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Coping with loss

Posted: March 21, 2008 12:25 a.m.
Updated: May 22, 2008 5:02 a.m.
"Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry _____." If you're like most people, you're conditioned to respond "alone." If you've suffered a devastating loss, such as death of a loved one, divorce or breakup, you may be trying to cope with these and other unspoken rules.

Here's another one: "The way to get through grief is to just keep ____." Did "busy" come to mind? These types of phrases bring up almost automatic responses. They are pieces of information stored in our belief systems from childhood.

When we encounter life's inevitable losses, such as moving, menopause, retirement, empty nest or other life transitions, these are the rules from which we draw. These days, thoughts of recession can evoke even more feelings of fear, distrust and scarcity. These are not pleasant topics and maybe ones we'd rather not share with other people. Much of the information we received on coping with loss was not helpful. "Be grateful," "Be strong" or "Get your mind off yourself" are statements that may be true but do not help in matters of the heart.

When we were children, the adult authority figures in our lives, including parents, teachers, ministers and others, gave us this misinformation in a sincere desire to be helpful. Trouble was, it wasn't. A lot of unfinished business and unmet needs were created, causing pain, isolation and loneliness. Some of that unfinished business we dragged into our new relationships, then wondered why they kept ending up the same way.

This is not meant to denigrate parents or other caregivers about what they should or should not have done. Most parents do the very best they can with what they've been given. But from our earliest ages, unresolved fear and distrust may have driven our lives unconsciously. Little wonder that unfinished business from unresolved loss issues is at the root of every disorder in society.

It shows up in our current relationships, too. According to psychologist Jeffrey Auerbach, if we look at our closest relationships, the issues we fight about with our partners are the very ones that were never overcome with our parents, and those feelings run strong and deep. So we fight with our spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends because they're the ones available.

Get to the root issues

The truth is that most of us were not taught or trained in how to process loss or pain, so it builds up into a snowball of hurt rolling downhill. This energy has to go somewhere, and that's when you hear about someone who has a breakdown or has to go to anger management or is seeing someone for depression or illness.

Like a steam kettle with a cork in the top, people blow their top or have blowups and blowouts. Someone cuts us off on the freeway and we overreact. Anger, sadness and depression can interfere with our thinking process. Circuits overload and thought processes become distorted. Eventually people shut themselves off from others.

More and more experts, including therapists, are seeing a real need for deep grief work - getting to root issues to cool down this steam kettle or clear out emotionally clogged arteries. Pick any metaphor you want.

Healing and recovery start by becoming aware that your reactions and feelings may have absolutely nothing to do with your husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend and everything to do with the rules, messages and misinformation received from parents or other caregivers. If we can learn to make a few unconscious things conscious, we can get back to living from pure choice and intention, not from our wounds. We don't have to carry around unresolved hurt and pain.

Seven Habits of Effective Comforters

How you help a hurting friend is both a privilege and a responsibility. There are no magical words that can take away the hurt, feelings of betrayal, anger, frustration or depression. But you can ease the blow by offering comfort and support.

1. Don't say too much. A hug, some tears and a few words can communicate volumes. In these ways you can journey with your friend through brokenness.

2. Don't offer clichés such as "I know how you feel," "You should be grateful it wasn't worse," "You must be strong" or "God will never give you more than you can handle." While these statements may be true, they are usually not comforting. Unasked-for criticism is just criticism in disguise.

3. Let the person feel the pain. Surrounding grief are many myths, such as bury your feelings, grieve alone, just give it time, act like everything is OK. The truth is, pain is real and it hurts, so no one should try to take away another person's feelings.

4. Let your friend talk and share the burdens and agony. If what you hear surprises you, avoid judging or putting down. Instead, try to accept what you hear, even if you don't understand. Feelings are part of a normal grief response. Your friend will work through emotions more quickly and easily if you aren't judgmental.

5. Avoid spiritual platitudes. Don't chastise your friend for having imperfect faith. People need to voice honest feelings about God and their perception of Him. At some point people are ready to move ahead. Resist the inclination to intervene or protect.

6. Let time be a part of healing. Don't expect your friend to "get over it" in a month or even a year or two. The depth of grief is shocking as it returns in waves over and over again, long after everyone else has forgotten. Holidays, anniversaries and special occasions will be particularly difficult. Show extra concern at these times.

7. Helping another person is taxing, so take care of yourself. Find ways to refresh, replenish and retool. Eat properly, get enough sleep, take time to exercise both body and mind to be in the best possible shape to help hurting people. Seek others to talk with, pray with and receive support.

- Jeff Zhorne

For the past 12 years Jeff Zhorne, a grief counselor in Santa Clarita, has offered workshops, recovery courses and individualized counseling for those suffering the pain of loss. He serves as the director of The Grief Program, an organization dedicated to guiding grieving people in resolving loss issues step-by-step to a richer quality of life. He can be reached at (661) 810-9157. Address questions and comments about moving through meaningful emotional loss to The Grief Program, 25757 Parada Drive, Santa Clarita, CA 91355. He will be giving a free community presentation on working through grief and loss on Monday, April 21, at City Hall.


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