From Tragedy to Triumph: Overcoming Grief & Loss
Updated: Jan 21, 2022
© Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D., 2021
All Rights Reserved
We have just entered into a new year, and it’s probably safe to say that the majority of people across the globe are eagerly putting 2020 behind them, as they move forward with nervous anticipation and optimism into the new year. The year 2020 brought disappointment, heartbreak, loss, fear, and despair to so many throughout the world. The losses were many and ranged from restrictions in personal movement and social gatherings, to reduction of income, decline in health, and even death. Many others have experienced a reduction of income as a result of layoffs or pay cuts, while others have job losses due to temporary or permanent closings. As a result of COVID-19, basic needs of safety and security have been challenged. In addition, psychological needs including the need to maintain close relationships with others, experience a sense of autonomy, and belief that we can master our environment, have also been thwarted. According to motivational psychologists, when our basic psychological needs are undermined, not only does our overall motivation decline, but our psychological well being is reduced as well. This has never been more evident in recent history as it is now. Rates of depression and suicide have sky rocketed as people have lost their jobs and freedom of movement, domestic violence increased dramatically, and we are now witnessing major increases in rates of PTSD among healthcare workers and survivors of COVID. So how do we overcome these challenges and turn tragedies into triumphs?
First, it is important to understand that change is inevitable, and that we cannot have a beginning without an end. Even so, these endings can be very difficult to experience. Whether it be the death of a career, relationship, loved one, or life as we once knew it, the adjustments surrounding these events can be extremely challenging. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist who studied near death experiences, was famous for her book on death and dying. Although her worked revolved around the loss of life, many of these same stages are felt when we experience other forms of loss including relationships, employment, and former lifestyle. The five stages that she proposed include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages do not have to come in any order, but rather, can flip-flop around from stage to stage.
All emotions have value, and each motivates different behaviors. Although grief is often thought of as negative emotion, in reality, it can be very positive because it can motivate behaviors that promote growth and well-being. For example, when we are grieving we can use that time to reflect on the positive impact a person had on our lives, and what lessons we can learn through these times we had together. If we are mourning the loss of a job, it can motivate us to create new goals and apply creative problem solving strategies to pursue our true passions and new careers. Grief can also cause us to seek out emotional support from others to expedite emotional healing. Although physical restrictions set in place by quarantines may limit our ability to interact with people in a face-to-face environment, we can use alternative methods such as telephone conversations, FaceTime, Zoom, and other virtual support groups and webinars to satisfy our needs. In addition, there are other things that we can do to regulate our emotions and help us navigate our way through these transitions. Some of these include:
1. Face your emotions— In order to work through the stages of grief and loss we must be able to experience the emotions. Remember that each emotion has value. They motivate reflection, problem solving, goal setting, strategy making, relationship building, and healing.
2. Listen to the pain—What is it saying to you? What are the take-aways? Remember, the goal is not to be freed from suffering but rather, to find freedom in spite of the suffering--to grow and to learn from the painful lessons. If we don’t experience the pain we don’t grow. The old analogy of the hermit crab who grows out of its shell might be appropriate here. If we didn’t experience the pain would we seek out a new shell, or would we hobble around in an old shell that was too small and restricted our movement and potential?
3. Stop trying to control everything—It is important to remember that we cannot control everything so stop trying! Although we want to be able to control our environments to some degree in order to have a sense of predictability, life is predictable only in the respect that it is going to change. Relax and accept this—and allow yourself to be flexible and adaptable to the changes that life throws your way.
4. Focus on the good things— Be grateful for the time you had with someone, the love you shared, the lessons you learned, the skills you acquired, and how you can use these to move forward.
5. Face the fear—Grief and loss often bring in fear so move forward with courage. Sometimes this means moving ahead using baby steps so that the changes don’t seem so threatening. However, it is important to face uncomfortable emotions rather than trying to numb them by self medicating with alcohol, substances, compulsive buying, or sex.
6. Reach out to others— The most powerful tool for overcoming depression is helping others who are facing difficult challenges in life.
7. Strengthen your spiritual life—Take the time to pray and meditate. Studies have repeatedly shown that prayer and meditation not only reduce blood pressure and heart rate, but increase healing and optimism.
8. Get Moving!!—Exercise including daily walking is great for your physical health as well as your mental health. It increases your natural endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine levels (the natural feel good neurotransmitters). Getting outside and enjoying fresh air, sunshine, and physical movement can do wonders for your mindset and body!
9. Sleep!—In order for our bodies and our emotions to heal, we must have proper sleep. Not only do our bodies mend themselves when we sleep, our dreams can be a subconscious way of working through difficult emotions. Although you don’t want to overdo it and allow depression to keep you in bed all day, it is absolutely healthy and necessary for you to get proper sleep every night. Keeping a dream journal by your bedside can help you to monitor your dreams and find hidden meaning and messages that come to you in your sleep.
10. Accept it—We must learn to accept the things we cannot change, and create new strategies to move ahead.
REMEMBER—change is inevitable. Death and loss are all a part of the natural cycle of life. There is a lesson that we can learn in every relationship and experience in life. The important thing is to take the time to reflect on these, appreciate them, and move forward from tragedy to triumph!
Behzadnia, B. & FatahModares, S. (2021). Basic psychological need-satisfying activities during the COVID-19 outbreak. Applied Psychology: Health and Well Being. Doi: 10.1111/aphw.12228
Cantarero, K., van Tilburg, W.A.P., & Smoktunowicz, E. (2020). Affirming basic psychological needs promotes mental well-being during the COVID-19 outbreak. Social Psychological and Personality Sciences, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620942708
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying – What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own families. New York: Scribner.