Source: Christine I. Batcho
Loss is a universal part of life, and some losses can feel utterly devastating. They stop us in our tracks and can make us feel hollow. Willie Nelson sang, “When you lose the one you love … you feel there’s no way to go on.”
There is no single way of reacting to the death of a loved one. Wishing they could stop time and keep their loved one alive and present, if only in a freeze-frame, some people preserve their loved one’s home and belongings as much as possible. Clothing, toys, and favorite things might be left in place, as if awaiting the loved one’s return. Other people begin to remove everything that reminds them of the loss, finding their grief beyond their ability to bear. Belongings might be given to relatives or donated to good causes.
While some people lean more and more heavily upon others for emotional and practical support, others draw into themselves, increasingly unable or unwilling to express the pain they keep inside. Communicating helps relieve stress for some people, but others guard their private grief, feeling that it would somehow devalue or dissipate it by revealing it to others.
We don’t know how we will react when faced with the toughest loss. We haven’t been taught explicitly how we ought to react. We have, though, witnessed how those important to us have behaved in such times, and our behaviors might well have been shaped to some degree by observing others.
When grief is too heavy a burden to bear, it’s not helpful to be told that you simply must get over it. As Nelson sang, “It’s not something you get over. But it’s something you get through.” Words might seem empty when we’re hurting, but it’s essential to find a way to begin moving through the pain. Nelson offered his thoughts: “Love is bigger than us all. The end is not the end at all … Life goes on and on, and when it’s gone, it lives in someone new.” Packed into a few lines are insights consistent with psychological principles that guide the struggle to go on.
Reaching out to others
Reaching out to others for support can bring emotional comfort and help with the responsibilities of daily life. Being with those we trust can also remind us that we don’t need to mourn alone. The give and take of telling and listening can ground us in the social fabric that gives meaning to our lives.
Love is bigger than us all. We can draw strength from the compassion and nurturing shown by others, and our empathy can remind us that suffering is one bond that connects us to one another. Acts of kindness or efforts to protect or benefit others are ways of engaging with others without letting go of the one we have lost. Searching for meaning together can reinforce our faith in purpose as “life goes on and on.”
Maintaining faith in the spiritual realm
For many people, the joys and sorrows of life both have value from a higher power that transcends each person alone. The death of a loved one, especially a violent, senseless death, is beyond our understanding. Religious beliefs that maintain faith in an enduring spiritual realm can fortify the resolve to go on.
Belief in a spiritual dimension reassures believers that we don’t lose forever the ones we love. Such assurance is expressed well in the song Shadows of the Night, written by Cobert and Grean: “In this world that we know now, life is here and gone. But somewhere in the afterglow, love lives on and on.”
Religious faith can help restore a sense of meaning and purpose, despite our inability to comprehend the most profound mysteries of life and death. Those who belong to a faith community, even if abstractly from a distance, can be comforted by the social assurance that buffers the loneliness of grief.
People who are insecure in their relationships can develop deeper ties as they draw strength from the authentic compassion and altruism shown to them by others. Death can clarify healthy priorities and encourage forgiveness of emotional hurt caused by less important or long forgotten disputes.
Rebuilding a fulfilled life after loss
The death of a loved one, especially when sudden and violent, disrupts our lives, our worldview, and our place in it. Recognizing how others depend on us and our potential to enrich the lives of others can motivate us to go on even when we feel that we can’t. Loss prods us to reconsider our assumptions about human nature, the orderliness or randomness of life events, and even the divine.
When we feel emotionally overwhelmed despite our well-meaning circle of friends and relatives, we can turn to more formal and professional services. Support groups of others who are able to identify with us and relate to our plight can provide an opportunity for mutual mourning that moves us beyond ourselves. Dialogue with an effective therapist can help us understand our feelings within the context of our relationships, the role we play in the lives of others, and our identity.
Much of who we are framed by our relationships. We think of ourselves as someone’s parent, child, lover, teacher, doctor, etc. Loss can injure our sense of identity as it changes fundamentally an important sphere of our social interactions. We might wonder what it means to be a parent now that our child is gone.
Commemoration of the life of the loved one by sharing memories, pictures, videos, and stories helps maintain an enduring emotional bond with them. Preserving and sharing memories of the life of the loved one is one way of acknowledging their value and perpetuating it in a legacy of enduring meaning.
We may need different resources at different points along our way. Just as people cope with their grief in different ways, they also move at their own pace. Although invaluable for one person, a support group might be too demanding for another, or it might be ill-suited for someone’s more immediate needs too soon after the loss.
Whatever circuitous course individuals navigate as they fight off the wounds of grief—depression, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, self-blame, or self-doubt—rebuilding a fulfilled life after loss rests on an understanding of the meaningfulness of the loved one’s life and our relationship with them. By moving through grief, we keep our loved ones alive as part of who we are.
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