In my personal life and in my work as a psychotherapist I’ve often reflected upon the process of moving forward after a devastating loss or humiliating failure. How is it a well-known musician who has lost his health, his marriage, and his band, survives a stem cell transplant and transforms the passion he once put into his music into work as a popular professor? What happened to cause an accomplished artist to retreat to a remote area and focus only on what had been lost after the untimely death of a family member? Below are some reflections on what contributes to resilience and what pulls us back into the vortex of our own fear and inertia.
The Initial Stage of Loss
When what we have longed for, worked for, or believed ourselves to be is falling down around us, it’s natural to feel a deep sense of defeat and isolation. Some of us will be drawn inward and struggle with of self-doubt, shame, and resentment. In touch with a profound sense of powerlessness, we ask: How could this be happening to me? Could I have done anything earlier to prevent things from turning out the way they did? Others will turn their hurt and helplessness outward, blaming the people or person we believe guilty of the action or inaction causing our circumstances. Angry ruminations or paralyzing feelings of guilt and shame can consume hours of time and energy which might have otherwise been turned towards creating a solution, and yet the passage through shame, confusion, and anger is often unavoidable. The challenge is not to get stuck looking back.
Questions about who we are, how we’ve handled certain situations, and the role of others in our situation go to the very core of our sense of ourselves. Events such as a traumatic loss challenge our identity and raise questions about what’s ahead. The future which had been visualized with financial security or good health or a special person in our life may have to be changed, postponed, or relinquished altogether. And herein lies the paradox of failure or misfortune, for it often marks an ending as well as a beginning. To go forward, we must stand in the gap between what was and what is will be.
In the beginning it is often necessary to grieve fully for what has been lost and for the smaller losses attached to it. Very real dreams, hopes, and assumptions are no longer possible to hold with certainty or at all. It is only in looking back that we see these feelings of loss and humiliation as both an ending of one chapter in life and the start of a transformative journey to living fully into another. The perceived failure brings us to a crossroads in which we must choose between holding on to the remnants of the past or embracing the challenge of redefining who we are and where we are going.
If we make the journey out of this period by taking the time to think about the changes confronting us and the choices we must make to move successfully through them, we may grow in unexpected and essential ways.
Living in a Authentic Way
When redirecting our lives after a painful setback or loss, moving forward depends on considering what we value in ourselves and our significant relationships as well as reviewing our path in life. If we meet the process with our full attention or mindfulness, there is the possibility of living in a more authentic way. Within this process of recovery lies the opportunity to understand ourselves in a fresh light.
Many who have suffered a job loss in the current economic downturn are no longer able to find a similar job at the same pay scale while others no longer feel the same enthusiasm about returning to similar work. This realization can open the door to thinking about what sort of work would feel meaningful and still afford a workable lifestyle. It can be necessary to enhance or reframe certain job skills to transition into a new area.
Practical questions must be asked and answered in a transition: Do I have the energy to open up a new area of learning in my life? What is the most efficient way to accomplish this goal? What alternatives exist? Does my spiritual life have a bearing on what career path I take? What am I willing to change, forgo, or enhance in my current lifestyle to accommodate the work I seek? Do I need professional guidance in upgrading my resume and interview skills? Who do I know in my personal and professional life who can open doors and give me feedback?
Living with an immune disorder, a chronic health condition, or a disease can be demoralizing. If over time there is a willingness to work with the body and your medical team to find the right balance between activity and essential periods of rest and renewal, the quality of life often improves. It may be necessary to find resources to augment medical treatment. Over time greater peace of mind may come through constructing an appropriate exercise program or developing stress reduction habits through restorative yoga, massage, free or by-donation Centering Prayer groups like the one which is offered at St. Bartholomew’s, or attending a class at a low fee or free meditation centers like Tibet House or The Insight Meditation Center in Manhattan. Sometimes keeping a log of activity, exercise, rest, sleep, eating habits, socialization, and medications provides more insight into identifying and optimizing areas contributing to health.
The Loss or Rupture of an Important Relationship
The initial period of shock and sorrow or anger can be all consuming when facing the loss of a partner or beloved friend or family member. Whether grieving the loss of a beloved person or facing the rupture of a significant relationship, we are confronted by a new interior and exterior landscape where there is an empty place once enlivened by the living presence of the missing loved one, business partner, or mentor. Starting afresh involves both learning to live without that special person as well as creating a new life which both incorporates your shared joys and allows you to keep growing and changing.
This process is hard enough, but if the loss is sudden, premature, or under traumatic circumstances, acceptance and adjustment to the new reality can be difficult. The support of a group, family, and friends can make all the difference, but sometimes these supports aren’t enough. Grieving is a slow process, more so sometimes than our friends or family can accept as they wish us to “move on.” Each of us has our own timing, but if you are feeling persistent feelings of guilt, shame, or hopelessness, sleeping too much or too little, and having trouble with your usual duties, it is time to consider a professional, clinical evaluation for depression or traumatic grief.
