Updated: Mar 10
In my experience, all roads usually lead back to unresolved loss.
A loss is anything that results in a person having to develop a
and resolving loss simply means that you are finding a way to live with that new ‘normal’. Accepting that the ‘normal ‘you knew will never be the same again is a big step towards resolving your losses and starting to move forward positively.
If you’re getting the feeling that you’ve heard that somewhere before, you’d be right. We talked about it a few weeks ago. The reason these things are starting to feel like themes, is because they are. Loss, trauma, grief, acceptance, forgiveness, closure, recovery and all sorts of other stuff can’t not be connected – we can’t grieve and find acceptance if first there isn’t a loss. If that loss requires the need for a ‘New Normal’ it could be perceived to be a traumatic experience. (Obviously the nature of the loss is relevant to the level of trauma suffered.)
As a culture, we are not good at acknowledging loss unless it is human death. We have rituals and processes to cope with human loss but the reality is that this is only one type of loss and all losses must be grieved.
We are ill-equipped usually, to deal with the accumulation of loss which goes along with daily life and it is often the case that someone will come to see me because they are feeling generally overwhelmed by life and struggling to cope. I always ask if there’s anything particular they feel may be the cause of their feelings and usually their response is, “no” or, “not really…” yet it’s almost guaranteed that within a very short time, the unresolved losses begin to surface.
Life is made up of natural and predictable losses, yet we never discuss them in that context. We’re too well conditioned to just ‘getting on with it’ and remembering that ‘worse things happen at sea’ or ‘others are worse off…’. All of these things might well be true, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t undermine your right to respond to your personal situation with whatever emotions are appropriate for YOU.
We all have different tolerances to loss and no two people respond the same way, so two people responding differently to the same event, both have perfectly valid responses to that event.
When I talk about natural and predictable losses, I mean things like sending our children to school for the first time. There are so many losses there…
The loss of being the baby, the loss of being at home with their adults, the loss of being one of a small amount of children, or perhaps the only child in the room, the loss of attention that comes as a natural consequence of that transition…. And that’s just a few things from the list for the child! There are losses for their adults, too….
But we understand that going to school is a right and appropriate thing for our children to do so we don’t talk about the losses, we talk about the gains…. New friends, new adults, new skills, new things to play with, new life experiences… It’s often quite shocking for parents when we talk about the idea that going to school is a massive change and that massive change brings with it naturally, a certain amount of loss.
Now, I am not suggesting that all children who start school should have therapy, but I am saying that if we are able to shift our view of loss towards it being a day-to-day concept rather than reserving it for mega life-changing events, we might have a little more insight, empathy and understanding when our children act out their worries at times of significant change in their lives.
Acknowledging the loss and enabling the child to work through their feelings safely and positively builds resilience and resilience is the single greatest gift we can give to our children.
Resilience is the thing that allows us to ‘bounce back’ from stuff. It’s the idea of getting back on the bicycle after you’ve fallen off; it develops our coping strategies and allows us to fail and learn from the experience of failure rather than fail and give up.
As children, we have huge amounts of natural resilience usually, it comes alongside the innate need to explore and learn – learning to walk generally comes with many many falling over incidents but we don’t stop trying to walk, we practice doggedly until we’ve mastered it.
Then, we use our newfound skill to terrorise and terrify our parents and, as proud as they are of our achievement, they instantly wish we hadn’t learned to walk! Not just because we’re now mobile and (apparently) faster than Spider-Man on speed, but also because it’s a clear sign that we’re not ‘their babies’ any more; we’re toddlers now and we’re growing up fast!
Children have little control over their lives so it’s usually easier to spot the losses for children because their adults are able to communicate those losses on their behalf. Adults will discuss their children’s losses fairly openly usually, because there’s logic in the idea that by telling someone who can help, they’re helping the child.
For adults, loss is not often so clear cut.
