When hit by a major loss, many people feel cast off into an unfamiliar land. But it may help to know that under the surface, each of us already has a great deal of experience with bouncing back after loss. It started in childhood when we had to move away from friends and school and life as we knew it. Or when our best friend suddenly got a new friend and didn’t want to hang out anymore. Or in high school, when we didn’t make the team. Or didn’t get into the college we wanted. And the likely breakups with romantic partners. Or the thousand and one other disappointments and losses in all the years since. We survived all of them, using grit and whatever else we had at hand. Grief is grief, whether for a disappointment or the loss of an opportunity or the loss of a loved one through death, just each on different scale. As we survive our grief we come out smarter than before.
Each loss provides a laboratory in survival that asks us to answer a few questions.
What was my first reaction to the loss?
To rebel with anger and resentment? To be flooded with emotion? To go underground and not talk about it? To feel less impacted than others, at least at first, or more? It helps to get to know yourself as a griever and resist following outside rules about how to do it.
What did family and friends teach me about handling loss?
Was yours a household where emotion was encouraged, or not welcome? Did anyone suggest ways to handle your loss? In prior generations, advice was often to leave children out of the loop and send them out to play. But today, when children go to school not sure when the next active shooter drill will break into the school day, it’s harder to keep up any pretense that children are immune to trauma and loss.
Think for a bit about what you observed when your family had a loss. Is there a person who stands out to you as a good example of how you’d like to grieve? Look for a balance between sadness over the loss and keeping regular life going, for support to others along with self-care, for the ability to let both sadness and joy co-exist.
How did you get over these earlier losses?
See if you can think back to those times and recall how it was for you. We know now that children grieve. They may cry, and the next time you look up are out in the yard playing with abandon. They rely on their developing skills and understanding and do what fits with what they have to work with. What do you know now that you wish you could tell your younger grieving self about survival? Another way to ask, what have you already learned that can help you to grieve today?
When you feel lost in the land of grief, try to remember that you are not a newbie, not starting at square one. It is a sometimes bewildering place to be, but a natural one, sometimes harder than others. One that you’ve survived before.