If the loss was caused by a betrayal of trust or a tragic accident, additional steps must be taken to address feelings of anger, bitterness, and helplessness. If we have the courage to face our full range of emotions, we can eventually move through our confusion and outrage to take practical steps towards regaining financial stability, reinforcing our social support network, and preparing for the future. There are many resources available to help, including Greenpath Debt Solutions at www.greenpath.com (a financial debt management service), grief support groups like the one offered through St. Bart’s at central[at]stbarts.org , or websites such as www.firstwivesworld.com and meet-up groups www.meetup.com.
No matter what the life changing event may be, eventually if we are to move forward grieving, anger, and confusion must give way to asking questions which are central to any major life transition: What gives me a sense of purpose? What resources–friends, education, business contacts, family support networks, spiritual beliefs, and financial assets can I bring to bear on changing my current circumstances? This may be a good time to reach out to a career mentor, health advocate, support group, or psychotherapist to work through unresolved conflicts, resentments, or sadness that might be holding you back in order to open new perspectives.
Exploring and reinvigorating pursuits which give you sense of meaning may contribute to renewed feelings of value and worth. In facing our helplessness and fears about the void or rupture in our lives, we have the opportunity to reevaluate our path. We are challenged to get to know ourselves in a new way, taking the time to come to terms psychologically, spiritually, and physically with the change in circumstances. What are the core principles that guide your life? Have you let those principles guide you and will they help you going forward?
Life transitions, no matter what the cause, ask us to find ways to tolerate uncertainty and setbacks as new directions and insights are forged. Standing at the crossroads between the old life and a renewed life, we often feel fear and anxiety that we will stay stuck, unable to move ahead or that life seems determined to deal us bad cards. If we have felt victimized by the events which changed our lives, we can stay stuck holding out for an apology or acknowledgment and yet by doing this, we might only prolong our own suffering. There are some practical tools listed below which may help you as you tap into your own capacity for resilience and renewal.
Frequently it helps to start the process of moving forward by purchasing a notebook in which you can jot down thoughts, resources, ideas and insights. Try getting some perspective on your hopes and fears by naming them. Navigating a difficult life change demands that we tell and retell our story to ourselves and others, and with each retelling, some aspect of where we have been and where we are going becomes a little bit clearer.
If you aren’t sure where to start, try making three columns on a fresh journal page. Make a column each for Hopes, Fears, and Difficult Tasks. Try to be factual in the Tasks column, noting simply that which must be done. For example under tasks you might write: 1. Gather Documentation, 2. Meet with Specialist ( financial planner, loan officer, therapist, doctor, legal advisor, etc), 3. Re-do resume. When it comes to hopes and fears, try noting honestly what you are experiencing as you think about doing each of the tasks you have listed.
Tolerating the worry, frustration, and fatigue which come with a major life change can be overwhelming. It can be surprising to actually make a list of friends, family, and professional resources such as 12-step groups to identify the strengths and deficits in your support network. Who is in your life you can speak to openly about your experiences? Would a support group help? If you feel uncomfortable or unready to attend a group or meeting with others, there are a variety of 12 step groups which meet regularly at an arranged time on-line and can be accessed through the link “12 step cafe.” (www.12steps.org) What would hold you back from attending such a group? Include in your notes time to write about what you see as your personal attributes, significant relationships, and work related successes. If you are having trouble with this process, consider meeting on a regular basis with a skilled therapist who can bring objectivity and insight to the process.
Even if you’ve been fortunate to have good health, are you making time to take care of yourself? Are you allowing time for reflection, meditation, or quiet, sleep, and exercise? Sometimes it is important to schedule in time for self-care. Consider going through your datebook for the last four weeks. Is there something that might be cut out or done by someone else to give yourself some free time? Some ideas might be grocery shopping on-line, going off an unproductive committee, or simply turning off your Blackberry or iPhone an hour earlier than you usually do a few times a week.
Those activities and relationships which give you the greatest enjoyment will help you move through this time. If you’re wondering what those things are. Ask yourself: What do I enjoy doing so much I lose track of time? Is it listening to music, painting, dancing, being in nature, going to a museum, sitting by the ocean, or in the park? Is there a way you can make more time to have a such an activity play a greater role in your life?
Are you making enough of an effort to stay in touch with close friends and family members? Even with these supports and resources, the process of change can be inherently lonely if we have to relinquish something or someone at the center of our life and live in the space between what was and what will be.
For better or worse, this is your time, and your future depends in part on coming to terms with your past and living into the choices, opportunities, and relationships that remain. At PSI we staff have members offering psychotherapy, vocational training, marital counseling, bereavement counseling, techniques for managing pain, and substance abuse help. In the greater New York community there are a number of on-going support groups, some of which are free and some low cost.
If I can be of help to you, you may reach me through PSI by calling (212) 378-0260.
I wish you luck, courage, and good surprises on your journey.
Jane Moffett, LCSW-R, Ph.D., SEP, ADTR