Loss is part of the human experience, though most of us wish it wasn’t.
Over a lifetime we face many losses. The losses can range from minor inconveniences to significant traumas that can impact the rest of one’s life. Loss and trauma can certainly intersect. Something is traumatic when we feel a loss of control, a sense of isolation and our ability to cope is significantly diminished; we feel an impact on our physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual health.
Some examples of losses people face are:
- Diagnosis of an illness
- Failing something
- Death of a loved one
- Dealing with a chronic disease
- Loss of a scholarship or funding for school
- Losing a good friendship
- Natural disaster
- Loss of job or career
- Death or loss of a pet
- Loss of child custody
- A break-up
- Loss of financial security
This list is far from exhaustive and is just a sampling of potential losses. For the purpose of this section of the module, we want to make sure we are clear that loss is more than death.
Loss is complex. We are not just dealing with what we have lost, but also how that loss continually impacts us in the future.
Abstract and Future Loss
Another example is the loss of a dream or a future abstract loss. The person may not have lost something concrete in the present moment, however their future is forever impacted by a potential loss.
Let’s look at the movie Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2006) for an example of this kind of abstract loss. It’s a quirky film about a dysfunctional family on a road trip. They are traveling from New Mexico to California in a Volkswagen (VW) bus. In a pivotal scene, 7-year-old Olive is playing eye doctor with her older brother. She has some photocopied papers and she’s checking his vision. Her brother, 15-year-old Dwayne, has taken a vow of silence until he is able to leave his dysfunctional home to pursue his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot. In this scene we see that through Olive’s primitive test, Dwayne is most likely colour blind. His uncle looks at him and says, “Dwayne, I think you might be colour blind. You can’t fly jets if you’re colour blind.” In this simple moment while driving in a dilapidated VW bus, we see this teenager’s dream crumble before our eyes.
His dad pulls over and Dwayne gets out of the bus. We see him running down a hill wailing. His mother attempts to comfort him, but seems to have little empathy, because she is more worried about getting to their destination on time. Little Olive shuffles down the hill in her bright red cowboy boots. She says nothing. She just puts her arm around Dwayne and hugs him. It seems that even though she is a small child she understands what he has just lost. After a tender moment together they both get up and walk back to the bus.
Consider other pop culture (movies, books, stories). In a small group talk about some other stories that reflect this kind of abstract loss. How did other characters support the character, or did they cause more harm? What can we take away from these stories that we can apply to our own work?
Many of us have experienced abstract losses like Dwayne’s. Perhaps we have needed to change our career plans due to an illness or diagnosis. Maybe we have lost a career all together because of a loss. Maybe the loss of a relationship has altered the direction of our whole life.
Loss can also be multilayered. One loss can be the catalyst for more loss. It’s important when we support people that we realize that loss can be complex and can go very deep.
“True comfort in grief is in acknowledging the pain, not in trying to make it go away. Companionship, not correction, is the way forward.”
(It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand)
Being heard and seen is the most supportive thing we can give to someone experiencing loss.
Acknowledgement means that we choose to see and hear someone’s pain. We know that nothing we say or do can fix their pain. As much as we would love to wave a magic wand and take their pain away, we can’t.
The best thing we can give to someone is connection and acknowledgement.
What are some ways you can be present and support someone who is experiencing grief and loss?
Comparing One Loss to Another
It is so easy to compare one loss to another. Competition and judgement comes with being human, and it impacts our perception of loss and grief. We all have different perceptions and judgements based on our own experiences. There’s no one right way to see something because everything is filtered through our experience. As supporters, it is important that we never compare losses. Rather, we remember to support each person exactly where they are at.
With a mindful approach we can begin to unpack our judgements and biases, and learn to question them, and suspend them.
Judgements around loss and trauma can be very common. We must remember that trauma isn’t the event itself. Trauma is the physiological and emotional response after a traumatic situation.
This means that people can have very similar experiences and have different trauma responses. One person might feel very traumatized by a situation, and for someone else it might not make them feel powerless at all. They might simply get back up and walk away with very little emotional impact.
Because of this, it is very important that we never judge someone’s loss or trauma response against another’s. The sentiment, “why are they still struggling…? They should be better by now” is never helpful. It invalidates and isolates people.