4 Ways to Emerge Stronger After a LossNone By Homaira Kabir
I lost my grandmother a few years ago. Dadima had been a central part of my life, and losing her felt colossal. But soon enough, life was back to normal, even though a certain emptiness remained.
Some losses take longer to heal—especially ones that are sudden, unexpected, or unusual, because they feel like trauma to the body. We can ruminate endlessly about them, desperately trying to make sense of the events.
For some of us, this can lead to excessive self-pity and a downward spiral of anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where the trauma stays alive in the memory and becomes associated with everyday events.
However, many people are resilient enough to eventually bounce back and return to life as usual. And research shows that a small percentage even experience what is known as post-traumatic growth (PTG), a positive change in who they are as a result of a highly challenging situation.
This is because growth and distress can coexist in our response to a major loss. As we go through the pain, the anger, and the confusion, our prior assumptions are shattered, and we need to construct new ones to make sense of what has happened.
When we give this process the time it needs, without going down the rabbit hole of despair, we experience a changed set of priorities, new paths for our life, spiritual development, deeper relationships, or a greater appreciation of our own internal resources.
If you've suffered a loss in your life, here are a few things that will help you through the distress, so that instead of the resignation that can often come with settling for what is, you can emerge with renewed awareness of who you are and your purpose in life.
Hope is about stepping into the future, an ability that is unique to us humans. At this time of loss, when the present feels so heavy, take yourself to a place that feels comforting by asking yourself: “What am I hopeful for?” Where do you want to be in a year, or a few years from now, given the circumstances? Give yourself a scenario that feels achievable so you can find the energy to work toward it in small ways.
But don't practice gratitude in a prescriptive way. Don’t force yourself to be grateful for having what the poor and starving don’t. This form of rational gratitude does have its place, but not right now. Your emotional brain needs emotional gratitude, which is best achieved by thinking of how much worse the situation could've been. What are the little things that are going your way, and that you can turn to right now?
When everything seems to spin around you and you feel like you're losing your ground, take control in small ways. It could be in any area of your life, but it'll help bring back a sense of stability. Perhaps you decide on a morning meditation practice, or a 10-minute walk in the backyard. Perhaps you decide to cook dinner for a child who needs you, or make tea for an elderly person who is also suffering.
It’s natural to want to ruminate about your loss, but there's a line you need to draw to keep yourself from sliding down the well-being spectrum. Barbara Fredrickson's research on positivity shows that when we're experiencing negative emotions, we need to balance them with ample positive ones to help us cope and open up to a broader perspective. And while anything too positive may feel impossible right now, try to build in small and frequent moments of connection, relaxation, and enjoyment.
If you're with someone who has suffered a recent loss, be willing to talk about their pain even though it feels vulnerable. Brené Brown, who has written extensively about vulnerability, has found that although this takes courage, it's precisely what the other person needs to feel less alone, more understood, and better able to deal with his or her struggles. The only caveat is to not try to make them feel better by forcing a silver lining on events. Trust that your full presence will help them find their own answers.
You can also support them by helping in subtle ways without being asked—like keeping their fridge stocked, organizing pickups and drop-offs for their children, or providing them with peace and quiet every once in a while simply because their tired mind needs it. Involving them in minor decisions is also a good way of helping a grieving friend or relative return to life, because it reminds them that their presence matters, even though life seems to be carrying on without them.
When we can pass through the dark tunnel of loss with the right resources, both internal and external, we emerge having found meaning in our suffering. And that, perhaps, is the greatest need of the human soul.
Homaira Kabir is a positive psychology coach and a researcher on women's self-esteem. You can find lots of free resources on building authentic self-worth on her website (www.homairakabir.com).
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