Some will immediately relate to these labels, and some maybe not so much. Yet most people I work with exhibit at least some of these traits, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. For the perfectionists, it may come as an almost badge of honor. A commitment they’ve made to themselves to do everything the best they can, without fail, in every single category of their life. The people pleasers may not be as satisfied with that title. But they also understand it as a necessary skill to function in their lives, and as a way to get along with the people around them.
But what happens when life falls apart? Expectations for ourselves often remain the same, but how can they when EVERY SINGLE THING in life has changed? Do these old habits and old roles still work?
“How are you?”. How many times a day are you asked that? And how many times do you think the person asking wants (or is ready to hear) the REAL answer? This is the challenge for a griever, and one of the many things that comes up daily when surviving grief. Being out in the world can be a very difficult place to be, and unfortunately it may seem that no matter who is asking, we give the same answer, “I’m fine”. But why? Is it a matter of trust, fatigue, or is it something else…?
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?