“Those things that hurt, instruct.” – Benjamin Franklin
Grief as Loss
Grief is the internal, personally unique experience of the loss of someone or something that one considers significant, irreplaceable and to which one has a strong attachment. It can be described as an “unfair taking away”. Loss can affect our security and stability, and sometimes our self-identity.
Virtually every human has or will have numerous losses in her or his life. There are obvious ones, like the death of a family member, a close friend, a trusted co-worker. And there are other losses: job, divorce, loss of custody, a beloved pet; loss of a home or business through foreclosure, bankruptcy, fire or flood; loss of health, of sight, hearing, mobility, limbs; personal items or objects of historical or sentimental significance.
Significant losses often have associated “secondary” losses, some of which can feel significant as well. For example, with the death of a child, parents (and family) lose the joys of seeing them grow up and go to college, marry and have a family of their own; and, if they are an only child, not having the opportunity of grandchildren. The loss of a future; the loss of security, etc., are “secondary” losses.
Most of us have experienced multiple losses and we may not even be aware of their number and significance. And yet we have spent little or no time in reflecting on these losses, acknowledging our feelings, and mourning them.
Time spent recalling and grieving these losses can be very enlightening; we can learn a lot about ourselves and our life’s path as a result. If we have not learned to honor our feelings and to grieve and mourn them well and fully, we may be unprepared for and overwhelmed by major losses of the present or those to come.
For every loss there is a gain
Our culture encourages us to focus on our successes and to feel a little ashamed about the things that went wrong or didn’t work out — our “failures”. We develop a narrow view of success and a negative view of failure.
An important way to grow and mature, and thus to succeed in living life, can be to take risks and sometimes make mistakes and deal with the consequences, reflect and learn from them, and apply that learning to further pursuits. Historically, many “mistakes” have developed into ground-breaking discoveries and advancements.
Similarly, each loss invariably leads us to a gain; such as a move to a better job or career change, a new and better home, finding new friends, engaging a new cause that gives meaning to our lives, etc. Some gains include finding inner resources we didn’t know we possessed, like bravery, independence, resilience, sobriety or serenity. If we get stopped by failure (loss) we might never know who we can become (gain). We can be transformed from our deep experiences of loss, to become a kinder, more empathic and compassionate person. In short, a better person.
Without knowing and acknowledging the losses in our lives we might be more susceptible to the adverse effects of new and significant losses. If we can learn and grow stronger as a person through all of life’s losses, we can handle present and future losses with more ease, or at least with less stress. Through “grief work” we can become more adaptable to the circumstances of our new life and strive to create a “new normal” that brings us satisfaction and joy — to discover an unknown potential.
Loss Line Exercise:
The intention of this exercise is to create a personal “Loss Line” in order to:
- to recall and acknowledge the losses you have encountered;
- to note the significance of each loss, as it felt then, and now;
- to learn what gain(s) may have resulted from significant losses;
- to realize and acknowledge that you not only survived these losses, but prospered from them in some ways.
Creating Your Loss Line:
On a blank piece of paper in the horizontal position draw a horizontal line across the middle of the page from left to right. On the left end mark a vertical point with your age “0” or your birth year. On the right end, mark a vertical point with your current age or current year.
Mark vertical points along the line where a loss has occurred — any kind of loss. Note the age or year below the mark and write the loss above it. Allow room for adding other losses at a later time, as you may recall more losses. It is common not to think of them all in one session, so you may want to revisit this exercise. Feel free to include losses that are less “concrete”, like the loss of self esteem, youth and vitality, security or confidence.
Optionally, indicate below each mark the emotional intensity or “significance” of the loss using a scale of 0-10, where 0 is no “intensity” and 10 is “life shattering”. You may even do a “relativity” indication, such as 9/3, where 9 was how you felt it then, and 3 is how you experience (or remember) it now.
- What surprises you or stands out for you in your Loss Line?
- How were you changed by one or more of the losses, or in other words, what secondary losses or gains have resulted from some of the losses in your life?
- Has creating your Loss Line helped you in any way? If so, how?