We sustain emotional wounds in our daily lives as often as we do physical ones. Experiences such as rejection, failure, guilt or loneliness can cause psychological injuries that damage our moods, self-worth and at times, even our basic functioning. And the most disruptive emotional injury we sustain is loss.
We encounter loss in many forms. When a dear friend moves away or a cherished pet dies, when our last child leaves home or we get downsized from a company we've been with for many years, when our spouse leaves us or a loved one is killed in an accident, or when we become disabled by injury or chronic illness -- the loss we experience as a result can have a huge impact on our well-being and disrupt our lives in five significant ways.
1. Disruptive Emotional Pain:
Those of us who have lost a loved one know the hurt we experience can be excruciating and paralyzing. At first, we might lose the ability to even think straight or to perform tasks of daily living. Our emotional system in shock, we can feel as though we are in a haze, trapped within a terrible alternate reality from which we cannot escape. These initial hours and days are often so disruptive we might struggle to function in the most basic ways. Yet we must find a way to get through these terrible early days as the one thing that will help the pain diminish (at least initially) is time.
2. Disrupted Daily Lives:
Loss often entails massive changes in how we live our lives on a daily basis. We get fired from our job and have nowhere to go each morning. Our last child leaves for college and there are no meals to make for them, no homework to supervise, no places to drive them. Losing a limb in an accident can mean months of rehabilitation and retraining ourselves to do the most basic tasks. When our daily lives are disrupted by loss we must come to terms with the changes that were forced upon us and find new ways of living and being that take the place of those which we've lost.
3. Disrupted Identities:
Many losses disrupt our very identities and sense of self. We might have defined ourselves by our careers and lost our jobs (or retired). We might have defined ourselves by our couplehood and lost our spouse to divorce. Or we might have been athletes and become crippled by Multiple Sclerosis. When our identities are shaken by loss we face the double challenge of having to recover from the loss itself and having to reconstruct our identities. To recover, we have to redefine who we are, come to peace with how we view ourselves, and get comfortable with how we present our new selves to others.
4. Disrupted Relationships:
Many of us respond to profound loss by withdrawing into ourselves. We might obsess about a loved one that died, talk to them in our heads, and keep them alive and present in our minds. We might lose touch with our classmates after failing out of college, or feel too ashamed after getting fired to reach out to our former work friends and colleagues. Loss often causes us to withdraw from those around us. We cocoon ourselves in our shell of emotional pain, not wanting to resume the relationships that remind us of our loss. To recover we must strive to reconnect to those who remain and form new connections that reflect the new realities of our situation.
5. Disrupted Beliefs:
Making sense of our experiences in life is a compelling human drive. We each have our own way of understanding how the world works. We each have a unique set of beliefs and assumptions that comprise the lens through which we view the world and our place in it. Loss often challenges these basic assumptions and causes us to question them as we struggle to fit the new realities of our lives into our existing belief systems. We might be flooded with doubts and questions that send us on a search for answers -- the most compelling of which is often the simplest. "Why?" To recover we must (in time) be able to make sense of what happened and adjust our belief systems accordingly. We must find within ourselves a way to ascribe meaning to the events and discover new purpose to drive our existence.
Recovering from loss takes time but there are ways to treat our psychological injuries. Caring for our emotional wounds will help accelerate the recovery process so we emerge from our loss with our lives, identities, relationships and beliefs intact.