Back when I began my training as a psychotherapist, one of the significant instructions was to pay attention to how a person responds to loss. As a layperson, I thought of loss just like in Hallmark cards: “Sorry for your loss.” So to me, loss meant you had lost a person. It took me a while to understand that in the world of the mind, loss is any unwanted experience. At a more subtle level, every loss is really a double loss. First is the loss itself: you get a flat tire, you lose your keys, you get in a fight with a friend. At the same time, there is the second loss: You were unable to regulate your environment and yourself in such a way that you could prevent the loss.
This second type of loss is actually the important one. It is an attempt by the larger universe to force you to understand you cannot control everything. Our sense of being in charge of our lives–that our choices make a difference–is what gives us a sense of purpose. If it doesn’t matter what we choose, we feel helpless, and it seems as if we are insignificant. We are, in fact, created as people by the choices we make. So when we have an experience that reminds us that our capacity to choose is not unlimited–in other words, when we have a loss–we have to find a way to hang onto our sense of purpose and significance while recognizing and tolerating that our control is limited.
Different people respond to this experience in different ways. Some people deny that there is a loss. “Oh yeah, I always lose my keys. No big deal.” Or, “it didn’t matter because my friend and I talked it through and it’s fine now.” There are many ways of avoiding feeling the impact of a loss, big or small. Other people react in a larger-than-life fashion, “I’m always losing things. I’m so disorganized. I don’t know how I even hold down a job.” This amplification of emotion in a way avoids the reality of it. We become so involved in the amplification, we get distracted from the reality of the loss.
Other people intellectualize, and by analyzing the loss, what happened, how they experienced it, and so on, again they can distance themselves enough to tolerate the experience. Sometimes they do this alone and sometimes they talk it through. This is a tricky one because one of the best ways to digest a loss and the experience of it is to talk it through with someone. If that talking is about sharing an experience and being understood, it is a genuine mourning, or processing, action. If the talking is about moving into a cognitive level of dealing with the loss, it is just another way to avoid unwanted feelings.
Ultimately, an authentically lived life is one where a person engages with the realities both inside and outside of him or herself. Staying connected to one’s own experience means keeping one’s heart open knowing that there will be pain as well as pleasure as we go along. Resolutely moving away from bitterness as well as dissociation in the face of unwanted feelings allows us to fully experience and savor our lives. While this commitment to oneself is a personal choice, the courage to stick with it is often strengthened in the context of the relationships that surround us. Being heard and understood by the people who care about us is a deep human need precisely because it nurtures our capacity to be fully ourselves.