Column: How to cope with life’s losses

by Dr. Katherine Helm
grief loss
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We lose people closest to us, a job we loved, we move away from family and friends, and/or we experience painful break-ups with romantic partners.  These are common human experiences we all go through, yet we rarely talk about them and most of us struggle to cope with them.

Why Don’t We Talk About Loss?

Why don’t we talk about loss much? Quite simply, human beings’ instinctual reactions are to push away from emotional pain.  As a society, and especially in African American culture, we are taught to “keep it moving” and to let God do His work.  There are benefits for many in having a spiritual orientation but the “keep it moving” cultural expectation, without adequate acknowledgement and healing from our losses can be and is often psychologically damaging.

Without adequately working through our losses, we take them with us long-term and they can unknowingly impact areas in our life such as our current relationships, physical health, and overall sense of well-being.

As a psychologist, I frequently assist clients struggling with the losses in their lives.  I hear statements such as “why am I not over this?” or “what’s wrong with me that I am still struggling with this?”  These expectations and self-statements are harmful because they do not allow us to work through our appropriate emotional pain when we lose something we loved.

Healing takes time

We invalidate ourselves and devalue our own emotional reactions.  What can happen then, is that we do not heal what hurts.  I know personally and professionally, that coping with loss cannot and should not be on a timeline.  It takes time, self-love, patience, honesty, and empathy to work through our losses without rushing ourselves to be better quickly.  Quite simply, grieving is a way of honoring the relationship we had with the object of loss whether that be a person, job we wanted and did not get, being let down by someone close to us, etc.  All losses are painful to a certain degree.

For example, after a painful break up, our friends tell us that the other person did not deserve us anyway and there is someone better out there for us than the person with which our relationship ended.  Though these statements are well-meaning, they tend to rush us out of our losses.

The message is “hurry up and get over it and find someone else.”  Then, the person struggling with the loss tends to feel like they cannot talk about their emotional struggles with their friends and family anymore after a period of time, because they are suppose to be over it.  This can cause the person struggling with the loss to socially isolate from those that could support them, stop talking about what hurts, and believe that something is wrong with them because they are not “over it.”

How do you move on from grief and loss?

I like to tell my clients that it is ok not to be “over it” and not to judge themselves on the time it takes to process a painful loss.  Instead, it is important to take time to work through the loss.  Understand your thoughts and feelings about it and how the loss has changed your life.

It is absolutely appropriate and normal to miss the source of the loss (e.g. person, job, etc.).  In my work with clients struggling with loss, I help them explore any harmful self-talk (e.g. what’s wrong with me that I am not over this) and explore any unrealistic expectations they might have for dealing with their loss.

We always want to be “over it” quickly, but coping with loss does not work that way.

Are you stuck in your grief?

How do you know if you are stuck in your grief? Although certain losses may always bring out feelings of intense sadness and emptiness (e.g. death of a parent, sibling, child), the way we view and cope with that loss, as well as where we locate the loss in our lives should change over time.

For example, when someone close to us dies, the loss is typically front and center in our day-to-day experiences.  We think about the person constantly, we may still look for them, and our sadness may feel like it takes over everything.  Over many months and years, this should change.  The loss should get relocated to our past instead of our present and we stop thinking about that person on a daily basis.  We still miss them and have moments of sadness when we remember their passing but our grief around their death reduces in acuteness and is nowhere near as intense as it was in the past.

If you are still experiencing feelings of loss with the same intensity or feelings of sadness on a daily basis, as when the loss first happened, you may be stuck in your grief process and you could benefit from seeking professional counseling to assist you in processing the stagnation of your grief.

Grief and loss are a painful part of life and their impact on us should not be underestimated.  Take your time to work through your loss and recognize that doing so is an important part of healing.

2 comments

How to cope with life’s losses - In LUV with ME February 1, 2022 - 4:11 pm

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Hilda M Saulsbury February 2, 2022 - 9:35 pm

Your advice explains my reactions to events which occur plus dreams that reoccur from it.

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