Healing from the Pain of Unexpected Loss
In the more than 40 years I have been a practicing psychotherapist, I have worked with many people who have experienced unexpected/traumatic loss, including combat veterans, first responders, family members of homicide victims, people experiencing the unexpected death of a loved one, and those suffering physical disfigurement and/or mental anguish. In nearly all cases I have found some common threads that help people to mend the tears to their psyches and souls.
Acknowledging the New Reality
An important first step to healing following an unexpected loss is acknowledging the event and its significance—moving from “I can’t believe this” and “this did not happen” to “I know that this is a new reality.” Key in making this shift is the awareness and acceptance that life is transitory. It is important that one stay grounded and in the present. As Bessel van der Kolk has stated, “Trauma treatment is about helping people to be here now, to tolerate what they feel right in the present.”
Initially, a person may experience hurt, anger, and a sense of loss: “why did this happen to me?” or “this is unfair.” Acknowledging that life is transitory and fragile helps us to put into perspective that death and tragedy are parts of life. This effort at detachment is not to minimize the event or how we experience the event; rather, it is to place the loss more directly into focus. What happened is not about us but about the loss of the other, and we must find meaningful ways to honor the person—both publicly and privately—and to allow their memory to carry on in the present. Ritual and cultural traditions can assist with this—recognizing and honoring what our loved one wanted as ritual is paramount. For example, a person may relay a desire to be cremated or buried in a certain manner and the family will ignore those wishes because they do not approve. Such behavior is inconsistent with honoring the person and is therefore ultimately counterproductive to the healing process.
Acknowledge Their Importance
The second thread in healing is gratitude. Being thankful, grateful, and appreciative of the role the person has played in your life allows us to find ways to carry that person forward with us. Recognizing and embracing how their presence has helped define the person you are now and how you relate to others in the world keeps their positive influence alive. By expressing your gratitude and love for the person, in public and private, you keep their memory vibrant and influential. For example, a former mentor of mine had a remarkable intervention for me. He would be instructing me on a topic or skill set and I would say “I know, I know,” at which point he would slap me in the back of the head, like a Zen master, and say, “to know and not to do, is not to know.” I often relate that story and its value to people I work with and as a result, I am honoring my mentor. He lives on in my life, awareness, actions, and now in the lives of my friends, colleagues, students, and clients.
Confront—and Have Compassion for—Your Feelings
So how do we deal with our feelings in the face of sudden loss? First, we bring awareness to them and name them. This awareness has many facets—there is the awareness that life is transitory, everything changes. We are born, live and die. That is our nature, our time is limited and not guaranteed, and we must recognize and accept this as fact. We also must be aware that life is experienced in the present moment—not in the past or future. In our awareness of what we are feeling, it is important to follow what those feelings point to. Are we dealing with blame, shame, or guilt? What purpose do these feelings serve? It is important to dialogue with those feelings using journaling, having a gestalt-type discussion, or through meditation. Once we have named the feelings and practice some self-compassion, we can align those feelings with our values and worldview. The next step is to ask ourselves, in consideration of our own mortality, “what do I want to leave behind in terms of influence? What difference do I make in this life and to others? How, in my current or present actions, do I represent my values, awareness, and insights?”
The answers to these questions and to our self-analysis lie in compassion for ourselves and others. It requires that we engage in every moment with mindfulness and awareness and that we reach out to those that are important to us. We re-engage with loved ones and friends that we may have lost touch with. We refocus on the importance of engagement in each moment with meaning, compassion, and love. Because, as Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
James W. Osborne, MS, LPC, has been one of Natural Nutmeg’s 10Best Winners for Holistic Psychotherapy/LCSW/Counseling every year since 2018. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 40 years of clinical experience. He employs mindfulness, Jungian psychology, gestalt psychology, ACT, EMDR, and value-based techniques unique to the individual to support positive health changes. His undergraduate degree is in philosophy, and he views psychotherapy as philosophy in action.
You can contact James at ProNatural Wellness Group in Berlin, CT, at 860.829.0707.