We are quickly drawn to care for the outer layer, the first impressions in life. A culture’s immediate concerns are naturally drawn to the physical appearance and its state of health. How to improve it. How to correct it. How to fix it. This fascination with the physical leads us to a misconception that this is the essence of wholeness, of perfection. But, beyond physical health, our mental health greatly impacts our well-being. In bringing subjects meant to enrich and challenge readers, we present our first mental health feature.
Illustration by Anushka van Huyssteen
Loss is a universal experience that impacts us each day. If asked to make a list of things we might consider to be losses, most of us would quickly identify death as the most common. We may even elaborate to include experiences such as divorce, miscarriage, unemployment, or physical illness. When I challenge people to take inventory of their own life losses, they are often surprised to learn that even joyful events or times of meaningful life transition can cause us to experience feelings of loss. Consider a teenager graduating high school and leaving home for college, a child changing schools because of a recent move, a military family facing deployment or relocation, a person retiring after 40 years of a successful career, a child being adopted into a family, or even a single person getting married. While these scenarios may bring about a plethora of new or exciting opportunities, they can also be garnished with a residue of loss.
Regardless of the type, the physical, spiritual, and emotional implications of loss are often ignored in traditional society. Loss is certainly not the cheerful dinner conversation of choice. In fact, some of you may be hesitant to continue reading. But, hang in there, because if we are going to acknowledge loss, we must first acknowledge love. And, if we are going to talk about love, we must also talk about reconciling our losses, so we can continue to pursue hope and love in our lives.
We are creatures who yearn for authentic human connection and thrive when we are provided opportunities to give and receive love. So, our reactions to loss are directly related to the amount of love and connection we feel to that which has been suddenly removed from us or significantly changed. For example, you will likely not feel much personal sadness when your co-worker’s teenager leaves for college. But, when you walk into your own child’s empty room after moving her into a university dorm, you may find yourself overwhelmed with immense grief.
Some of the most common grief reactions to loss include sadness, anger, heightened fear or anxiety, feelings of guilt, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, fatigue, and expressions of physical tension including head or stomach aches. You may also begin to question or explore your own faith beliefs following a significant loss. No two people experience grief in the exact same way, and grief reactions are not only influenced by the type of loss but also by several individual factors including a person’s age, gender, cultural background, spiritual beliefs, support system, and emotional health.
The dictionary defines grief as “deep sorrow” and the word really refers to the internal thoughts or feelings we experience following a loss. Whereas, mourning is defined as the “act of sorrowing” or the outward expression of those internal thoughts and feelings of grief. This means that any person who has the capacity to love, has the capacity to grieve. But, our culture frequently discourages mourning or the expression of those grief feelings. We often praise the person who is “holding it together so well” at a funeral while criticizing the person who appears to be “falling apart.” The error with this line of thinking is that it presumes an open expression of mourning is harmful and insinuates that the most effective way to cope is to conceal all emotions of grief. When in fact, the opposite is true.
You see, feelings have one primary goal — to be felt! Even the word “emotion” has the word “motion” within it. This means that feelings require movement. They cannot be left to sit in isolation, stuffed away inside the human heart. They must move outside of our hearts. And, the only way to move them is to feel them. This can be done in a myriad of ways, and many people find clinical social workers and counselors to be helpful in identifying healthy ways to express such emotion.
Thus, herein lies the greatest paradox of loss and love — in order to heal, we must provide ourselves the permission, time, space, and support to actually feel the pain of the loss. And, we must do so in a society that is constantly sending us messages to ignore, hide, or mask our feelings. In our culture, we rarely talk about feelings, let alone feel them. So, I realize how radical it is to be suggesting that mourning, the process of expressing and feeling our grief reactions, is actually the best treatment for loss. Remember what we discussed earlier: loss is an expression of love. Love is a feeling of the heart. So, our feelings of grief cannot be thought through, they must be felt through — they must be mourned. Helen Keller once said, “The only way to the other side is through,” and this is how we must experience and process our emotions of loss.
The “how to” of authentically and healthily mourning differs from person to person. But, there are a few common things I have observed as a grief counselor that might help others along the way. First, the actual loss is an event, but the grief and mourning process is a journey. And, depending on the type of loss, it can be a very painful and exhausting journey that requires intensive preparation before embarking upon it.
