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Coping with Loss

This past week I have dealt with a number of clients who are suffering significant loss. Of course I encounter loss among my clients all the time, but this week brought an unusually large quotient. It's inspired me to reflect on ways to cope with losses, most of them quite "standard," but a couple of my own design.

Loss can come in so many forms: the death of a loved one, the end of a romance, loss of a job, divorce, "empty nest" syndrome, a rupture with a close friend or family member, deteriorating health, aging, moving...etc. Chances are that no matter which of these losses you may be facing, you will experience a number of painful emotions:

1) Shock - particularly if the loss is sudden, but even if it is foreseen: the reality of coping with the situation will probably hit you suddenly and powerfully. It will pass quickly.

2) Grief / sadness - This is the emotion we most commonly think of connected to loss, but not everyone experiences it; some people simply go numb. For the vast majority who do experience that grief and sadness remember that it will eventually taper off (and you can accelerate the healing process: see below). You will undoubtedly experience waves of heartbreak many, many times as time passes, sometimes unexpected, but the overall trajectory will be towards feeling better.

3) Guilt - "If only I had....." In your attempt to maintain some feeling of control in an emotionally out-of-control situation you will imagine what you might have done differently to affect the outcome.

4) Anger - Again, a response to things spinning out of your control. You can't create the outcome you so desperately want, and that stokes anger big time.

5) Fear / helplessness - Adjusting to a world that is missing a significant previous component (that marriage, that job, that house, your health) can be frightening. How will you ever cope? It is particularly difficult to imagine regaining a sense of security when you are in the depths of any of the feelings above. But you can help create a new equilibrium that can be established somewhere down the road, allowing you to feel less vulnerable.

Here are a dozen techniques that will enable you to heal faster:

- It's OK to feel very, very sad. Men particularly feel a need to "be strong" in the face of loss. Allow yourself to cry if that's what your heart wants.

- Seek support and companionship. You may not feel like reaching out to those who love you, but they are one of the best sources of comfort. It may also make a lot of sense to talk with a mental health professional or your priest, minister, rabbi, or immam. Support is particularly important on anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and (usually) Sundays.

- Strive to live in the present. The emotions around loss tend to engender visions of the joyous past and the bereft future. There is literally no loss in the present moment, so utilize techniques such as deep, conscious breathing, meditation, exercise, and connection with nature to bring yourself into the NOW.

- Don't make any big decisions. You are too emotionally unstable shortly after loss to make wise choices. Plus, the emotional desire to wipe away the pain may draw you to situations and relationships that you would avoid in calmer times (be particularly careful about rushing into a new relationship if you've just lost one).

- Wrestle with your guilt. Perhaps you played a major part in bringing about the loss: maybe you cheated on your spouse, or smoked for way too many years, or showed up late at the office one too many times. Examine your role, let the negative consequences enlighten your future decisions, but remember that at the time of your transgression you were making what you felt was the best decision at the time.

- Forgiveness. Related to the above, practice forgiving yourself and any others who played a role in the loss. Carrying resentment around again appeals to the desire to control, but is a poison that eats away at any sense of peace you may be striving for.

- Try to live more healthily. A sensible diet, exercise, and sleep routine will improve your overall health and mood. Unfortunately, this is very hard for most people to do after significant loss: they prefer to drown their sorrow in alcohol, drugs, donuts, ice cream, and pie. It's OK to go down that road for a little while, but don't let an unhealthy routine take root.

- Don't be afraid to experiment with reminders of the loss. People generally shun interacting with reminders of the loss (photos of the boyfriend who left you, the scent on the clothes of your departed wife, visiting the "old stomping grounds"). This is a smart strategy for most, but for some (perhaps you) a physical reminder can serve as a connection to the lost person or situation.

- Pamper yourself. A hot bath, a massage, a trip to the beach, flowers on the table, a manicure, a good play or concert, a cupcake.

- Do something for others. In grief we tend to wall ourselves off from the world. that's what makes asking for help so difficult sometimes. But giving to others (through volunteering, for example,) makes you realize that you have some real strengths, strengths that can help get you through the dark night.

- If you are a person of faith, turn to your higher power. Bad things happen. All the time. But reaching out to your higher power can provide a sense of solace. N.B. You may also rage at God for having let this tragedy befall you, but ultimately that provides no real relief.

- Search for a meaning that you can give the loss that can strengthen you as you go forward. Maybe you can live life more fully because you're now living for someone who no longer can. Maybe getting fired will lead you to a job to which you are better suited. Maybe your health crisis will help you reorder your priorities so that the things that truly matter come first.



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