When Losses Leave Us Gasping

Cumulative Losses — how can we stay whole when it seems as if losses are blasting us from every direction?

Life with Dogs is one thing I do — another is Life with Loss.

Earlier this week, for example, I met with a small team to plan a podcast series about life — and suicide; we start recording in July.

Next month I will be teaching the loss and grief class at the university — I teach this twice each year as part of my professorial duties.

My helpwithgrief.org website is about to be revised and updated.

And so on.

I have some credibility is what I am trying to say. For what that is worth.

Grief is such an individual and personal thing — and yet there are things worth saying about it. Maybe they won’t work for you — that is okay. But maybe they will for others.

To start, I think it is important to understand loss as any change — not just death and not just “bad” changes. Any change creates losses.

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And no loss — even death — is just one loss. Rather, loss is a series of “missing” — think of all the changes to routines and adventures and plans that follow any significant loss, even if the loss is not death.

Therefore, loss is always cumulative, assaulting us with a series of sucker punches whether we are ready or not for the next realization of what that particular loss really means.

Social media has expanded our community. Our connections are no longer limited by proximity. The emotional distance provided by letters or even telephone calls has been replaced by immediate and vivid detail that draw us — in intimate ways — into the lives of others.

Social media allows us to become a part of a larger community, but it comes without some of the important benefits of community, even as it expands our Loss Burden.

I grieve for members of my primarily online community when they lose a dog, get a bad diagnosis, or face some other challenging life event. I read the words of agony and see the photos that make it so real, and their pain and sorrow reaches through my computer screen and grabs my heart.

And yet I cannot sit with them, hug them, cry with them, listen to them. Instead, I am alone with all of my emotions and thoughts — and these must somehow be captured in a comment.

I am not sure humans are hard-wired for this new reality.

So many more losses — and yet even though our social media feeds may be crowded with people — so much less humanity around us to engage in the long-established rituals of support.

No wonder social media is being linked to depression and anxiety — but that is a different post. This one is about how we can handle all those losses.

Loss Burdens are normal human experiences that have perhaps been increased by our expanded definitions of community. Wouldn’t it be strange and concerning if the suffering of others did not impact us?

The following are ideas about high Loss Burdens — I hope these will be both useful but also encourage you to think of others.

First, know that often it is a small thing that clues us in to our Loss Burden — for example, the keys are missing and we are frantic and sobbing as we look. It is not about the keys. Big reactions to what are typically small things tell us that our Loss Burden is too high.

Second, although having a high Loss Burden is normal and happens to all of us, it does mean we need a break.

I actually think of myself as a saturated sponge when my Loss Burden is high, and this helps me to understand that I need to dry things out a bit so there is space again (and so I won’t keep leaking all over the place!). I ride my bike or walk. I tend to stop engaging for a bit. I write. I talk to trusted people.

What it takes to dial back, dry out, create space, or however it works for you to think of it is different for everyone. But none of us can hand out cookies when the cookie jar is empty, and baking new ones takes a bit of time — so hole up in your kitchen and bake away.

Third, I think it helps to not let the experiences of others pull us into our own trauma. This doesn’t mean we do not care! Quite the contrary — I think it is more caring to stay present in the experiences of others and not run off to our own Dark Place, casting shade on someone who is trying hard to see any glimmer of hope.

Fourth, try hard to avoid making things worse by imagining that there is something wrong because you are sobbing hysterically over your dearly departed petunia plant.

Last straw reactions are simply information — do not burden yourself further by imagining you are losing it. You are not. You simply got a message about the need to dial things back and tend to those Little Soldiers (click HERE if that is a new concept to you).

And while we should ignore a lot of what we see in social media, it is not usually a good plan to ignore a message we send ourselves about needing a break. We must take good care of the one thing that allows us to be a resource for others: Ourselves.

Finally, understand the sorrows of others as something you cannot fix or solve. Knowing this can reduce that sense of helplessness we feel, and saves others from our awkward and futile attempts to somehow fix the unfixable.

Instead, know that presence and companionship is a valuable gift when one is in that Dark Place. When you run off to find that hammer in a vain attempt to fix, you have left that person all alone again.

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Love is about presence.

I do not have the right or perfect answers — these words are my way to respond to a specific request. They represent and reflect my willingness to be present in someone else’s Dark Place, knowing full well that words always fall short of the content of our hearts.

Hence, the continual need for Grace — all around.