Coping With Loss

The culture of the United States of American is not particularly conducive to coping with loss. This is unfortunate, as loss is a fundamental and inescapable feature of human life.

Experiencing a loss can result in feelings of numbness, being lost, fear, and/or sadness. Loss can take many forms as well: death of a loved one, destruction of a prized possession, loss of residence (moving or catastrophes), loss of employment (change, dismissal), and loss of function (skill, sense, appendage, etc.). Different losses can have varying impacts on the individual. Countless variables within these factors influence how to understand, interpret, and cope with the loss. In short, loss is a very complicated phenomenon.

Unfortunately, as a result of its complexity and the potential for negative emotional experiences associated with loss, all too often the response is to avoid. Cultural and societal norms may actually reinforce this response. Mentioning loss may result in shifting eye contact, changing the subject, awkward silence, or any number of nonverbal communication that creates avoidance. Thereafter, avoiding anything that reminds us of the loss usually takes center stage. When reminded of the loss, common symptoms are tearfulness, crying, difficulty speaking/thinking, isolation, to name only a few. Although avoidance of reminders may give temporary respite from the symptoms (i.e., if someone shifts attention from the loss, they may temporarily diminish the sadness), this strategy tends to compound the issue. The more avoidance, the greater the symptoms’ intensity becomes when triggered (which they inevitably will be).

Making Sense of Your Response to Loss

Perhaps one of the best illustrations of the consequences of avoiding loss is one of a soda bottle. Imagine that the loss has shaken the bottle. Internal pressure builds and the cap becomes a focal point of action. Visceral human responses are represented by the release of carbonation from the bottle. Through avoidance and with growing pressure, the individual may not be able to keep that cap secure over time. Additionally, the trigger that releases the cap is not always so simple to understand: a picture of what one has lost is pretty easy to understand but even smells, sounds, feelings, or sequences that may not be expected to trigger a response can do just that. Over time, the explosion of intense emotions and/or behaviors can become extremely problematic.

In order to control, if possible, the turbulence of the inevitable release of carbonation (intense symptoms), we can twist the cap, hearing the familiar hiss of escaped gas, and tighten it back up (less intense symptoms in a somewhat controlled strategy). After performing this action multiple times, we can open the bottle without an explosion (we can have a trigger and the symptoms are much less intense or pronounced). Picking a particular time and sometimes place to release the internal symptoms allows the individual to control some of the emotional intensity. The more it is allowed to happen rather than suppressed, the less intense the symptoms become over time. Crying, wailing, and shaking may be less desirable around others but experiencing these things sooner or later is therapeutic. Identifying windows of time to release the pressure, and allowing it to take whatever form it will, results in healthier outcomes in shorter periods of time.

As the intensity and release of emotions can take a toll on energy or leave the individual feeling and/or looking out of sorts, it is wise to plan the window of time for release with a recovery immediately following. The recovery may bring the individual right back into their routine (i.e., a distraction like going to work) or it may allow the individual to rest (i.e., going to bed). Different individuals will have different preferences and different losses will benefit from different strategies. As with many things, there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Additionally, what was effective after the loss at one time may not be the same strategy that is effective at another time.

There Is No Perfect Formula

Finally, have patience with yourself and your emotions. There is no distinct amount of time that will resolve the issue. Particular times will trigger heavier responses: holidays, celebrations, anniversaries, etc. Anticipate that these will be more difficult but that there will be unanticipated events in between. Rather than fighting through these or attempting to avoid them, have patience and respond accordingly.

Putting It All Together

Coping with loss best practices:

Allow the experience of loss to happen (do not avoid)

Set aside time to allow the symptoms to manifest

Follow up the release of the symptoms with recovery

Have patience and give yourself time

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