Coping with loss
Dr Nelia Drenth, a palliative care social worker, expounds why coping with loss is about getting through the pain and not over it.
Loss almost always indicates suffering of some kind. The suffering presents itself in emotions, such as sadness, searching, yearning, anger, depression, and despair.
It affects how we behave towards ourselves and towards others and it often leads to spiritual insecurity when we fail to understand the reason behind the loss. To top it all, our bodies react physically to this loss in the form of headaches, painful muscles, and fatigue.
As difficult as it is to believe, this is normal after you have lost someone close to you, or if you have lost a new friend that you have met through your cancer treatment who unfortunately died.
If it’s normal, why does it hurt so much?
Why am I not able to concentrate? Why do I want to be alone? Why can’t I get over this? Why am I unable to cope? What does it really mean to ‘cope’ with loss? We have a perception that we ‘cope’ with adverse events when we can hide our feelings. We think that it’s weak when our emotions are triggered by memories. What is grief other than living with memories?
Cope and loss
The two words cope and loss are loaded words. Loss refers to a state of being deprived of the physical presence of a person with whom you had a special relationship.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the synonyms for cope are: deal with, handle, manage, address, face up to, confront, tackle, take care of, get to grips with, struggle with, put up with, endure, stand up to, accept, and come to terms with. I think there is one more: adapt to.
When we suffer a loss, every second, minute, hour, day, week, month, and year that follow, we adapt to a changed world. We relearn new ways of doing things. We take on new roles and meet new people. When we grieve, we are confronted with things we can change and things we can’t.
To cope is understood as to go on with life while loss means suffering. How can we use these two words together?
Get through grief, not over it
In coping with loss, we should consider the mystery of grief. You need the psychological, emotional, spiritual, social, and physical manifestations of grief to get through grief and not ‘over’ grief.
Grief is like driving your car on a dirt road while experiencing a heavy thunderstorm. The wipers are going at the fastest speed. You know that you can’t stop in the middle of the road.
You can’t pull off the road for fear that someone may not see your car and bump into you. You can’t drive faster. You can only move forward one metre at a time. You cling to the steering wheel, desperately watching the road because you know…every storm has an end.
When we grieve, our goal is to feel better and to relearn the world, knowing that the person will never be back in your life. We cope with grief because we begin with the end in mind. The wise words of Seneca (On tranquillity of mind): “Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view”, remind us that grief is a process of adapting to a new world. Having an end in mind is no guarantee that you will reach it but not having an end in mind is a guarantee you won’t.
The following questions may help you to find purpose in life again:
- What have I lost?
- What do I have left?
- What can I still do?
I leave you with these words, “Perhaps you don’t want to survive in your present anguish, but as the hours and the days go by, our minds and bodies adapt to whatever is the cause of our grief, and slowly we do realize that we are surviving. We shall never forget, but we shall cope.” (Lesley Walmsley, 1998)
MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Nelia Drenth
Dr Nelia Drenth is a palliative care social worker in private practice in Pretoria, Gauteng. She presents workshops on psychosocial palliative care and bereavement counselling and has a passion for social work in healthcare.
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