How People Overcome Major Loss (Part 1)

Everyone gets bad breaks: that’s part of life. But people who experience a major trauma—the loss of someone very close, rape or assault, a major accident or disease, a major calamity and especially a catastrophic fire like I recently experienced—frequently feel their sense of control over their lives, and the vision they held of their future, has been completely shattered.
Most frequently, trauma survivors have an insatiable need to talk about what happened to them. They are not looking for advice. More often than not, they find well-meaning advice from others irrelevant and even insulting. If you’d like to know what not to say to someone who has lost everything they own, don’t say :”Oh well, it’s only stuff. You can replace all your stuff.”

Those comments are remarkably empty and unsatisfying to hear. People who say “It’s only stuff” have clearly never lost everything they owned. One thing a catastrophic fire will teach you is that our “stuff”—clothes, keepsakes, artwork, photos, furniture, music, books and the personal mementos that define our pasts, our life experiences and our memories—are way more important than you think. Our “stuff” contains links to our past, the way we express ourselves and what we most value. Other than our relationships, what we keep in our homes is what we most value.

How we deal with trauma or adversity is largely unique. Some people get paralyzed with fear, depression, hopelessness, self-pity or helplessness, while others become hyper-functional and try to do everything, which will likely lead to feelings of severe burnout and joylessness.

Familiar surroundings ground us, and without them you are likely to feel off-balance and unsure of yourself. You will have a harder time focusing and concentrating, and you will likely experience a sense of disorientation with all of your “anchors” gone. You are also likely to be far more intolerant than you previously were. Frustrations that you would normally take in stride you may now have utterly no patience for at all. Trauma survivors do not suffer foolishness and small talk easily.

Trauma survivors look for someone who will listen to their story with compassion—someone who will be there as a friend and ally. This is compounded by the experience that very few people have the compassion, the empathy or the life experience to really be helpful.

How do you handle adversity and disappointment? No matter what we may think, no one knows ahead of time how we’re going to react to a personal crisis when it arises. It’s one thing to imagine how we’re going to handle a major problem, and it’s an entirely different thing to go through the experience and deal with our emotions as they occur.

For anyone who has ever experienced a personal catastrophe, of whatever nature, you will know that is a crisis we are faced with a fundamental choice: rise to the occasion and deal with your new life situation, or allow yourself to feel broken and defeated.

The following recommendations are for anyone needing to heal from a major loss or calamity:

  • Permit your sad, angry, hurt and devastated feelings to be there, but also look at what gives you hope. Regeneration begins with a vision of something you hope for.
  • Resist the temptation to give up. Life is about falling down and getting back up again.
  • Be in touch, on a daily basis, with your soul or spirit. Your essence. The part of you that stands above your day to day concerns. The you that has a lifelong perspective instead of viewing things short-term.
  • Journal. Write down your emotions, feelings and struggles. A journal is enormously helpful and comforting.
  • Right now, under-indulge in things that anesthetize your emotions, such as food, alcohol, recreational drugs or TV.
  • Talk with trusted others. If you don’t talk about it, you will feel worse.
  • Find somebody who has been through a similar experience and has gotten through it. There is strength in fellow compatriots and kindred spirits.
  • Expect less of yourself for awhile.
  • Your decision making is impaired. Don’t rush into making major decisions unless you have to.
  • Make yourself look for a silver lining. Find something potentially positive in what you are going through. All rebirth is preceded by loss. You know what you’ve lost. Now look look at what possibly can be gained from this loss.

I will continue these recommendations in next week’s column.

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