We don’t deal with stuff because we have to get on, we don’t have time to stop and grieve for every little thing which has changed our ‘normal’… No one takes a week off work to grieve the loss of their child’s infancy when they start school, that would be ridiculous!
But it is a loss and it does need grieving.
We do this grieving usually when we are standing, watching our babies doing something that we deem to be “so grown up” or comment on “how big they’ve got suddenly” and we have a moment of reflection before sighing and moving on to the next job.
Grieving a loss doesn’t necessarily mean spending weeks dressed in black staying home with the curtains closed, it might just mean doing a bit of reflection and sorting out some stuff in your own head… Reconciling, as it were.
We tend to carry our losses; we don’t want to burden others with our problems and it is right that time is a great healer – superficially anyway. So we carry on and carry on until eventually, a straw breaks the camel’s back.
It is often something tiny, seemingly irrelevant and “silly” that provokes the meltdown but when we start to peel back the layers, we usually find stacks and stacks of unresolved loss in someone’s past.
Most difficult of all the losses to reconcile are those which we think ought to be positive – the loss of an abusive partner, for example, or a soldier returning from a war zone, are not things we feel we should grieve; we’re “better off out of it” after all. But, in the case of the abusive partner, there was something about that person that made us fall for them in the first place. There had to be some good times and why shouldn’t we grieve the loss of those? Mainly though, the thing we lose in an abusive relationship is our own identity, and that loss definitely deserves some time and attention, doesn’t it?
The soldier returning from the war zone should ostensibly, be glad that they’re home and safe but survivor guilt and PTSD are very real and incredibly overwhelming. Soldiers are not to talk about what happened in battle, there could genuinely be security risks and consequences if they do, and because most men, particularly, cope with their experiences by trying to ignore them – “that was then, this is now” or “what happens in war zones stays in war zones” - they will eventually end up incredibly overwhelmed by their feelings.
There are more losses in this scenario than I can even begin to imagine…. I know some soldiers and ex-soldiers and they won’t talk about war. They. Just. Won’t. Their faces change and their discomfort is palpable if war is mentioned and I watch them silently beg to not be made to go back there and relive it. I watch them struggle to keep everything that they’ve worked so hard to bury, buried, and I can tell, instantly, that their functionality is incredibly fragile and often dependent on NOT talking about it. I also know, because it’s my job, that their nights are long and probably very scary….
But overwhelming loss doesn’t have to involve war or abusive partners. For example, the sense of loss when someone’s dog dies is immense. Their grieving process is affected negatively by the notion that it was “only a dog” and they’re expected to “get over it” without any support or intervention.
If we remove the canine element, that person has just lost their shadow. Their best friend, their confidante and constant presence. Everything changes; daily routine, sights, sounds… a ‘new normal’ is definitely required. But, because we value human life above all else, the idea of having a funeral or a period of mourning when your dog dies, is faintly ridiculous. If it was your human best friend who died though…?
It’s the accumulation of these ‘little’ losses that eventually become overwhelming if they remain unresolved. Not talking about something is not the same thing as recovering from it or reconciling it; ignoring it is denial, not recovery.
We can fool ourselves for a while that everything’s fine and as long as we don’t talk about it everything will be good, but then, one day, we wake up inexplicably unable to get out of bed; unable to stop crying over ‘nothing’; constantly exhausted and unmotivated; or we realise that what started as a single glass of wine to help us ‘relax after a tough day’ has turned into a single bottle of wine to numb the pain and stop the thoughts. Reality bites and we realise that sticking our heads in the sand like an ostrich only leaves one place to be bitten.
We’re in a mess. We’re dragging ourselves through the motions - existing, not living.
We still rarely think about the root of the problem being historical though, we see the ‘problem’ as the drinking or the low mood…
We genuinely believe that all the avoidance and self-medicating ‘did the trick’ at the time and we’re ‘over that now…’ Even if we know we’re NOT over that now, we feel compelled to pretend we are because it’s been so long.
