Loss: Goodbye Is The Saddest Word Of All
Growing older brings challenges, to be sure, and our respondents faced their share of challenges to their health, their independence, and their sense of well-being. Perhaps the most difficult of these challenges, however, was dealing with loss.
We’ve all experienced loss in one form or another—a job, a group of friends after college, a child who moved away or got married. As we get older, we may mourn the loss of a dream—becoming a world-class pianist, solving world hunger, finding a cure for cancer. Our respondents clearly felt, however, that one loss hurts more than the others: losing someone we love, whether a close friend, family member, or a spouse or partner.
Sometimes, the loss comes after an extended illness.
Sometimes, the loss comes as a shock. Coping with loss is perhaps the most difficult ordeal we can experience, and for that reason, some writers try to spin loss as a potentially positive experience. They claim that dealing with loss is an art, something that helps us grow, learn about who we are, and become stronger and better people. In her book Necessary Losses, Judith Viorst proposes that the way we react to loss and our experience with it’s a huge indicator of the people we will become: “It is only through our losses that we become fully developed human beings.”
Most of us, though, would rather be less strong, less fully developed than we could be, and have the ones we love still with us. We may try to remember the last words we said to him or her and hope they were kind. We wonder: Where did I last see her? Was there more I should have done for him? I hope she knows I loved her. Did I tell him enough?
Some of our respondents were painfully blunt when discussing this topic.
Experience The Pain
Loss. The pain we feel upon the death of a loved one is devastating. Emotions can run a gamut of shock, guilt, fear, despair, sadness, and occasionally relief. The emotions may take us by surprise and last for a day, a week, or much longer, especially when a death is sudden or tragic. According to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, grief after the death of a loved one encompasses 3 stages: denial, anger, and acceptance.
Not everyone experiences these stages in the same way or the same order, or at all. Typically, during the denial stage, we are in disbelief that the loss has occurred. We may feel anger as we question why the loss happened and who is to blame. During the bargaining stage, we may pray for ways to negotiate the loss away or for a compromise to diminish its intensity.
During the depression stage, we fully express our sadness, before gaining acceptance, when we get on with our lives as we make peace. How we experience loss is unique to each of us and may not follow a predictable pattern. For example, just when we think we’ve accepted and adapted to the loss, we may find ourselves in a puddle of tears, grieving as forcefully as when we first received the news of the loved one’s death.
Prepare For The Inevitable
Although we might not want to think or talk about death and dying, it’s mentally and emotionally healthy to do so. As with anything else that’s difficult, coping strategies will help prepare us for the losses that we know, but don’t want to believe, will occur. One of our respondents, a sixty-nine-year-old woman, summed up some of the tactics we use to avoid thinking about death and loss and why we so often avoid the topic. She also reminds us why we need to face our feelings.
In his book Gratitude, physician and best-selling author Oliver Sacks says that whenever he reaches his final moments of life, he will feel nothing but gratitude, because he will look back on his life with nothing but joy. We understand that sentiment. We may even hope we feel that same way as we are dying, but what about those who are left behind? How will they be affected by loss of us? A seventy-two-year-old woman we interviewed described the terrible sadness and sense of guilt she felt as she tried to process that one of her best friends was likely dying.
It was clear from our discussions and interviews that the loss of friends becomes more common as we grow older and has changed the lives of our respondents both practically and emotionally. Some realized their tennis group had started to dwindle; it was getting more difficult to form a foursome for bridge; a bowling team was getting so small that it was difficult to be in a league any longer; the Monday morning hiking group was changing and disappearing.
In many ways, we are who we are because of our close relationships and people we have shared our lives with. As a seventy-year-old respondent told us, fear of losing our friends extends not only to those whose health is declining but also to those who are fit and youthful. Losing close friends has been difficult for our respondents. Some were even reluctant to try to make new ones, but while it may be more difficult for older adults to make friends, our survey respondents who adapted best to their losses explained that making new friends is important.
Research also confirms that those who live the longest, healthiest, most enjoyable lives have relationships that they value. They have friends both old and new. Even though it may seem hard, finding outlets to make new friends can reap lots of benefits. You may not head to the bar around the corner, as you did when you were younger, but there are other ways to make an effort to meet new people.
Some people never recover from the death of a loved one, whereas others are able to get on with their lives while still acknowledging the love and friendship they felt for the person they lost. We hope these suggestions help you prepare and cope better.
1.Having good role models helps. Who do you know who has coped with loss in a way you consider healthy? What made them a good model?
2.For some, growing old means their lives are bigger, not smaller. They are learning more than ever, and losses contribute to their understanding of purpose and the importance of enjoying every moment. They recognize that their life has changed, and they embrace the change and do not fight it. Do you know people like this? In what ways would you like to be more like them?
3.Making new friends throughout your life is important. What activities might you get more involved in that would connect you to new people?
4.Your new friends don’t have to look, act, or talk like your old friends. Make friends with younger people or with people whose interests or backgrounds are different from yours. How might you go about doing this?
