Saturday, 7 November 2020

I should be over it by now. (But I'm not). Some thoughts on loss.

Do you feel you should be “over it” by now?

Marie and Gill and I run Loss Conversations, a holistic listening support service, here in Bognor Regis. We run it for anyone who feels that loss, any loss, is affecting their lives, and we welcome everyone who comes.  We feel it takes courage to come and speak.  We listen and care and support.   

Loss comes in so many forms but grief after the death of a loved one is the first that comes to mind.  Grief can be overwhelming; it can knock us for six and leave us feeling confused, lonely and isolated.  They say that grief is the price we pay for love which is not much help when we are suffering, but it is true that the price of great love can be great pain. Grief after the loss of a pet can be just as painful.  We know that losing a beloved pet can be devastating and people deeply miss the companionship and comfort of a special animal in their life. 

But what about the loss of a relationship? A job? Our home? Our health? If these losses – relationship, job, home, health, identity, country, loss of purpose or belief – if all these other losses cause us to suffer, then that too is grief.  When we lose something physical, we can point to it, to the thing we have lost, and there is no doubt that something or someone has gone. With losses of such as purpose, connection, joy, confidence, the losses come from our emotional, mental and spiritual self.  They may manifest physically, such as anxiety causing our stomach to knot, headaches, tiredness and tears.  Or anger, being vulnerable to illnesses, and physical bodily pain that is hard to diagnose and strangely resistant to treatment.  This gives us a physical expression of our grief, but the physical manifestation is not the real trouble.  It is a symptom of our deeper grief at what we have lost. 

These more existential losses can cut us as deeply as the loss of a person, pet, job, or home.  But because they cannot be seen, we cannot point to an empty space and say, Look, that is where my loss was.  We tend to suffer on in silence, hoping no one will notice and that we will be left alone, because it is hard to find the right words to describe what is happening for us. In our Loss Conversation sessions at the moment we are hearing about the sadness of loss of connection, of purpose, of work and of health.  These losses make us feel vulnerable and exposed.  We fear we have lost our way, and do not know how we can find our way back.  We fear other people will judge us and this makes it hard for us to acknowledge out loud how bad we feel.

I have suffered many losses in my life.  I have lost a partner, a husband, both parents, and a brother.  I have also, as have most of us, faced losses in health, work, confidence and of purpose.  The power of these experiences changed my life, making me realise that no one is immune from loss.  I needed help, I needed gentleness, patience, time and support. We all need support and understanding when we are suffering.  We all need each other.   

I came through.  Not on my own, but with help and support from those who knew the story of loss themselves.  During those dark days, I found it hard to describe the emptiness I felt.  I couldn’t make an effort to be cheerful and I didn’t want to go out into the world where everyone seemed to have the things I didn’t have any more. But despite feeling that I would never recover, never be normal again, life did get better, and the light began to shine in my world once more.  It is because of these times that I support and work with people at and around the end of life because I know there is always hope.  And love. I know how bad the bad can feel, and I know how important it is to have someone sit with you and stay with you.

When we are deep in a reaction to loss, we can feel unseen and unheard.  Being heard is extremely important.  To have someone listen to us without judgement, to take the time to let us speak about what it true for us, whatever that is, and to really listen, can make all the difference to us in our sadness.

Feeling as if you are in a ravine is lonely and frightening.  Having someone alongside you in that ravine makes all the difference.  

Four common responses to loss 

Why they may manifest, and what to do about them.

  1.       I’m arguing with everyone. Anger is a very common expression of grief.  We expect sorrow but are surprised by how angry we are. We lash out, we blame, and we drive people away.  Often we don’t know we are doing this.  Sometimes the pain of our loss is too hard to bear, we don’t want to go there and find that anger is a powerful release.  Inside, we are unable to face the unfairness of our loss.  How could this happen to me?  How could they do this to me?  I need someone to blame, there has to be a reason.  I don’t understand.  It’s too much.  When someone is angry, they need help to go behind their anger to address the pain they are avoiding. It’s frightening to feel so vulnerable and anger keeps it at bay.  It’s important to find help to articulate the confusing emotions, and to hold the space for them.  Being angry takes a huge amount of energy.  The relief when it’s no longer necessary is very healing.
  2.       I should have got over it by now.  There’s no timescale to recovering from loss and it can be hard to feel the difficult emotions associated with it.  While it’s not good to become stuck in grief, it’s also not good to rush yourself through it.  It does take time.  If we push ourselves too fast, we may become ill.  Our bodies hold grief reactions which force us to stop and rest, take time off, whether we like it or not.  If you have not got over it by now, give yourself a break.  Some say it takes at least two years, some say more, some say less.  How long is a piece of string? Take the metaphorical phone off the hook.  You simply need more time and understanding, and you will come through in time, there is more gentle and kind work needed to help you recover.
  3.       My family needs me to be strong.  To take on the responsibility for other people’s grief and recovery when you too are affected by this loss, can cause you serious problems with your own healing.  You need support too.  Why do you feel you need to strong?  What happens if you too are vulnerable?  Sometimes taking on a support role keeps painful feelings at bay and makes you think you can avoid the pain.  You are too busy and you are needed.  But it will become too much if you ignore your own recovery in order to carry everyone else.  It will make you ill. Your need to support everyone else but yourself will create confusion and more distress for you.  You all need support.  Perhaps if you seek help, you will show that strong people need help too, and your family will follow and a very good example will be set.
  4.       I feel useless.  Deep in a reaction to loss, you may become exhausted.  You may want to hide away and do nothing.  You have no motivation, no purpose and no reason to do anything.  Where you once took part in the world outside, you don’t want to now.  You feel useless.  Invisible.  Lost.  You are bereft.  But you are not useless, and it will take time to come to terms with your loss.  Your body and mind need time off to do this, you will feel empty and tired, and this is part of the process of acceptance.  It will pass, it needs to be allowed to run its course, and it’s important to allow yourself time.  Patience and small acts of kindness to yourself will help, and do not judge yourself.  You have lost something or someone, you do not need to be on top form and full of beans.  You are not useless, but time, love, kindness and patience will work wonders.

A story from a Loss Conversations session

That sessions are intentionally face to face and not online.  This is a very good thing.  More than ever, we need each other.  Our Loss Conversations are a support group hosting up to fifteen people and are covered under the recent restrictions and so we can continue to support each other.

One young man came to a Loss Conversation session having lost a close friend about two years ago.  He came with his girlfriend and seemed to be more concerned with his girlfriend’s grief than his own.  She was sad but coping, but the young man was convinced that she was not coping.  He sat on the edge of his chair, looking hostile and deflecting any questions that came his way.   He was short with people and a little rude.  Eventually, I asked him, “Are you angry?”  For some reason, though it was patently obvious to everyone else, it wasn’t obvious to him.  After a few minutes, he agreed that he was.  And then, out came all the anger, the hurt and the pain of his friend having died and left him.  It was as if this friend had done it on purpose, had died and had not consulted him, had not given him time to say goodbye, and had left him forever.  The young man was very angry indeed.  But after a while, he calmed down.  It had been a revelation to him, just how angry he was.  He left calmer, with insight and very tired.  We never saw him again, but he wrote to me afterwards thanking me for allowing him to understand his anger and telling me that a burden had been lifted from him.

A lovely word from a recent attendee 

"At last I have had the opportunity to talk in confidence about how recent losses of friends and family are affecting and have affected me and can also listen to and empathise with the experiences of those who have also endured loss.

Thank you for hosting this voluntary compassionate social service especially at this time when it is most needed."  

Feedback from a recent Loss Conversations meeting. 

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