How to Cope with Tragedy and Loss
“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” – Thomas Campbell
People often ask me how I deal with tragedy and loss. I have experienced what many would say is an abundance of both. Yet I remain resilient, optimistic and happy with my life. I’m happy to share my thoughts here on what works for me. Maybe it will help others as well.
A 2018 study found that serious loneliness spans across human lifetime, with particularly acute periods in the late-20s, mid-50s, and late-80s. The study also found that wisdom serves as a protective factor for loneliness.1 Behaviors that define wisdom include empathy, self-reflection, compassion and emotional regulation. These are modifiable, meaning you can do things to increase your wisdom throughout your life, thus providing a buffer against loneliness and, presumably, helping to boost resilience in the face of tragedy and loss.
Find something to occupy your mind.
I discovered an unexpected benefit to keeping my mind occupied when I was dealing with the early stages of loss after the deaths of my parents and brother. The pain was searing, unshakeable, and felt like it would last forever. I did have homework to tend to after my father’s death, which happened when I was just entering my teens. Somehow that seemed to temporarily numb my grief, pain and loss. For my brother and mother, however, the sorrow seemed vaguely familiar, like a painful wound reopened. I was an adult and had children of my own, knew what death meant and that healing would take time. That didn’t make the experience any less painful, just something I knew I would eventually get through. Fortunately, I had work to occupy my mind, especially in the first few weeks after their deaths. When there was a deadline, or I knew others were waiting for my completed work, it spurred me to keep going. Yes, there was still the tinge of sadness lurking on the edges of my thoughts, but I could and did keep going.
Shifting from emotional to contextual aspects of triggered memories helps with the ability to focus on the task at hand. That’s according to 2018 research published in Cerebral Cortex.2
Unburden your pain and lift your spirit with prayer.
My parents taught me to always say my prayers before going to bed. It was so much a part of my upbringing at home, as well as reinforced at Catholic school, that daily prayer has become a lifelong habit. The other bonus with prayer is that it helps me let go of my pain and lifts my spirit at the same time. I have no idea how this happens, other than to revert to my religious instruction that God will take our sorrow to relieve our burden and heal our souls and spirits. In fact, it’s not just at bedtime that I find prayer helpful. I like to pray upon waking and whenever I encounter difficulties or emotional upheaval. I may not immediately get the answers I seek, but I always feel better. I know that powerful divine forces are looking out for me.
Treat yourself with kindness.
I cried myself to sleep on countless nights after my father died. I felt his loss as much physically as emotionally. It was like a part of me had been ripped away and the wound refused to heal. I didn’t want to eat, barely thought about what I wore or noticed others around me. My mother was my salvation, taking care of me with love despite her enormous pain. Later on, when she and my brother died, I already knew that good self-care is one of the ways to help with the healing process, so I forced myself to eat healthy meals on a regular basis, get a good night’s sleep, and do other things to treat myself with kindness. It may sound like simple advice, but it works. When your body (and your mind) is in pain, tending to your physical and emotional needs through good self-care helps you cope with tragedy and loss.
Get out of the house and be with other people.
When the hours just seem to drag by during the day and obsess about how bad you feel or the memories and thoughts of the tragedy and loss you’ve experienced overtake you, the best thing you can do is to leave the house and be with other people. The effort you put into doing this – and it will be a struggle, especially at first – will be worth it. You’ll be distracted a bit from your pain and sorrow, paying attention to who’s around you, what they’re saying (again, you’ll have to force yourself to do this at first), and getting to and from your destination. Even if you go to the mall and wander through the stores, you’re surrounded by people. Sit by a coffeeshop or restaurant or in the lounge area and people watch. Think about where they’re going, what their stories are. Of course, spending time with loved ones, family members and friends is preferable, but if they’re not available, go somewhere, anywhere and be with people.
Have someone you can call whenever the pain and sorrow gets too much.
It isn’t only the death of loved ones, family members and friends that I’ve had to grieve about. I’ve also gone through a fairly extensive list of accidents, surgeries, personal misfortune, medical and emotional crises and more. The worst feeling is being alone at night and afraid to let anyone else know what I’m going through. It’s important to have someone to call whenever emotions become overwhelming. Just talking can help transition through the most intense pain. It doesn’t have to be about the pain, although that sometimes is necessary and those closest can perhaps sense that their willingness to listen is vital to your healing. A 2018 study by Michigan State University of National Guard members formerly deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan found that the quality of family and relationships improves life satisfaction level and decreases suicide risk.3
Spend time outside in nature.
The healing power of nature and spending time outside is well documented. In fact, natural surroundings provide a ready and easily accessible remedy to sooth body, mind and spirit. Gardening, walking in the neighborhood or park, going to the beach — these are healthy ways to allow nature to work its wonders. It doesn’t cost anything, either.
Do something to help another person.
When not mired in sorrow and pain, no doubt you’ve noticed that others are experiencing troubles of their own. You can see in in their faces and it shows in their slowed gait, slouched posture, and shying away from others. Say something kind or welcoming to those around you, for they likely need the expression of human kindness more than you know right now. When you feel your own pain, remember that others are also going through pain or loss and could use a little help from someone like you. Donate something to charity, whether cash or non-cash items. Help a neighbor. Offer to do errands or chores for someone who needs assistance. This helps that person out and also provides a measure of solace for you.
Express your feelings in a journal or diary.
Some things you don’t want to say to anyone else. This could be words you left unsaid to the one who’s now deceased, or revisiting memories of that person that are both joyous and painful but just as intense. You might be angry, ashamed, filled with guilt, regret and any number of powerful emotions. When you write about your feelings, however, you take away a smidgeon of the pain. Whatever you write is personal and only for your viewing. You can burn, shred, delete or otherwise discard it afterwards. The power of releasing your emotions has already occurred. If you do keep your journal, months later you can re-read your earlier entries. You can reflect on what’s changed in the interim, how much you’ve healed.
Tackle chores around the house.
Most of us have things that require our attention around the house. By tackling household chores, we’re not only keeping busy, we’re also doing something useful. Be sure to keep a list and cross off items as you complete them. It may seem small comfort, yet it does produce a sense of accomplishment.
Take up a hobby or activity.
When all the chores are done, you’re finished at work, others may be too busy or occupied to spend time with you, and you want to spend a few hours doing something productive, find a hobby or activity you enjoy.
- Lee, E.E., Depp, C., Palmer, B.W., & Glorioso, D. (2018, December 18). High prevalence and adverse health effects of loneliness in community-dwelling adults across the lifespan: role of wisdom as a protective factor. International Psychogeriatrics. Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-psychogeriatrics/article/high-prevalence-and-adverse-health-effects-of-loneliness-in-communitydwelling-adults-across-the-lifespan-role-of-wisdom-as-a-protective-factor/FCD17944714DF3C110756436DC05BDE9 [↩]
- Iordan, A.D., Dolcos, S., & Dolcos, F. (2018, June 14). Brain activity and network interactions in the impact of internal emotional distraction. In other words, focusing away from emotion is better for better working memory performance than dwelling on recollected memories. Cerebral Cortex. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/cercor/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/cercor/bhy129/5037683?redirectedFrom=fulltext [↩]
- Blow, A.J., Farero, A., Ganoczy, D., Walters, H., Valenstein, M. (2018, December 3). Intimate relationships buffer suicidality in National Guard service members: A longitudinal study. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/sltb.12537 [↩]
Kane, S. (2018). How to Cope with Tragedy and Loss. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-cope-with-tragedy-and-loss/