Let's face it: it doesn't feel good to focus on painful loss. It can be depressing, discouraging, and seems counter-productive. We want to be strong and overcome our difficulties! Yet, here I am suggesting that we all do just that. Can there really be a benefit to confronting our own suffering? Obviously my answer is yes and here's how I think this works.
The first step in planning any journey is recognizing your starting point. Would you expect your GPS software to provide route guidance with only your destination information? Of course not. We usually need an address or intersection; some data that pinpoint precisely where the trip begins. Similarly, any healing journey needs a precise starting point as well. Here are 3 steps to identify this all-important beginning location.
1. Realize what you've lost. Our emotional "address" includes a realization of what we've lost, and sometimes that's not so straightforward. When my son David died, it was obvious to me and everyone else that I was grieving the loss of my beloved son. But many years earlier, when he was a teen struggling with a mood disorder, I could only identify a vague sense of unfairness...for him, for us, and for the way I thought his life would unfold. It took a long time before I realized I was grieving the loss of my fantasy child and the loss of his (and our) fantasy life. ("Fantasy" in the sense of expectations we typically conjure up when we imagine what life will be like.) See if you can list what you've lost; what has gone or changed; what will never be.
2. Examine the meaning. Our starting intersection is further identified by examining the meaning of our losses. Continuing the example above, I knew immediately that David's death meant I was then and would forever be a bereaved mother; that I was a member of a group no one wants to join; and that I couldn't wrap my mind around the finality of his absence. After a while I was thunderstruck by the realization that along with David, my future grandchildren died that day too...more meaning. And still later I found healing meaning in establishing a leadership award presented on his birthday each year. Try noting what your losses mean to you at the moment.
3. Accept the feelings. The third aspect of finding your starting point is identifying your feelings. A feeling is any state that could also be described by saying "I am....." in addition to "I feel..." Saying "I feel that..." does not denote a feeling; it's a thought. Welcome your feelings, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. Try not to judge them; just accept them and know they will certainly evolve in time. I remember feeling at various times numb and in shock, bereft and tearful, angry and guilty. Feelings are neither good nor bad; they just are. You may want to jot down the feelings you notice when you think about your loss or losses.
It's important to remember that these steps form the beginning of a process I call Inhabiting Reality. This beginning is certainly not all there is to grief work and navigating loss, but it is essential to the journey and later work with our thoughts and feelings. Feel free to comment on any aspect of this exercise; I'm interested to know what it was like for you.
Your travel companion,
Essays on Grief Resilience