How do people make it through the horrible losses that occur every day of the year? What is the difference between those who finally accept their great loss and attempt to move forward in life, and those who live in the past? How can one find any meaning at all, when your view of life and reality itself has been completely shattered?
In my own family, I have a daughter who died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, a brother from prostate cancer, and a younger sister from anorexia nervosa. How did we deal with the pain, and the question of why? Like millions before us, we essentially relied on beliefs and attitudes toward life–and some new ones that emerged from the struggle to understand and find meaning. From this flows all coping strategies to ease the pain.
In the past twenty-five years, I have also been with many grieving people, as a counselor and friend, and have watched them as they struggled with adjusting to life without their loved ones. Many were coping with unexpected deaths of every sort, including suicide.
How did beliefs and attitudes transfer into actually coping with pain and change? What do all of the possible coping responses known boil down to? Simply this: What you choose to think (believe) determines how you behave in the face of loss. So the most trustworthy coping response you can develop is: the ability to choose thoughts that help you physically and emotionally. The key words are: choosing thoughts.
Attitude is behind all achievement, including getting through our great losses. This does not mean the tumultuous feelings of emptiness, helplessness, hopelessness, deep sorrow, abandonment or fear magically disappear, if you choose to take control. But it will guarantee that all of the unnecessary suffering will be eliminated through your journey to healing.
You have probably heard it a million times, but it holds true with all problem solving–attitude is everything; it affects every cell in your body and your disposition at any given time (this is something to carefully dwell on). The difficulty with the attitude cliché is that it is repeated so often, and it is so unscientific, we dismiss it as irrelevant. Then we forget it–a most damaging blow.
Nevertheless, thoughts determine feelings and actions. I have seen it happen often with the bereaved: When the mourner thinks differently about his/her loss and what has to be done, the course of mourning moves toward healing. But it is no easy job.
What thoughts seem to help? Here are four examples: (1) Loss and change is inevitable and universal (I am not being punished). (2) Life is unfair at times. (3) Healing depends on me. (4) A Zen proverb: “Leap and the net will appear.” Of course, there are many others. The point is: we add to our pain or help ourselves, one thought at a time.
What thoughts often need to be dumped? Here are two biggies. First, switch your thinking from “Why did this happen?” to “What can I do?” And second, “I will never be happy again” to “I will learn to live with this loss.” Then become aware of your damaging thoughts and commit to changing them. Start with the single thought that brings the most pain. It will lift you to a higher level of consciousness.
The earlier in life that we learn that thoughts are directly linked to physical feelings, and ultimately, how we deal with anything life has to offer, all the better will we be equipped to deal with inevitable change. Again, there is no immunity from pain. Everyone has to face it.
Knowing that you control pain and can think solutions and directions to move in, is the most powerful response you can muster. The key is realizing you can heal only through your efforts–by first changing thoughts.
Now here’s the kicker. Social scientists tell us we can learn to be more optimistic (the renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl called it “tragic optimism”) by training ourselves in a repetitive fashion to deal with negativity, suffering, and massive changes.
Find the right affirmations (thoughts) that fit us and keep running them through our minds. Couple this with acting as we wish to be. Actions change attitudes. Allow grief to do its number on you; let it transform you. This is all hard work, but you can do it. And, there is good reason to do it, since the losses and changes keep coming and coming as time goes on.
Force yourself to try changing the way you think about your loss. Let change transform you. Stick with it. Hang around with others who have strong outlooks. Shun toxic thinkers, especially when mourning.
I’m sure you are thinking all of the above is much too simple to be useful. It sounds it. But it takes great commitment to choose thoughts for your emotional and physical stability–and the courage to get back up after you have a bad day. In the long run, the results will surprise you. You will achieve a more healthy adjustment to loss and manage pain, because everything begins and ends with what you choose to think.