how loss and challenge make us stronger and more resilient“The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.” -Japanese Proverb

When we incarnate into this human form, wouldn’t it be so much more convenient if we were provided with a guide book to help us navigate the choppy waters of life, love and loss? We would know what to expect and how to respond to any eventuality. It would tell us in an easy to understand 1-2-3 fashion the way to pick ourselves up when knocked to the ground as relationships end either by choice or chance, as illness ravages us or loved ones, as natural or human made disasters wash away our foundations. At 57, I have looked for such a tome and have yet to find it in any library or book store. As a therapist, it would indeed be a handy tool to have at my disposal as I would be able to turn to page 255 when a client has lost a child to a drunk driver and to page 145 if a fire has rampaged through a home and page 222 when a needle in a vein has taken the life of a spouse.

When such life events occur, we are called on to rise to the occasion without this primer. It takes fortitude, ingenuity, support, courage and for some, hope, faith and a belief in something beyond the boundaries of their own skin to emerge from the abyss.

The definition of loss according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary includes: “failure to keep or continue to have something and the experience of having something taken from your or destroyed.”

Resilience is described as: “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens, as well as the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed or bent.”

Robert Brooks, PhD, is the co-author (along with Sam Goldstein, PhD) of The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life. He observed, “The more we can develop a ‘resilient mindset,’ the more equipped we will be to cope effectively with the joys and setbacks that are a part of all of our lives.”

Measuring Loss

The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory highlights major life challenges and changes.

It incorporates 43 life events and the numerical value for each one. Some relating to loss include:

Death of a spouse: 100 points
Divorce: 73 points
Marital separation: 65 points
Detention in jail: 63 points
Death of a close family member: 63 points
Major personal injury or illness: 53 points
Being fired at work: 47 points
Death of a close friend: 37 points

When compiled, these figures indicate the risk of major health crises, ranging from 150 points or less, foretelling relatively low risk, up to 300 points or more, increasing the odds by 80 percent.

Consider the possible challenges in your own life:

  • Disillusionment when a cherished dream doesn’t come true
  • Declaring bankruptcy
  • Becoming an empty nester
  • Changing jobs after a lay off
  • Injury or chronic illness that is incapacitating
  • Loss of driver’s license following a DUI
  • Incarceration due to legal issues
  • Hospitalization or rehab to treat mental health diagnoses or addiction
  • A motor vehicle accident
  • Feeling betrayed when a relationship partner is unfaithful
  • Watching a loved one destroy himself or herself with an addiction
  • Secrecy in relationship that causes financial disaster

I have been in the bereavement field for many years, following the first-hand experience of widowhood in 1998. As a result of my own journey as caregiver for my husband for six years prior to his death from Hepatitis C, I have been able to distill hard earned lessons into a tonic of treatment for those who are walking that path. Back then, I relied on others who had traversed the treacherous territory with my ‘widow to widow’ questions.

Since that time, I was introduced to the term ‘loss layers’ when reading a book entitled Glad No Matter What: Transforming Loss and Change into Gift and Opportunity. Author and artist SARK (Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy) penned what for me, has become a grief guide. She wrote it in the midst of the death of her mother, followed by the passing of her 17-year-old cat and the ending of a romantic relationship.

She explains that “loss happens in spirals and layers and not in steps like a ladder.” The image that comes to mind is that of the child’s game of putting one hand on top of the other and then moving the bottom had on top of the person’s above it until a tower of hands is built. We can only reach so high before stretching too far and need to step back.

On March 5, 2016, Kennedy experienced yet another devastating loss; that of her beloved partner John Waddell, PhD, with whom she had co-authored a book entitled Succulent Wild Love: Six Powerful Habits for Feeling More Love More Often. The two had met a few years earlier when embarking on a literal and figurative oceanic voyage in search of devoted partnership. He himself had been widowed after a 10 -year marriage when his wife died of cancer; the disease that ultimately claimed his life.

Kennedy has grieved in the public eye and in her characteristic style, has used her experiences to help others heal. That is a powerful description of one who is a resilient thriver.

The Losses We Deny

What happens when we bury our losses in the service of ‘keeping on keeping on’?  Jamie is an example of that dynamic. She too has experienced those loss layers which Kennedy eloquently expressed in her book. Her grandmother died when she four years old, she had a series of physical challenges in a childhood, she lost her partner when in her 40’s, her home in a natural disaster, her parents in a 2 ½ year period, followed closely by several severe health crises and then a job layoff. She has said that she rebounded from each of them and describes herself as one who has the strength and resilience to find her way through even the toughest challenges. People in her life marvel that she has done so.  In spite of maintaining a pro-active and positive attitude, she notices that she experiences fatigue and what she doesn’t acknowledge consciously, she manifests in physical form. An example came to the surface recently when a dear friend was in a hospital ICU for open heart surgery. He was intubated, hooked up to beeping, whirring and swishing machinery as had her husband been nearly 19 years earlier. She had herself convinced that she had gotten past the trauma of the original experience and was fully able to be handle the hours spent in her friend’s room and the waiting room with their family and friends, as well as those family members of others whose bodies lay in their own respective beds.

Happy tears were shed when he emerged successfully from the surgery. Jamie went home that night, exhausted and with respiratory difficulties and a sore throat. Uncharacteristically, she slept for 12 hours. In retrospect, she wonders how much of that came from denying the triggering of painful memories and re-traumatization. She questioned whether as someone who is admittedly an empath who sometimes ‘takes on’ the pain and symptoms of others, she was feeling what her intubated friend might be experiencing. Following that aha moment, she noted that the distressing symptoms abated.

Getting Over Losses or Getting On with Life?

While well- meaning family and friends may tell those who have experienced loss that they need to ‘get over it,’ it is one of the most dismissive statements than one who is grieving can hear. More effective and compassionate is acknowledging the depth of the loss that might be unimaginable. Even if you yourself have been there, each person’s experience is unique to them. “I know how you feel,” is another lovingly intended statement, by equally untrue. Asking, “How can I support you and help you get through this, especially when you might be feeling it is impossible?” Even if the answer is, “I don’t know,” sometimes just a silent and compassionate presence will serve for the time being.

Three of the most powerful pieces of guidance I have heard, “You don’t get over it. You just get on with it.” “There is no statute of limitations on grief.” “Once you have experienced loss, there is no going back to normal. You have changed and have to create a new sense of normal.”

Following a heart attack in 2014, I knew I couldn’t return to normal, since my habitual choices and behaviors almost killed me.

Resilience Resources

The American Psychological Association (A.P.A) offers a series of articles and guides about bouncing back from loss.

Measure your own resilience with three scales.

Compile a resilience tool kit that includes:

  • A list of people who are your go-to folks and can be called on 24/7 for support.
  • A journal into which you can pour your feelings at a moment’s notice.
  • Time in nature which can be restorative.
  • A willingness to express emotions in healthy ways (meaning that you will refrain from harming yourself or anyone else in the process).
  • Focus on gratitude for what remains and not just the loss.
  • Read books that inspire you to take the next steps in your life.
  • Seek therapy if needed.
  • Take time to sleep and recharge yourself.
  • Eat healthfully and not excessively.
  • Avoid self -medicating with substances.
  • If you are a 12 step program, stay in touch with your sponsor.
  • If you have a mentor, speak with him or her.
  • Move your body, whether in the gym or dance floor, on the street or the yoga mat.
  • Meditate
  • Pray (whatever that means to you)
  • Sing
  • Dance
  • Drum
  • Create art
  • Cry
  • Give yourself time and permission to heal at your own pace.