Thursday, November 8, 2012

drop the dagger and lather the blood on your hands, Romeo

(from the loss album; in the catacombs at RMK Gothic)

How do we cope with loss? This is something that's been on my mind a great deal, of late. A love lost, a child lost, a breakup, even the loss of a job can break us open, leave us raw and wounded in its wake. We can move through all the anticipated stages--anger, grief, denial, resignation...depression. We can stagger forward, or stand still, but we're still mired in the sensation of loss.

(from the loss album; in the catacombs at RMK Gothic)

We can push it aside and plunge hip-deep into activities to busy our hearts and minds. We may sleep more, or have trouble sleeping. We may frantically form new friendships to distract us, or we may pull back entirely, away from loves and friends, because we feel that unless they've been there, unless they've stood where we are, they won't understand.

(from the loss album; in the catacombs at RMK Gothic)

Isolation is one response to grief. The problem inherent in isolation is that by pulling away to heal, we make ourselves alone; because we've pulled away to this extent, we are not surrounded by, or supported by, anyone who might want to help.

(from the loss album; in the catacombs at RMK Gothic)

Some facts on loss...and the myths to which they're connected.

MYTH: The pain will go away faster if I don't deal with it. If I ignore it, it will just go away.
FACT: This is wrong. If we ignore pain we're in, if we try to keep it from surfacing, we only make it hurt more in the long run. That's true of any emotional pain, not just grief and mourning. While it's generally the last thing we want to do, if we're ever to get better, and feel the loss less keenly, we have to deal with what we feel. Even if what we feel is painful, or if it hurts, or if it makes us angry, or mourn more deeply. At some point, we have to accept the loss, and work on healing.

MYTH: I need to be strong right now. I can't be seen as weak. Crying is weakness. Grieving is weakness.
FACT: What we feel is what we feel; it's only strong or weak in how we perceive the feelings. Our feelings just are. Trying to hide what we feel to be strong for others may be something we think of as brave, or courageous, or necessary. But it's none of these things. It's just another block to dealing with our feelings.

MYTH: There are five stages to grief, right? After I've felt all five, I'll feel better.
FACT: You might. But because grief is unpredictable, you might not. You might move through two of the stages, then go back to the beginning again. Or flash forward to the end stage before one of the other stages trips you up. And that's assuming you feel five distinct, separate stages to begin with, and not everyone does.

Mourning isn't predictable. It's messy, chaotic, and uncoordinated, which is just part of the process. There's no time limit, and there's no set number of stages that need to be gone through, like checking off items on a list. Mourning takes time.

MYTH: It's been a year. I should be better by now.
FACT: This one isn't true, either. Grief takes as long as it takes. Some people recover within six months. Queen Victoria stayed in mourning the rest of her life. People vary. It's okay if we're still hurting after a year...or longer.

More understandable stages (slightly modified from this):
  • Numbness: The phase immediately following a loss. We are hurting deeply, but it's so total, so overwhelming, we feel numb. Numbness is our biggest defense mechanism; it's what allows us to keep moving, keep breathing, and stay alive after loss.
  • Pining: This is the "if only" phase. This is when we want nothing more than to have what we lost back, whether it's a person, a place, or a thing. We are living in that space of "if we just could--". There is longing, there is yearning, and this may be where the original 'five stages' came from. This is a highly friable, highly emotional place to be.
  • Despair: Despair makes us pull away. We are feeling as much as we did during the numb phase, but without that bandaging coat of detachment. To foster that sense of numb detachment once more, we frequently do our best to pull back, to withdraw from contact with friends and family. We may no longer find enjoyable activities or even job duties we once embraced. We may find ourselves sinking into lethargy, into apathy.
  • Recovery: Recovery is what comes after the above phases. We begin to reorganize around the perceived loss. We find where our new set-point for "normal" lies, and learn how to integrate that to our former "normal"--whatever that was. Lethargy decreases, energy increases, and we find ourselves thinking more positively about our loss, whatever it was. (Or at least stop obsessing on why we suffered that loss in the first place.)
(from the loss album; in the catacombs at RMK Gothic)

So how can we reach out, if we feel we can't interact, if we feel alone even in a crowd?

At least in the US, there's the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There's also the National Alliance on Mental Illness, at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). If neither can help with our specific issues, they can at least help direct our call to someone else. Sometimes talking to strangers is easier than talking to our friends.

For finding a grief counselor, beyond a single call, try the GoodTherapy.org site. Therapy is far from the only solution, however--in fact, many people are better off grieving on their own. For these individuals, grief is simply another process--someone dies, someone leaves, we miss them, but we move on.

Remember, there is no "right" way to deal with loss, but our biggest keys to understanding how we react to loss, to grief, is to watch ourselves going through it. Sometimes we hurt, and that's just where we are. Sometimes we need external help, and that help can be in the form of friends, loved ones, or even therapists. Therapy isn't the only answer, it's just one answer. But don't stand alone if you don't have to. Talk to someone. If it's something you can't deal with, try and reach out.

Taking that first step is scary; believe me, I know that. But it's the first step in walking forward. Good things, bad things, both are along the way out, but you're walking towards the rest of your life. And movement is nearly always better than just standing still.

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