5.Be a good role model for friends and others. You may help make loss less painful for them.
Dealing With The Most Painful Losses
While psychologists debate many aspects of loss, on one thing they agree. The loss of a spouse/partner or child is the most difficult to bear. Our respondents wholeheartedly agreed.Some of our respondents noted feelings of profound fear of being left alone, in debilitating health, and unable to care for themselves; and a fearful inability to understand how life could go on without their spouse, partner, parent, or child.
One sixty-five-year-old man told us about this fear in his mother.Eventually, however, if we are to live a healthy life, the mourning period needs to end, even after the loss of a child, although we may still be filled with sadness. A seventy-year-old mother shared her experience.
As they aged, most of our respondents noted that they experienced the loss of some physical capabilities, which slowed them down and inhibited some activities. As the wise older person realizes, however, what really determines whether the final years of our lives are enjoyable are not our physical strengths or weaknesses but our emotional and mental ones. We may spend a lot of time walking, running, stretching, or exercising in the gym, all to help keep ourselves physically fit, but how many of us spend time exercising ourselves mentally and taking care of ourselves emotionally? Actively maintaining our emotional well-being, managing the mental scripts that affect how we feel, is critical to how well we cope when faced with the loss of a loved person and how well we adapt to aging overall.
Many of our respondents recognized they needed help with this aspect of dealing with loss. One of our favorite resources for insights into increasing our emotional boundaries is The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. Singer discusses how we can keep our emotions strong and not let them control us. He suggests that we think of our thoughts as our inner roommate who can have a great deal of control over us. He encourages us to learn to put boundaries around that roommate, to let her or him know we will not put up with thoughts that make us feel bad or that keep us in a state of confusion, fear, sadness, or worse yet, despair. He explains the danger of getting lost in our thoughts and emotions and missing out on the fullness of life.
We don’t want fear to make a barrier to the outside world. Singer counsels us to remember that we have control over our emotions. We just need to exercise that control. Singer suggests experiencing the physical manifestations of our emotions: tension in our shoulders, stomach, chest, or heart. According to Singer, if we can identify the location of this emotional pain is manifested in our bodies, we can let it pass through our bodies and release the control this pain is having over us. After a loss, fear can overtake us, but don’t allow yourself to succumb to it. We can’t let the fear of something bad happening to us—a stroke, a fall, or another personal loss—keep us from enjoying life to the fullest.
You’ve probably heard that you should try to enjoy every day. As we get older, we start to realize that we should try to enjoy every moment. While it’s important to prepare for loss and how best to deal with it, thinking of life in terms of one loss after another will make life not only unsatisfying but also potentially painful. This perspective drains the energy out of the precious time remaining.
Another option is more positive and, we hope, more fulfilling: seeking out new experiences, relationships, and challenges. Here are some recommendations for our respondents and readers. No one will be spared loss and sadness, but we can prepare ourselves to cope. Remember:
1.Just as you can choose with whom to spend time, you can also choose your inner roommate (your thoughts and mental script).
2.Learn to manage and exercise your mental script in positive ways. Just as you physically train your body, train your mental script to push negative thoughts related to loss out of your mind.
3.As Singer suggests, put up a stop sign—literally visualize the sign—whenever your inner roommate wants to take your mental script to a depressing place.
4.Remember that staying emotionally strong is an active sport, not a passive one. Just as you can be physically fit, you become emotionally fit when you actively practice keeping your mental script positive. When negative thoughts of loss creep in, remember and visualize fun, happy times you spent with your loved one and replace negative thoughts with those positive experiences.
5.Focus on the happy years you spent with your loved ones, not the ones you will spend without them.
Perhaps the most important lesson we hope you learned from this chapter is that although the death of a loved person can make you want to withdraw and hide under the covers, you do have options to cope with the loss. Staying connected to friends and loved ones is key to getting past your grief. While dealing with grief is challenging, seek out those who care for you. They may feel awkward, not knowing what to say or do, or how to help. Help them help you by taking the initiative to stay connected.
After a loss, if you continue to feel overwhelmed and depressed after what you feel is a reasonable time, consider joining a support group. Don’t be afraid to speak with a grief therapist or counselor about your loss. Consider keeping a journal, even if you’ve never done it, to work through your feelings, especially if you’ve been holding your feelings in and are reluctant to share them with others. Seek out friends and family during holidays and other special occasions that you shared with your loved one. Consider adopting new traditions that are both fun and a way to remember your friend or family member.
Moving forward after a loss doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten about your loved one. There will be memories, lots of them. You can still cherish your memories. The goal, as we see it, is to learn to appreciate the time, whether decades, a few years, or a few months, that you spent with this special person. As writer, speaker, and Benedictine nun Joan Chittister advised, we should be filled with gratitude that we were able to share in the person’s life in a meaningful way for as long as was possible. Know you have control over that mental script and actively work to keep it positive!
Getting real about getting older
Linda K. Stroh, PhD
Karen K. Brees, PhD
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