We might seek help for our depression and addictions, but we’re more likely to swap crutches than we are to heal the wound. Not just because we’re a bit embarrassed about the fact that we’re still not ‘over’ the death of our dog two years ago, but also because we know, deep down, that if we talk about it, it’s going to hurt. A lot. Again. And we don’t want to go back there – after all, experience tells us that that leads to dark and depressing places….
Yes. Riding a bike or doing yoga are more positive and pro-active ways of dealing with our feelings than self-medicating or crying every day, but in reality, unless we’ve taken the time and made the effort to address the original loss, we’re just swapping one avoidant coping strategy for another. It doesn’t take long for us to start saying, “I can’t not go to the gym today – I NEED to.”
Granted, going to the gym is a much less destructive method of avoidance than drinking, but if what you did originally was to swap thinking for drinking, now all you’ve done is swapped thinking for sweating! You’re still not thinking, are you? In fact, you’ve probably upped the ante because the drinking brought with it sweet and predictable oblivion. The sweating, by comparison, is a quick hit – it needs much more maintenance – we’re starting to do classes every day, riding our bike to work, eating differently, drinking gallons of water…. Now we’re avoiding the original loss AND being at home where we used to drink….
Have you ever heard the phrase, “Two wrongs don’t make a right”?
This is the problem with avoidant coping strategies – they pile up…. When one stops working, we swap it for another, and another, and another…. We’re now dealing with avoiding the loss, avoiding the temptation of self-medicating the loss (whilst telling everyone we feel ‘better than ever’), avoiding the failure of another coping strategy – we invest and invest and invest in our healthy new lifestyle – and then our bodies step in. We get injured, and we get angry at ourselves because we can’t now go to the gym to avoid drinking.
We still don’t address the loss though, we blame our old and decrepit bodies…
Unresolved loss festers. It oozes into our everyday life without us even realising and eventually, we’re putting more time and effort into avoiding resolving the loss than we’d have had to put into resolving the loss!
We live in strange times. We’re conditioned to celebrate and support people who’ve recovered from adversity, but that recovery needs to be visible. We LOVE to hear a Good News story about the person who sat home depressed for five years eating cake and drinking gin until one day, they decided to make it all better, lost twelve stones and started selling health juices.
If you follow that person’s journey, you’ll hear about the “amazing and inspirational” people who’ve supported them and given them “strength in their darkest hours”.
You’ll hear a convert…. Someone who’s converted their obviously unhealthy avoidant coping strategy, for a superficially healthy (but still avoidant) coping strategy. They’ll tell you that this juice has been life-changing for them – swapping cake and gin for juice and gym is the best decision they’ve ever made, and that you should definitely sign up and try it. You’ll hear that they’re part of an ‘incredible team’ (usually women) without whose support they ‘wouldn’t be here now’….
Fast forward six months and the likelihood is that that person is back in their house, eating cake and drinking gin again because what goes up, must come down and we all bolt back to the safety of our own ‘normal’ when things get tough. It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable our comfort zone is, it’s still our comfort zone and any guru worth their salt will tell you that growth can’t happen without stepping out of your comfort zone – we can’t get different outcomes by doing the same things.
The short-term high that comes from swapping crutches is even less sustainable than the comfort eating and drinking. Cake and gin are easy to come by; new recruits for the Church of Avoidance by Juice, not so much.
Those people who were oh so supportive at the beginning? Now they’re adding pressure and expectation that you perform and produce sales. But you’ve run out of friends and family to recruit; your Facebook group has died on its arse, and your motivational story of ‘recovery’ is old news… They’re not so supportive of you now – you’re skinny and tee-total, so your life must be fixed, right? There’s no need for sympathy, empathy or encouragement any more….
And just like that, you’re back where you started with another, extra loss to cope with – the loss of your new friends, sense of purpose, and support network. Throw in the burning embarrassment of secret eating and drinking and the pressure of maintaining the illusion for those who you’re close to, and we can soon see how we become more and more isolated, with only our own truths and intrusive thoughts to keep us company… Who wants to admit that they’ve failed after they appeared to be doing so well?!
