The Experience of Loss

If we are to have the benefit of conscious experience, and personal motivation, it is impossible to avoid loss. In terms of psychotherapy, loss is defined as any experience we have which we do not want to have. Losses can vary from getting a parking ticket to losing a loved one. Moreover, the same kind of loss can be experienced by different people in different ways with different amplitudes. For some people, losing a promotion feels as bad as if they had lost a person. Because loss is about dealing with what we do not want, it is a uniquely personal experience.

Many losses are built into life: We get older and we lose some of the physical and cognitive capacities we had when we were younger. (I would argue that there are corresponding gains, but that is a different post.) We become attached to people, and we lose them through death or separation. We attempt to accomplish things that we do not succeed at. Part of being alive is experiencing the built in–and added on–losses and gains of circumstance and organic reality.

When we experience a loss, generally we have characteristic ways of managing the feelings that accompany that loss. With each loss, there are really two components (if not more). First, we have the loss itself: perhaps I attempted to walk the half marathon and I got injured and had to stop training. (Just to use a real life example.) First of all, I had the loss of not being able to do what I wanted to do. But secondarily, and perhaps even more importantly, I had the loss that I was not able to regulate the outcome.

Part of developing ourselves as full and integrated people is developing ways of understanding and accepting losses which allow us to grow and fully process and let go of the internal disappointment that is created. Some people withdraw and experience a loss as a defeat. This response limits that person’s opportunity to use the experience to learn, to develop strength in the face of loss, and to create intimacy with significant other people. People who withdraw sometimes want to avoid the feelings of helplessness in the face of a loss.

Some people become enraged when something happens that they do not want to happen. The experience of a lack of control over the situation is unbearably painful, and they direct anger about this outward toward other people, other things, or other ideas. Alternatively, they may direct that anger toward themselves: berating themselves for being stupid, careless, or inept. Many times an angry person is really a hurt person. 

Sitting with an unpleasant feeling can be difficult. If we allow ourselves to feel the sadness of a loss, we may notice many motives to avoid this sadness. We want to believe we can control every aspect of our lives, and when we cannot, we are forced to know about the uncertainty of everyday life. We sit with that feeling, but we cannot seem to move past it.

Ultimately, for human beings, experience is integrated when it is processed with another person. For example, suppose you are going to a meeting and you get a flat tire on the way. Most of the time, when you get to the meeting, you want to tell someone the story of the flat tire. It is the reflection of understanding from the other person that allows you to integrate the experience and let go of the loss. Depending on your own personal experience of that particular loss, you might have to tell several people about it before it is digested and dissolved.

As we progress through our lives, it takes tremendous courage to keep taking risks–becoming attached to other people, attempting to accomplish greater challenges, and altering our understanding of ideas we hold dear. As we come to understand the reality of our own limitations and our vulnerability to losses, it can seem easier to avoid risk and stick with the sure thing, even when that might mean becoming more emotionally isolated. Ultimately, however, it comes back to the old adage: nothing ventured, nothing gained. If we are to experience the fullness and richness of our lives, and the deep growth and pleasure of intimate relationships, we end up accepting the possibilities of loss.

The whole notion of loss and processing and integrating loss is a central factor in good psychotherapy. The way that a person processes and integrates experiences of loss can be developed and improved through practical action. Within a psychotherapy relationship, one can find a space to mutualize an experience of loss and know what it means to “process,” “mourn the loss,” and “let go” of it. Therapeutic terms, to be sure, but evocative of real experience nonetheless.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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