©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Tall, dark, and handsome, Wiley Pillar could have been the quintessential poster boy for Gone with the Wind. Along with an aura of contained fury, however, restlessness about his person belayed contentment. His story was all too common in corporate business: the opportunity, rocket growth, an exhilarating ride, an altered lifestyle, and then the crash. Not only had he lost his job and profit from the cooperative venture, he had had to watch a former colleague who “had been a bit cleverer than the rest of us,” continued to float along on a thick cushion of financial security.
“I’m here,” Wiley stated, “because I’m stuck somewhere on Jacob’s Ladder.” My face must have mirrored my confusion because he laughed, a deep, resonate, infectious laugh. “My father was a jazz trumpeter,” he explained, “and he loved that old tune. I must have heard it a million times growing up. Makes a great metaphor.”
Wiley had read about loss and recovery and had pinpointed his current position on the Grief Recovery Pyramid. “I’m flopping back and forth between distress and acceptance. Like a dying fish,” he said ruefully. “And I can’t find the next rung.”
Loss is part and parcel of being human. Successful recovery doesn’t happen by wishing. It requires awareness, thoughtful effort, and conscious choices—a process that is as unfamiliar to most as a foreign language. There is good news. Recovery is possible, and you don’t have to go it alone. On the other hand, no one can do it for you. “Recovery from your loss is your job,” I told Wiley. “Here are seven steps to consider.”
1. Create a loss history
Get a very large sheet of paper, draw a horizontal line across the center, and create your own personal loss-line. Write down all the losses you can recall, including even what may seem to be small losses. Assign relevant dates and locations to the best of your memory. Write down all the losses you can recall. Include even the little losses, so called. Avoid denial, mislabeling, and minimizing your loss history. Seeing your loss line can provide you with a larger picture and may trigger recall of losses you have not yet even identified, much less grieved. This is important because unresolved emotional pain can be cumulative. An emotional slush fund from the past can increase the intensity of your reaction to present episodes of loss, causing you to react out of proportion to the situation at hand. Some would like to avoid this part of the process, but I encourage them to bite the bullet and do the work. It is worth its weight in gold and can pay huge dividends.
2. Verbalize your loss
Every human being experiences some type of loss in life, so there is no shame involved, unless you decide to assign some. Talk about your loss. Use real words and avoid euphemisms. This may be more of a challenge for the male brain. The female brain’s challenge can be to refrain from endless rehearsal five years down the line. Say aloud that you are engaged in the process of grief recovery. This helps make it real to your brain. Learning how to matter-of-factly state what happened to you can help to get the information out in front of you, which can make it easier to deal with. It can also help you avoid some of the acting-out behaviors that adults tend to exhibit when they don’t know how to else express their emotional pain. Behaviors such as getting drunk, crashing the car, kicking the cat, having an affair, engaging in unprotected sexual activity, sloughing off at work, using drugs, zoning out in front of the television … you name it.
3. Get off the blame merry-go-round
Stop blaming anyone, yourself as well as others. Avoid “what if,” “if only,” “how could they,” and “why me,” or their equivalents. Most people did the best they could at the time with the tools they had. Even if the individuals were evil, it is impossible to go back and alter what happened. Think of blame as the quintessential “red herring.” Blaming takes energy and can derail your recovery process. Dealing with what is can:
- Allow your brain to focus on the reality of now and a vision for the future
- Help you be more aware of the trauma that others may be experiencing
- Provide an opportunity to pass along some of the lessons you have learned that might help others view things from a different perspective
4. Take complete responsibility for your recovery process
Remember, no one can do it for you. It involves your loss. Other brains will likely perceive your loss differently from the way your brain perceives it because your brains are different. This includes taking responsibility for allowing yourself to experience all your emotions. They are physiological signals that are designed to get your attention, give you valuable information, and provide energy to take action. You need the information they can provide. Take responsibility for the feelings you create and maintain. Remember that you can change the way you feel when you change the way you think. Take responsibility for any and all actions you take and for all the behaviors you exhibit.
5. Access a support system and accept help
No one is an island. Human beings are relational and spiritual creatures and can provide vital support to each other. Develop relationships with a few key people who can listen to you talk, provide helpful feedback, engage in selected activities with you, or just “be” with you as needed. Avoid a tendency to isolate from others. Allow others to give you the gift of their empathy and caring, and accept their gift, but connect in a balanced manner. Include interaction with pets if they exist; pets can form key elements of your support system. Be very clear with yourself and others that while they may be supportive and affirming, they cannot work the process for you. Hone your spirituality in ways that work for your brain. This may involve meditation, nature, music, the arts, reading, or any of a variety of other meaningful endeavors.
6. Respect the nature of your loss and consciously choose to celebrate
Celebrations can alter your brain’s chemical stew in a positive and hopeful manner. Happiness and thanksgiving can co-exist in the midst of tragedy and loss. Laughter increases the level of several brain chemicals that can help you feel better. Celebrate:
- the resilience of the human spirit
- what you are learning
- the recovery process
- what you still have
- a positive consequence or action that was taken
If a death was involved, know that you have the ability to carry a picture of your loved one in your mind. You may want to do something special to help keep the memory of your loved one alive or to memorialize the loss in a beneficial way (e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Drivers).
7. Look for the open door
Recognize that you always get something when you have to give something up. Nothing is ever wasted in the universe. Look for the gift and find that something. When one door closes in life, avoid spending time and energy pounding on it. Instead, look for other options. Be alert to unexpected opportunities and take constructive action to walk through the door that isopen and embrace the opportunity.Something very wonderful may happen in this process if you and your brain and your heart are open to it. Above all, honor your own work in the face of loss, whatever that loss may be—it does involve work!
“That’s all?” Wiley asked when we had discussed the seven strategies.
“There is the matter of forgiveness,” I replied, recalling his comments about thecleverer colleague. I had alluded to the concept when we had talked about giving up blame.
“Are you going to go all metaphysical on me now,” he growled, “just when I was starting to think you know what you’re talking about?” I couldn’t help burst out laughing. “I’ll tell you up front,” he added, his face twisting in a wry smile, “I’m not big on warming a pew every week.”
I explained that forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. It needn’t involve religion or even a deity unless they are already part of one’s belief system. Forgiveness does provide several key benefits, however. It allows the body to turn down the production of cortisol and other harmful substances that can actually destroy brain cells. And while it doesn’t change what happened or make you like what happened, it is a way of releasing destructive feelings that can sap health and diminish happiness.
“Okay,” Wiley replied, still growling. “What does your brand of forgiveness entail?”
My brand is pretty simple. It involves six steps:
- Clearly state the actual wrong done to you
- Define the debt that is owed you
- Give up your right to collect the debt, or transfer it to a Higher Power for collection depending on your belief system
- Verbalize that the debt has been paid in full
- Internalize that you absorb the cost for the sake of your own health and healing
- Live at joy and contentment
My belief is that you forgive or you risk deteriorating your brain and body. Not an attractive picture! Affirmations can be used to instruct your subconscious mind to let go of past pain; to forgive, move forward, and embrace a more positive future.
Wiley knew what had to be done to get to the next rung. And he was willing to do it. As he walked down the hall toward the elevator, I could hear whistling. Jacob’s Ladder. Wiley was climbing.