Monday, April 23, 2018

Voices of Experience: The Lessons We Can Learn from Loss

By Stephanie Harris

The most beautiful people I’ve known are those who have known trials, have known struggles, have known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.  ~  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

The loss of a loved one irrevocably changes us. It’s painful, and it’s difficult. 

But as challenging as loss is to endure, it also teaches us lessons about ourselves and our place in the world—lessons we can use to evolve into stronger versions of ourselves and transfigure the pain of grief into a force for positive change.

Here are three lessons that we can learn from our most painful losses.

Loss Teaches You How Strong You Actually Are 

Once you have lived through something that threatened to take you under, the disappointments and difficulties that once sent you into an emotional whirlwind no longer have the same impact. Surviving the worst lets you know you can survive anything

After my older brother Brendon died very suddenly at the age a 33, I found that encounters with hardship that once would have sent me reeling no longer had the same hold. The end of a long-term relationship I had believed would end in marriage. Jobs that did not work out. Friends who kept their distance when I most needed their support. During the year after Brendon died, I experienced all of this. But none of it brought me to my knees. “I survived losing my big brother,” I thought. “This is not going to kill me.”

To achieve this perspective is to appreciate how resilient you have become. Although this may seem a small consolation for your suffering, it is a profound gift. When you fully understand and embrace your inner strength, your ability to navigate difficulty inevitably expands.

Loss Teaches You About the Power of Compassion 

The words “I understand” can serve as a powerful source of connection. Hearing or speaking them can make you feel less alone with your suffering and more hopeful about the possibilities for positive interactions and experiences the world holds out for you. 

Demonstrating compassion is a gift you give not only to another person, but also to yourself. Acknowledging their suffering and taking steps to alleviate it affords you an opportunity to transform your suffering into a force for good. This can have a positive impact on your view of your present and your future.

Opportunities to demonstrate compassion abound in our daily lives. Even spontaneous, momentary connections with strangers provide these. As I write this, I am reminded of a morning not too long ago, when I had just this kind of encounter in a supermarket check-out line. In front of me stood a man who appeared weary and drained. His trousers and coat were dirty and damaged. As the clerk rang up the items the man had placed on the belt, he counted out his money, and in the end, he did not have enough. “I’ll leave the meat,” the man said, pointing at a package of beef. And almost as soon as he did, I was extending my hand toward the clerk and motioning for him to hand the package to me. “I’ll put that with my things,” I said. I’m not sure who seemed more dumbfounded, the clerk or the man himself. But in the end, the man thanked me for this simple act of generosity, and I was happy I could carry it out.

As brief as it was, this moment of connection was a heartening one for me, and its impact continues to influence my perspective on the power of everyday demonstrations of compassion. As you read this, think about the people you encounter in your neighborhood each day—on the street where you live, in the stores where you shop, and in the restaurants where you eat. Consider taking more careful notice of them and connecting with kindness, even briefly. I always make a point of looking for people’s name tags, for example, so that I can address and thank them by name. Often, they’re surprised. But they’re rarely disappointed. Again, this is a small gesture. It makes a difference, however, and costs me nothing to make.

I encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities, remaining open to the idea that interacting with others with the explicit intention of demonstrating compassion can make a vital difference. To others and to you.

Loss Teaches You About Relationships

Loss forces you to grapple with the reality that people disappear from your life. I learned on a Sunday evening that my brother had been admitted to the hospital with gastrointestinal symptoms of unknown origin, and by Monday morning, he was dead. In less than 12 hours, my entire life was turned upside down. Whether people disappear in an instant or more slowly, they are gone from your forever once they do.

As loss brings the preciousness and precariousness of life to the fore, it can help you become more discerning about your relationships with family members, romantic partners, and friends. Loss can help clarify for you which matter most, and which are the most deserving of your time, energy, and good will. Loss can also make you constantly aware that your time with the people you choose to be close to is limited, and that it is imperative to spend it wisely.

Taking care of relationships requires not leaving kindnesses unoffered. This means taking opportunities to tell someone they are important, thank them for something they have done, or ask them if they are okay. Life gets busy, we all know this. We get caught up in the day-to-day, in the running from one thing to the next. But you can accomplish a great deal by acknowledging the people you care about, even in small ways.

When I know that someone I care about is going through a hard time, I will send them a text, or photos of my yellow Labrador Knox I know they will enjoy, or a short email to let them know I am thinking of them. I put reminders of birthdays and other important events in my calendar, and reach out with small messages. Despite the claims of some social researchers that technology is chipping away at our ability to thoughtfully communicate with each other, the reality is that a kind, unexpected text or Facebook message can make a world of difference to someone who needs it.

Taking care of relationships also requires refraining from saying or doing things in the heat of the moment. This is a good rule for any of us to follow under any circumstances. But one of the gifts of grief is that it makes this directive easier to follow. Once you accept the importance and precariousness of your relationships, it becomes easier to remove yourself from situations in which you may do or say something you may regret. At the same time, an awareness of the possibility that either you or someone you love could be gone in an instant can help make it easier to apologize for having handled situations in a way you regard as less than ideal.

Leveraging These Lessons to Power Positive Change 

Appreciating these and other lessons loss can teach us is one thing. But embracing them in a way that leads to significant personal transformation in another. No one can decide for us that this is worth it. Each of us must decide this for ourselves. We need to decide whether we wish to change our lives or do not, and whether we want to evolve into the strongest versions of ourselves and convert the pain of grief into a force for positive change within us and in the world around us.

None of this is easy. But as I have learned, all of it is worth it. You are worth it, and so is the life you have yet to live. If you doubt this, consider the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who suffered grievous losses of his own. These included the deaths of his mother, Mittie, and wife, Alice, on the same day in April 1884. Alice had given birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter, just two days before. “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty,” Roosevelt said. “I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” 

© 2018 by Stephanie Harris

About the Author: Stephanie Harris is a New Zealand-based writer and coach whose life experiences with significant loss and grief eventually led to her unique approach of combining full body massage with life coaching sessions. In addition to coaching individuals and groups, she is a frequent public speaker and contributor to numerous online outlets. Her book, Death Expands Us: An Honest Account of Grief and How to Rise Above It, was published in 2017. Learn more about Stephanie’s writing and research at Stephanie Harris Coaching: Growth with Grief.

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