In a previous article I talked about the loss of my wife and some of the things I’m going through. Since that time I’ve gotten a little better at dealing with my loss. In this article I’ll share some of the techniques I’ve been using. I think they’re applicable in dealing with any loss, whether it’s a loved one, a friend, or even a job. Here are the eight techniques:
1. Let go of the guilt
You probably feel guilty about things you did or said, or things you didn’t do or didn’t say. Unfortunately, it’s too late for that now: what’s done is done and there’s no going back. So forgive yourself and forgive those in your past. There’s nothing to be gained by carrying that guilt, and there’s no one imposing it on you but yourself. Let go of the guilt and move on. Focus on what will be — not what was or wasn’t.
2. Put regret behind you
Regret is a lot like guilt, but maybe not as intense or destructive. Nevertheless there’s no room for it now. Regret is sometimes described as “woulda, coulda, shoulda thinking” because you’re constantly thinking about what would have happened if you had done something differently, what could have happened if you had taken a different path, or what should have happened if only you had acted in a different way. But it’s focusing on the past, and on things that are unchangeable. Maybe in an alternate universe things did happen that way. But you’re living in the now, in our current universe. Push the regret into a tiny corner of your mind and try not to think about it. It should gradually take a smaller and smaller role in your life.
3. Accept things as they are — you can’t go back and change them
You are where you are. How you got there is not important. What you do now is paramount. If you like where you are, then learn to live with it. If you don’t like where you are, then decide where you want to go instead, and then take steps to get there. Yes, it’s disorienting to be where you are, and maybe it’s not where you had hoped you would be. But you’re not stuck where you are — it’s just a starting point. And you should think of it that way: as a starting point — not as an ending point. The old cliché applies, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” It’s not the end — it’s just a different beginning. Start over — there’s still time.
4. Integrate the good elements of the absent person (or job) into your life
You may worry that you’ll somehow forget the person (or job) that you lost. Don’t worry — it will never happen. Your interaction with that person has fundamentally altered you in ways you can’t imagine. You’re not the same person that you would have been if the two of you had never met. And you’re a better person for having known the person you lost. So don’t worry about forgetting. You may go increasing amounts of time between thoughts of your departed, but underneath it all — inside of you — you’ll always remember because of the ways you changed. So consciously integrate some of what you’ve learned into your life if you like, but unconsciously you’ve already done so.
5. Accept the memory flooding and flashbacks, but learn how to control them. Be able to say, “not now.”
I still get sudden flashbacks to things my wife and I shared. They’re triggered by something I see, a song I hear, a sudden thought, or even a gentle breeze. But I’m getting better at controlling my reaction to a flashback. If I have a moment to savor the thought, then I’ll do so. But if I’m in the middle of doing something else, then I’ve learned to say, “not now.” I’ll note the thought, think “maybe I’ll think about this later” and then go on with my previous activity. This is an acquired skill, but you’ll get better at it with practice.
6. Focus on the good memories rather than the painful ones
Think back to when you were a child and you lost a baby tooth. Or maybe you’ve lost a tooth as an adult. Either way, you probably had the experience of having your tongue continually find its way into the gap in your teeth. It just seems like you had no control over it; no matter how you tried, you couldn’t keep your tongue out of that gap.
I think it’s the same way with memories of the person we’ve lost. No matter how much I try to remember the good things, my brain keeps taking my thoughts back to some of the bad things, like the actual time of Sharon’s death. It’s just like my tongue — I have no control over it. But you eventually get used to the idea of a gap in your teeth, and your tongue gradually stops finding the gap. And I think it works the same way with the bad memories: eventually you get better and better at focusing on the good memories, and then you don’t think so much about the bad ones.
7. Turn grief into pride
When the memories do come flooding back, you’ll find that it makes you sad and depressed. But it helps if you sometimes let the memories come but train yourself to consciously pursue a different outcome. I’ve found that when I get a memory that makes me sad, it helps if I try to invert my thinking about the memory. So, for example, instead of having negative thoughts about Sharon dealing with her disability, I think how proud I am that she was able to deal with it so well, and how proud I am to have known and loved a person who was so loving and patient. Turn grief into pride, and you can begin to put a positive spin on a negative thought.
8. Remember the nice memories without adding “and we’ll never do that again”
There’s a tendency to take a positive memory and turn it into something sad and depressing because you think to yourself, “and we’ll never do that again.” But be fair: there are probably a lot of things that you did when you were younger that you’ll never do again — not because someone died but because they were things that you’ve outgrown, things that you no longer have the physical stamina to do, or things that were better off just being done once. Let it be enough that you were able to enjoy them when you did. Life changes, we change, our bodies change. Enjoy the memories for what they were: an experience you’ll never forget. When you find yourself trying to add the words “and we’ll never do that again” to a memory, cut yourself off. Don’t let your mind go in that direction.
I’m still disentangling, and I’m still trying to get focused on what I want to do now. But I’ve found some of my lost focus, and I’ve found it by doing some of the things I’ve listed here. Getting better is an evolving process, and like any process it has techniques that work and others that don’t. If I find other techniques that help me, I’ll let you know.