It’s impossible to live well without learning about coping with loss. The ultimate purpose of such learning is healing, but, initially, that can seem impossible.
This is an important topic for the simple reason that we all endure losses. The fact that we are incessantly aging means the loss of youth. The fact of being animals means at least occasional loss of health. Being human includes the realization that someday we must lose our lives.
Since ownership is never permanent, it’s easy to lose possessions. We can temporarily be exasperated by once again losing the keys to the car or a house can be lost to fire, flood, or earthquake. We can lose a little money or all our money.
Losing anything we’ve become attached to can hurt. Once I had a Harley-Davidson motorcycle stolen right from my driveway! Even though I was a full grown man, I was upset and felt violated.
Usually the most devastating losses are relationships. A beloved parent or child dies. A spouse dumps you. A close friend is unexpectedly killed in an accident.
This explains why it is impossible to live well without learning about coping with loss. Important losses occur with deadening regularity. Events occur that cannot be undone, and such events can be result in emotional trauma.
What’s the best way of coping with loss?
As much as the mind sometimes would like to unwind reality, we are impotent to change the past. What has happened is over. This is why there’s no disagreement about the best way of coping with loss: acceptance, nonresistance, complete surrendering to the reality of what has happened.
Sometimes, though, this is impossible. It cannot be done. The loss is too catastrophic. We simply can’t handle acceptance.
For those of us who are not sages, acceptance works immediately only for minor losses.
Distracted because I may be late for the meeting, I leave my umbrella on the train. Yes, if there is one, I can check with the lost and found department later, but the odds of recovering my umbrella are practically nil. I’m briefly upset with myself for being careless, but I resolve to learn from this rather inexpensive lesson about not rushing so much through the business day. I don’t like being so careless; I reproach myself for my lack of attention. However, I can easily purchase another umbrella.
It’s a different reaction when my beloved wife of 15 years runs off to Florida with a business colleague to divorce me and marry him! If I didn’t see that coming, it may take months or years before I am able to accept what happened. The root of the problem is that I resist it because I don’t want reality to be as it is.
What’s the best way of coping with loss when the loss is major?
Here Eckhart Tolle offers an extremely helpful suggestion. When coping with loss by fully accepting reality is impossible, fully accept your feelings (emotions) about that loss.
This is a second best tactic; it’s not as good as fully accepting reality. Also, because there’s a difference between accepting a situation and accepting your feelings about that situation, it will leave you with more work to do.
However, accepting your feelings about the loss is much, much wiser than not accepting them. Better to accept part of the reality of a situation than none of it. Why? If, for example in the case of the runaway wife, I failed to accept my feelings, I might take drastic action that could actually get someone killed. Unconscious people frequently ruin their lives as well as the lives of others. (If you doubt that at all, just watch the local news any evening in any city.)
How? If the second best way of coping with loss is accepting your feelings about that loss, how is it possible to accept those feelings?
After all, those feelings are not only negative but they are powerful. There’s no point in thinking or talking to yourself (e.g., “I shouldn’t be angry”) about them; that simply doesn’t work, as you have probably discovered for yourself.
This is why it is necessary to have an effective spiritual practice such as zazen meditation. This is why I have often thought (as well as said and written) that I don’t understand how it is possible to live well without having an effective spiritual practice.
If you are not sure what an effective spiritual practice is, use the navbar on the left side of this page to scroll to the “spiritual well-being” section. You’ll find there lots of relevant posts. It’s nothing to do with your beliefs; it’s everything to do with doing something every day to undermine incessant “thoughting.”
If you do not have an effective spiritual practice, get one immediately. Otherwise, you will remain incapable of effectively coping with loss. Distractions and intoxicating drugs don’t work well.
If you don’t have an effective spiritual practice and have recently suffered a major loss, please immediately get some help. It could be a close friend or a counselor. It could be a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist. Do not try to tough it out alone. You are not equipped (yet) to succeed. Use this present loss as an occasion to equip yourself for dealing with all future losses.
Effectively coping with loss is an ongoing task. Ours is a world of incessant flux and instability. It’s natural to generate attachments and it’s natural for the objects of those attachments to cease to exist. The wise teach themselves how to let them go quickly and move on without getting stuck.
If you have had trouble coping with loss (and who hasn’t?) and happen still to be stuck, that’s reality. At least accept all your emotions about it. Surrender to them. Acknowledge them. Since they are part of your life, it makes no sense to try to ignore them or to keep them hidden.
In other words, love them to death. Embrace them. When you focus on them with all your attention, you will rob them of their power. In fact, if you sufficiently focus on them long enough, you’ll discover that they’ll drift away like a cloud on a windy day – never to return.
Once your emotions are dissolved, you’ll be free to focus on surrendering completely to the reality of what you have lost. Once you are able to do that, your life will be able to flow again.
We simply don’t have the power to prevent losses. Stuff happens. Life’s like that.
Nor do we have direct control over our emotions. When you suffer a major loss, you are going to experience powerful, negative emotions. Life’s like that, too.
Pretending that reality isn’t what it is or that our emotions aren’t what they are is foolish and counter-productive.
What works when coping with loss is bringing acceptance to it. That’s the way to be kind to yourself. Opening to loss is difficult, but it’s the only effective, lasting way of coping with loss.
The way to open to life is to free yourself from incessant thoughts (conceptualizations, judgments). The way to do that is by mastering some effective spiritual practice or other.
If you don’t have one and want to be as kind, compassionate and loving to yourself and those around you as possible, please begin one without delay.
If we all did that, we’d quickly replace hatred with love and turn hell on earth into heaven on earth.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended post: Surrendering.
Recommended resource: Eckhart Tolle’s “Living the Liberated Life and Dealing with the Pain-Body” (3 CD set, disc 3).