Self-esteem. Insecurity. Doubt. Just the mention of these words can make us think of a very specific time in our life. Perhaps the teenage years or young adulthood – when how you feel about yourself and your place in the world can be so uncertain. But as time goes on and you settle into your adult life, self-esteem may not seem so important, and it’s not something you may have paid much attention to. In other words, if it’s not great, it’s at least good enough.
It’s also not something you hear spoken about in grief. And yet significant loss can completely drain and deplete any self-esteem you may have, making it feel impossible to move forward in a healthy or purposeful way.
So why does confidence take such a hit after loss, and how do we begin to improve this invisible symptom of grief?
Worry. It can be such a futile and empty emotion…like thoughts leaking out of our head without purpose or direction. It’s a bad habit that exhausts our time and energy, leading to heavy days and sleepless nights.
So why do we keep doing it, and what does worry accomplish? Why is it worse in grief, and what can we do to finally break the cycle and stop the bad habit once and for all?
Lazy. Such a strange word in the way that it can be used so differently throughout our lives. A lazy coworker or teenager can be a terrible source of frustration but a lazy Sunday can be one of our greatest joys.
In grief, I find it works a little differently. So often I speak with people who tell me they feel lazy or identify as this new lazy person that they don’t recognize – so new from the go go go that they were used to before.
In this respect these aren’t people enjoying the leisure of a well deserved break, but instead a frustrating new side of themselves that they don’t understand and can’t see a way out of.
So first and foremost, let’s start by changing the language. Because I don’t think lazy in any of the ways we’re used to saying it works for someone who has had a loss. The circumstances are too different, too extreme, and a change of our language and perspective may just be what we need to make the change.
I was working with a Grief Coaching client the other day, and she said that while she was doing okay in general, and feeling that her life was mostly in order after the loss of her husband over 2 years ago, there was one feeling she just couldn’t shake: how lonely she continued to feel each day.
Loneliness is an epidemic in our country and is more pervasive and perhaps even more impactful than any physical virus. Why? Because for most grievers, feeling lonely can often bring with it feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Meaning each day that a person finds themselves in a lonely state they will feel even more powerless to change it.
To some degree, it makes sense. If we’re lonely after the loss of a spouse and we either haven’t been able or don’t intend to find another partner to share space with, we’ll continue to feel lonely forever. If we’ve lost a beloved parent, especially one we cared for or even lived with, we’ll never be able to feel anything but the loneliness of the void they left.
Let’s take a minute to break down some of the language and understand that being alone and feeling lonely are not the same thing. They absolutely can go together, and for someone who has lost someone they shared living space with, feeling lonely is almost 100% guaranteed to be experienced at some point while grieving.
But are we forever sentenced to be a victim of our circumstances? Or can we be alone, without feeling lonely?
By now, most people are familiar with what PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is. For the longest time, I only heard it used to reference the trauma that a soldier faces in battle…the unimaginable loss and horrors of war, and all of the things that can’t be unseen.
But as I worked with more and more grievers I found their stories were filled with trauma from the loss of someone they loved. Some were the obvious traumas of sudden and devastating loss, but others followed long-term illness after witnessing the slow, sad, and painful decline of a loved one.
So while PTSD is rightfully designated to those who have been to war, so too should those who have lost a loved one be recognized as survivors of trauma. After all, what could be more traumatic than losing the people we love more than anything in the world?
When I first began working with the newly bereaved, I was surprised to find how many people who came to a support group would say that, overall, they had a mostly supportive network of family and friends at home.
How could this be? I wondered. Why would anyone seek additional help, or choose to confide in a group of strangers if the support they needed was already in place?
Dealing with loss is something that happens to all of us at one point or another, yet no two people do it the same. Different backgrounds, timelines, beliefs…even the coping skills and support system a griever has (or doesn’t have) can determine how they will handle dealing with loss.
But in the days, weeks and months after a loved one has died, a griever may find themselves bombarded with questions, ideas and suggestions, as friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and acquaintances try to offer support or advice.
So let me start by saying that I believe that, in general, people are well-intentioned. Whether that’s actually true or not, I find one of the most peaceful ways to get along in this world is to assume that no one is actually setting out to hurt me or upset me. Can people be misguided in their attempts at help? Absolutely. But are they looking to make things worse or cause more harm? I’d like to think, usually not.
“Should” is a word that a griever may hear more than any other (followed very closely by the word “shouldn’t”).
Why? The people in the lives of a griever often feel helpless. Most of us are no match for these devastating losses and many struggle to find a way to be helpful. Telling a griever what helped them (or their mom, or their neighbor) feel better, and what they therefore “should” do to feel better themselves, may be the only tool the people in the lives of the griever feel they have to offer.
Here’s some examples of the “should”s you may have heard or will hear:
A strange thing happened during my first three Grief Coaching calls this week. One after another, I found myself returning to the same advice. These were three different grievers with three vastly different losses, backgrounds, and circumstances, and yet one big commonality among them: an inability to let go of a guilt or anger they were holding in relation to their loss. Were they to be stuck in this place forever, or was there something that could take some of this pain and hurt away? My answer each time: forgiveness.
Although the majority of my coaching is done over the phone I can still tell when something I’ve said causes a griever to shift uncomfortably in their seat, and this word, this topic, seemed to do just that.
Why? Because forgiveness is too big an ideal. Either too spiritual a notion or something reserved only for the mortal saints, most of the regular every day people I speak with just don’t think they are able capable of forgiveness when something is so awful.