Loss is an integral part of life. It befalls all of us to one degree or another. Shock, grief and pain are common reactions to major and even minor losses. How we manage our grief can either deepen our despondence or bolster our resiliency.
The most common grief is the loss of a loved one to death. Three basic factors contribute to the emotional experience of the bereaved: the relationship of the survivor to the departed, (parent, child, spouse, friend, mentor, colleague or acquaintance), the manner of the demise (natural, traumatic, painful, premature) and the depth of the emotional connection between the deceased and the mourner.
Sigmund Freud, in “Mourning and Melancholia” described the depression felt after a loved one’s death as a depletion of one’s energy, (which he called libido), that had previously been directed toward the departed. He advised that the “work of mourning” entailed reviewing and discharging the feelings, thoughts, hopes and yearnings for the loved one in order to gradually heal the trauma and recharge one’s energy towards life anew.
Grief work has evolved from Freud’s days through various other theoretical models. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ process of five stages of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, has been accepted and used until recently questioned due to its unscientific base. The currently promoted grief work evolved towards greater flexibility and acceptance. Many mourners today choose individual or group counseling, where their style, process, duration and nature of bereavement are supported and accepted without guidelines.
It is not until recently that grief has received attention of researchers rather than theoretician. Researcher George Bonanno of Columbia University details his findings in his recent book “The Other Side of Sadness”. He delves into issues of loss including the process of grief, resiliency of mourners and the innate human capacity to withstand emotional pain and resume a state of satisfaction and happiness in life.
In addition to death, people mourn other losses in their lives. They include: loss of love or connection with others, physical or emotional trauma, lost opportunities or employment, financial failures, reduction of esteem, dignity or competency, mistakes, decisions made or missed, change of circumstances, decline in level of functioning or even the disappearance of misplaced objects. In all these and many other “ordinary” losses we grieve for what we had or have been.
The inner turmoil of grief is emotionally destabilizing. Yet, most people overcome the trauma of loss and recover to live happy and productive lives. What are their secrets?
George Bonanno’s research conclusions are that “We cope well with loss because we are equipped- wired, if you will- with a set of in-born psychological processes that help us do the job. The most obvious of these is our ability to feel and express sadness.” He also adds the genetic component of resiliency that includes optimism, and the ability “to tell ourselves that we are stronger than we really are, or we blame external factors for our loss, for example, the care our loved one received in the hospital or the actions of his or her employer.”
To recover from the trauma of deep loss:
• Accept that loss is an inevitable part of life. Use it to savor what you do have.
• Trust that you are innately capable of simultaneously grieving and alternating it with optimism, laughter and joy about your life.
• Use your feelings of loss to generate support and compassion from others. It bolsters your resiliency.
• Understand that your psyche will with time pull you away from the overwhelming pain toward emotional homeostasis.
• Develop a logical explanation for your situation that will help soothe your deep sadness, hurt, pain and longing for what you have lost. When you exercise your power of modulating your emotions- you are on your way to balancing your loss with optimism and hope.