other related losses one may not be aware of.
For example, losing a dog may mean losing the daily walks as well. Losing a dear friend means losing a support system. Losing mobility after a serious injury or surgery means losing the ability to drive, to sleep well and other personal freedoms, at least temporarily. Even events we may not see as losses, such as moving to a new city, getting married or having a baby, have multiple losses related to the experience.
There are many types of loss, the most obvious being the loss of a loved one, whether family or friend or treasured pet. Other types of loss include loss of a job, loss of health, divorce (ourselves or others who are meaningful to us such as our parents), loss of a body part such as a limb or a breast, or the loss of a loved one in the grips of active addiction. Other more subtle losses, though no less significant, are those related to aging; hearing, eyesight, energy, sexual drive or loss of the ability to do an activity we’ve done for years. I once met an elderly man over 90 who had lived a very dynamic life. He told me, “You know, I’ve had to give up booze, sex and driving, and driving has been the hardest.”
In our culture, pain and feelings of loss are experiences most people try to avoid, not only the person experiencing the loss but those around them as well. Normal thoughts and feelings connected to loss are typically seen as unnecessary and inappropriate. There seems to be no safe place to just grieve, just be depressed, just cry and be listened to without judgement. The not so subtle message is “shape up and get on with life.”
Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., writes in “Understanding Grief: Helping Yourself Heal,” that “The reality is disturbing: far too many people view grief as something to be overcome rather than experienced.”
People mourn in different ways; every loss and every person is different. Acknowledging the feelings is an important first step. Sadness, anger, mental confusion, fatigue and even moments of happiness are all normal reactions after a loss. Find safe people to share your feelings with who can listen and validate in a non-judgmental way. “Safe” is a key word here. If, after sharing, you feel misunderstood, shut down or ashamed, find someone else. Seeking out others who have experienced a similar loss may be helpful.
Hospice organizations often have support groups or can refer to you to a good grief counselor. There are many online groups for particular types of losses as well. Avoid self-medicating your feelings with substances or unhealthy behaviors, as these delay the healing process and complicate every area of your life.
A loss is a wound, a rupture in our lives. The journey through grief need never be done alone. If we allow ourselves to engage our feelings and reach out for support, eventually the wound will heal. However, just as with a physical wound, even when it’s healed it will never be as before. The loss will change you. It will become woven into the tapestry of your life and who you are as a person. Loss and grief can close your heart or open your heart. Choose to have the courage to travel the journey to a more open heart.
• Wendy Hamilton is a clergy member of Eckankar, the religion of the Light and Sound of God.