The only difference between suffering and recovering is CHOICE. If we choose recovery, we must take it on, head on, and work through it as doggedly as we worked when we learned to walk all those years ago. We must be prepared that it’ll be hard and probably not quick – we can’t resolve twelve years of unresolved, festering loss in six sessions of solution-focussed CBT; recovery takes as much maintenance as the weight-loss did.
That said however, the pattern of maintenance is very different. Avoidance requires daily, RE-active attention – ironic really, given that avoidance is being practiced in order to NOT think about something – while recovery takes only periodic maintenance, the occasional flare up when we’ve been triggered by something, for example. If we’re doing a good job of recovering, we’ll have plenty of useful tools and strategies to help us overcome the flare up quickly and positively.
It’s kind of like finding out you’ve got an allergy to something – you lived with the irritation, discomfort and pain of the puffy eyes, sneezing and hives for as long as you could, thinking it would just go away by itself; you might’ve tried some natural remedies or taken advice from others who also suffer and you may even have got some brief respite from the problem. Eventually though, it got too much and you consulted a doctor. The doctor gave you some medication and it worked amazingly! Now, you can’t believe you lived with it for so long when it turned out that the solution was so simple. You learn to trust the process (because it works) and at the first sign of a sneeze, you take the medication and head off the flare up at the pass. You learn to recognise and predict the symptoms of a flare up and you’re able to respond PRO-actively.
Changing how we think about loss would be a good place to start. If we get better at accepting that loss happens every day and must be processed properly, we’d give ourselves at least some of the time and space required without feeling guilty or silly about it.
If we accept loss as a daily occurrence, we take away the stigma and embarrassment of not coping with the death of our dog.
If we normalise talking about loss and stop treating it like a dirty word, we’ll normalise our children talking about their losses too — we’re very good as adults at passing on the idea that there’s always someone worse off and we minimise our children’s losses ALL THE TIME! We tell them it wasn’t that bad, that they shouldn’t be crying because…. Just because their losses seem silly to us – grown ups with real, grown-up problems, doesn’t mean they aren’t massive for our children in their small, ego-centric worlds. If we don’t accept their truths when they come to us with what we deem to be little stuff, they surely won’t come to us with their big stuff…
If we stop comparing losses – deciding one loss is more worthy of recovery than another, we’d be happier.
If we remember that our losses may have to be re-visited – our understanding of why our family separated will be vastly different at age seven when it happened, than it will be at age twenty-seven when we’re about to get married ourselves, for example; we allow ourselves the space to grow through what we go through.
If we’re allowed to set our own parameters for what constitutes a loss, we get to own our journey without judgement. Currently our grieving processes are dictated by our lifestyle – dig out your work contract and have a look for the phrase ‘Compassionate Leave’ and, if you’re lucky enough to find it, you’ll see that your employer gets to decide who you’re entitled to grieve for and for how long! That can’t be right, surely…?
Life is full of losses and they all must be reconciled. If you’re struggling for apparently no good reason, think about your losses and how well they’ve been recovered from.
Recovery is learning to live WITH your past, not IN your past. If you’re having to actively think about avoiding the loss every day, that’s distraction and denial, it’s not recovery.
Ignoring bad stuff NEVER makes it go away, it just makes it fester and snowball and we all know snowballs can’t be pushed back up the hill…
Anyone who suggests your personal grief for a thing should be suppressed or time limited should be avoided at all costs – they have all the compassion of a soggy cucumber.
If you were strong enough to survive the loss (and if you’re reading this, you were) you’re brave enough to face the recovery – you’ve got to feel it to heal it… Go on, rip the plaster off!
Please contact us if you or your children need support with unresolved loss, recovery or finding your 'new normal'. We offer free advice and guidance to families and can help signpost you to other appropriate services if necessary.
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