Recently, a friend of mine prepared for a weeklong hike along the Appalachian Trail. While physically fit to walk around the flatlands of Polk County with a purse on her shoulder, she had never before experienced hiking an increased elevation of mountainous terrain for a week while carrying a 30-pound backpack. So, she did what any person embarking on a difficult excursion should do; she extensively prepared for the journey ahead. She sought counsel and insight from people who had hiked the trail before to determine what supplies would be necessary and which would only serve to weigh her down. She packed ample food and water to ensure proper nutrition, and she extensively trained so that she was physically capable of sustaining herself along the way. She gathered a group of friends to accompany her on the trail, so she would not experience isolation or face the darkness of night without someone alongside to provide support. And, most importantly, she acknowledged at the start of her journey that it would not be an easy one. While she prepared as much as she could, the experience would inevitably require her to both lean on others and practice compassion toward herself when the unanticipated and inevitable emotional, physical, and spiritual challenges arose.
If I would have told you that my friend was planning to hike the Appalachian Trail alone, completely unprepared physically, and taking only one granola bar and a bottle of water for an entire week, you would have quickly bet against her chances of success. Similarly, whatever particular emotional journey into the wilderness you are embarking upon during this season of life, whether an experience of loss or a difficult personal challenge, take the time to physically, emotionally, and spiritually fortify yourself for what is ahead. This can mean various things, including demonstrating patience with yourself, seeking support from others who have gone before you on the journey, getting ample rest, allowing yourself to feel and process emotions while also taking breaks from the pain, embracing new experiences, slowing down when necessary (even if society tells you to “keep busy”), engaging in physical exercise, investing in new relationships and friendships, creating safe spaces to nurture your spiritual health, laughing, and/or seeking professional help as needed.
“Our feelings of grief cannot be thought through, they must be felt through — they must be mourned.”
I want to emphasize again that I do not believe people should go trekking into the wilderness alone. Remember, we are creatures of connection, and the night always seems darkest when we are facing it by ourselves. Meister Eckhart once said, “Truly it is in the darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest to all of us.” I travel frequently to educate clinicians about grief and loss. When I stay in a hotel room, there is always a moment when the light is initially extinguished that it seems too dark and impossible to see anything. This feeling can be disconcerting when I am in a new place in which the layout is unfamiliar. Yet, if I wait long enough in the complete darkness, my eyes adjust, and a very faint light eventually peeks into the room illuminating just enough to reorient me to my surroundings. There will be many times in the darkness of the wilderness when you do not see the light to which Eckhart refers is so close to you. This is why I encourage you to always take a trusted friend along the journey with you. She or he can provide reassurance when your eyes cannot yet see and can fan the flame until you are able to hold the light again for yourself. These and other tools can help you journey forward, one step at a time, to the other side of your path as Keller suggested, where reconciliation and healing are waiting.
Reconciliation is defined as “the process of finding a way to make two different ideas, facts, etc., exist or be true at the same time.” In terms of loss, healing occurs when we become able to reconcile that two very contrasting, maybe even opposite ideas, can be true at the same time. We acknowledge that a significant loss has occurred and our lives have been forever changed, yet we allow ourselves to once again pursue and experience hope, joy, and love.
A friend of mine recently remarried after experiencing his wife’s death. At the time of his loss, he could not even imagine loving someone else or having similar feelings of happiness again in his life. His wife being deceased and his ability to love someone other than her were two contrasting ideas that he could not reconcile in his own heart or mind. Yet, after steadfastly journeying into the wilderness and darkness of his grief, with others walking alongside him for support, he authentically mourned his feelings and experienced the accompanying pain. That is when he eventually found himself at the other end of the path, able to reconcile his reality of both loss and love, sorrow and joy, despair and hope.
Reconciliation does not mean we forget our losses and never speak of them again. In contrast, it means we incorporate those losses into our lives allowing them to become a part of the tapestry that is our life story, woven together with threads of past and present. This truth enables us to live and love with authentic, whole hearts. This, dear readers, is my hope for us all!