Loss is hard at any age and as we grow older the frequency of our losses increases. But just what is “loss”? I like to think of it as the absence of the familiar.
Some losses are expected. By the time we reach our mid 60’s, many of us have lost a parent. While this is an unwelcome event, it is not unexpected. Depending on the kind of relationship you had with your deceased parent, their absence may affect you in a variety of ways ranging from grief, sadness, emptiness, or perhaps even gratitude.
When we lose a sibling or peer, we lose a shared history and collective memory. Loss of a sibling can be devastating. This was one person who could validate your memory and experience of growing up. I remember attending my 40th high school reunion and being astonished at how many of my classmates had died in their 30’s and 40’s. It was a shock to me because they continued to be vibrantly alive in my memory.
Other losses are unexpected. These range from loss of a child to loss of homes and heirlooms due to natural disasters. These unexpected absences carry with them the burden of unfulfilled futures and/or legacies that can no longer be passed down in physical form.
Loss is unique in that no matter how we imagine it, the actual experience is always different. We may find ourselves “rehearsing” the death of parents, pets, friends, or others, but it is not until we learn of the actual death that our world becomes irrevocably changed. Up until then, there is some magical thinking that operates and leads us to believe that such a thing would never happen to us.
Loss has emotional, physical, and psychological consequences, as well as bringing changes in economic status and role responsibilities. Emotional consequences range from shutting down completely, to experiencing increased anxiety, tearfulness, and guilt. Thoughts of not wanting to live or being unable to go on with life are common, and very frightening. Physical consequences include increased blood pressure, possible rapid weight gain or weight loss, poor quality sleep, and increased aches and pains. People often turn to drugs or alcohol to manage the emotional pain. Psychological consequences often include questioning the meaning of life, finding new purpose, recommitting to changing things, and or losing faith in God.
Changes in status and role are common and may impact how a person navigates their life after a loss. Those who have lost homes to fire, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes may not have sufficient money to rebuild or start over. Work may no longer be available, so jobs must be sought elsewhere. Children who lose parents may need to take over parenting roles for siblings or become care providers to the remaining parent.
So how do we cope with loss? Every individual has his or her own experience. But we can generalize and put these experiences into six broad categories: replace, retreat, resolve, restore, reconnect, and re-engage.
“Replace” is often suggested to someone who has lost something precious. We see and hear it in interviews with folks who lose property and mementos in natural disasters. We use it to console a child after a pet dies. Forty years ago, it was a standard recommendation for women who lost children in childbirth or infancy.
It may seem instinctual to make such a suggestion, but when looked at closely, it probably arises more from feeling badly for the other person, while secretly feeling relief it didn’t happen to us. While well meant, if replacement is sought too soon in the grieving process, people may find themselves smiling on the outside and experiencing emptiness and guilt on the inside. Besides, there really is nothing that can “replace” what has been lost.
“Retreat” takes on the cloak of withdrawal from others, fatigue, sleeping more, and desiring to be left alone. This is part of the “fight/flight/freeze” response that comes with experiencing trauma. A case can be made that any loss is traumatic, and unexpected loss is intensely traumatic. Many experience the initial days after a loss as being in a “fog”. This is a type of self-protective dissociation that allows a person to continue to function, but numbs them from the pain of the loss for days or months. Retreat can also be intentional, giving the grieving person an opportunity to come to terms with their loss without the burdens of life depleting their capacity for functioning.
“Resolve” is an experience where the loss itself provides a solution to a problem that seemed unsolvable. For example, death often brings family members back together again, thus resolving years of not speaking to one another. On the other hand, an adult child may be waiting for an inheritance thereby resolving an economic problem.
“Restore” becomes useful once the initial shock of the loss has lessened. This strategy is often seen in people vowing to rebuild or create a new sense of community. Natural disasters that occurred in Puerto Rico, Haiti, and New Orleans suggest that many people will come together to help others get back on their feet. And similar compassion is found in gatherings where people bring “covered dishes” to show their support and concern for those who have lost a loved one. In sharing this way, both the giver and the receiver find themselves restored.
“Reconnect” is typically found later on in the grieving process. People may find themselves having more energy or laughing once again. The fatigue that once kept them home lifts, and desire for the company of others increases. Animals seem to have a unique way of connecting with those who have experienced loss. These connections invite us to open our hearts and risk being hurt again.
“Re-engaging” for most people arrives after coming to terms with the absence and turning once again toward life. There is no timeline for this. Many people report they became aware their thoughts no longer focus on the past, but remain in the present or go to the future. There are always bumps along the way, especially around anniversary dates (e.g., the loved one’s death day, birthday, or date of marriage). And there will always be reminders such as a song or smell, or driving past a familiar place. But instead of being drawn down into despair, when the stage of re-engaging is reached, these experiences are temporary, and less intense.
We cannot avoid loss as we age. But we can open our hearts to the experience and accept support and love from those around us who want to help. If you know of someone who is grieving and needs support, check with your local hospice, faith-based community, or therapists in your town.. You can also check out this clearinghouse of 115 online support groups.
Thanks for reading.