Losses can be catastrophic, such as the death of a partner, parent, child or close friend, or they can be minimal, such as losing a favorite houseplant or finding the first dent in your new car. Obviously, we usually accept minor losses quite well, but major losses can rule our lives for years with feelings of helplessness, confusion and overwhelming sadness. If our losses are not handled adaptively, they can drain us of energy and interfere with our ability to live fully in the present. If we are not able to deal with our losses and then let them go, we can spend our lives under the spell of old issues and past relationships, living in the past and failing to connect with the experiences of the present.
There are many reasons why we may find it difficult to deal with losses. In the first place, contemporary society does not prepare us with adequate rituals and support to help us handle loss. We focus on gaining, acquisition and the promise of the future – and there is little social support for grieving loss and letting go. Indeed, we often avoid those who suffer loss just at the time they need the most support. On a more personal level, we may have difficulty in coping with loss because we never gained the tools for accepting loss. If we have problems with self-esteem, unresolved anger, jealousy, depression, excessive dependency, or poor interpersonal boundaries, we may find it difficult to shoulder loss. When we experience a series of losses without resolving them as they come along, it may be difficult to handle yet another one.
We face numerous losses throughout the course of our lives. Some of our losses are built into the normal developmental milestones that are an expected part of the life process. Humans feel impelled to move on, to explore, to grow. But each time we move on to a new phase of life, we must lose something of the old.
Here are some of the typical lifetime losses that we experience:
Separation-individuation – The infant must inevitably break the early bond formed with a parent. Young children, to be healthy, must see themselves as separate beings with their own sense of identity. The separation-individuation phase is the child’s first introduction to loss. If it is facilitated by a supportive parent, the child may be able to handle future losses more adaptively.
Sibling rivalry – Little babies have a special place in the life of a family. They usually get lots of attention. Older children may feel abandoned when their place in the family has been replaced by a younger sibling, and they may show aggression toward the infant or signs of withdrawal and depression.
Adolescence – As we grow into teenagers, we lose the old family bonds we have always known. We may begin to give more attention to our friends than to our families. Adolescence is a time of tremendous growth with the acquisition of new social skills and life responsibilities, but it is at this time that we must necessarily say goodbye to the play, the pleasures and the nurturance of childhood.
Friends – Friends leave – especially in our mobile society. They move, or marry, or sometimes they just drift away from us. The loss of a close friend, one who has seen us through life’s ups and downs, can be devastating. We may feel that a lost friendship will never be replaced, but our challenge is to appreciate what we had in our old friendship, to retain our memories, and to carry our skills into other friendships in the future.
Marriage – Those who marry normally shift their attention and allegiance from the family they grew up in, as well as their old single friends, to the creation of a new family. Modifying the old ties to family and friends can create a severe crisis, but there is a world of exciting new possibilities to replace this loss.
Letting go of children – When parents watch their children grow into adulthood, they lose a part of their old sense of identity and purpose. To cling to the old parental roles past their time is to invite conflict, yet many endure this conflict rather than simply grieve their loss and then move into new life experiences.
Losing our parents – When our parents die, we must adjust to the stark truth that we are next in line. This can raise issues about our purpose in life and what we have accomplished. Saying goodbye to the ones who have known us the longest can dredge up very deep questions, both pleasant and unpleasant, but we can learn life lessons from this crisis and use this knowledge to build more meaningful and richer lives for ourselves.
Middle age – The mid-life crisis is a time of giving up those things we no longer need in life and consolidating and building on those things we value and want to make a part of the rest of our lives. The loss of youth and physical vigor can present a tremendous struggle for some people, but middle age can also be a time of sharing wisdom and pursuing pleasures one never had the time for before.
Growing old – The losses of old age can bring on depression. Our bodies are no longer what they once were, we retire from jobs that have been a crucial part of our lives, and we experience the deaths of family and friends. Those who have learned to deal well with loss, however, can gain from their wisdom and fully enjoy each day. For some, old age is the best time of life.
Facing death – The death of those we love can be the harshest loss of all. And ultimately, we must face our own death. Grieving death is a very personal experience and one of the most painful to endure. It takes time to get through it. Bereavement can be a journey into the depths of our lives that can ultimately reveal our strength of character.
Next week we'll post some methods of dealing with loss in its various forms.
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