How to Handle Loss

Although the death of a loved one is in many ways the most difficult loss we can face during our lifetime, it is far from the only type of loss we face.

At some point in our lives, most of us will also encounter loss of a job, loss of health, loss of a relationship through divorce or other circumstances, financial loss, and the painful loss of some of our dearest hopes and dreams.

Learning to grieve losses well is crucial for our long-term emotional, spiritual and physical health.

In a previous blog post I discussed William Worden’s “Four Tasks of Mourning.”  Worden applied these tasks specifically to the loss of a loved one, but they apply more broadly to all of the myriad of losses we face in our lives.

So whether the loss you are experiencing is the death of a dream, a change of location, a job loss, a frightening health diagnosis, or a difficult life transition, walk through these four tasks and see how they apply to your situation.

1) Accept Reality

Come to grips with the impact of the loss.  Don’t minimize the impact of the loss on your life.  Even though the loss is not the death of a loved one, it can still have a huge emotional impact.

Losses have a larger impact when they affect our lives in greater ways.  How is your loss affecting:

  • …your identity and your sense of self-worth?
  • …your daily schedule?
  • …your work or school?
  • …your family interactions?
  • …your future outlook and plans?
  • …your friendships and social life?
  • …your finances?
  • …your living situation?
  • …your spiritual life?
  • …your support system?

When a couple divorces, the loss can impact both people’s finances, friendships, family interactions and daily schedules, as well as their sense of self-worth.  Perhaps most difficult of all, it means the death of the hopes and dreams they had of a long, lasting marriage.  Coming to grips with the impact of a divorce takes time, time to accept the reality of the loss and all of its ramifications.

Come to grips with the finality of the loss.  When our loved one dies, we know the loss is final.  But when the loss doesn’t involve death, we might think the loss is reversible.  So we don’t accept the reality of the loss because we think we might be able to get our job back, to save our marriage, or to regain our health.

It can be hard to discern when to keep trying and when to accept the loss.  In those times, I pray the Serenity Prayer and try to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and ask for wisdom to tell the difference.

 2)  Work Through the Pain

It’s okay to cry about being unable to conceive a child, about a knee injury limiting your ability to play basketball again, about a once-trusted friend stabbing you in the back.  Loss involves pain.  When grieving, you must take time to process the painful feelings.

For the first few years after my mom’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, it seemed like every time I spent extended time with her, afterwards I would come home and shed some tears.  Watching her change incrementally, seeing her increasingly unable to do things she used to do, aching for her as she struggled to think and to communicate, and knowing all along that her situation was only going to become worse would stir up a mix of deep sadness and hurt and compassion inside me.

Talking about it with my husband, with my siblings and with supportive friends helped.  Journaling helped.  Praying helped.

Support groups that contain other people who have experienced similar losses can be a great place for validation and encouragement as you do the hard work of processing the pain.  Counseling sessions are also helpful, because they give us a regular time and place to process the emotions that we might not have room for in our day-to-day lives.

Facing the pain and feeling it allows its intensity to subside gradually over time.

 3) Adjust

There’s a new reality now, and the third task is to adjust to that new reality.  This is when the childless couple investigates adoption, when the injured athlete takes up swimming, when the laid-off worker updates his resume.

These tasks are not necessarily sequential; often we adjust to the new environment even while we are still working through the pain of the loss.

Before my mom’s Alzheimer’s, one phone call to my mom would give me an update on how each one of my twelve brothers and sisters were doing.  But as Mom’s Alzheimer’s advanced, she was unable to continue her role as the person who kept the family informed.  Our family has had to learn new ways of staying connected since we can no longer go through Mom.  We siblings started a private facebook group, and that has been a very helpful adjustment.

Part of life is learning how to adapt to change.  Each loss is a chance to learn to adapt well.

 4) Re-Integrate

In this task, we come to terms with the loss even while we move forward with our life.  Some losses are like wounds that heal but leave a permanent scar.  We know we’re okay now and our new life is good, but we can still see the effect the loss had on our life, and we know we’re a different person today because we experienced that loss.

During this task, an infertile couple might start telling their story in an effort to help other couples.  A divorced woman might start dating again, and might find herself noticing the ways she learned and grew from all that she went through.

Re-integration can mean cherishing certain memories.  It can mean finding a wise and compassionate place from which to look back on the loss.  It often means coming to terms with regrets.  It often means learning to forgive – ourselves and others.

Loss is part of life.  If we want to live life well, we must learn to handle loss well.

Question: What do you think? Have you experienced losses in your life? Have you worked on these tasks? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “How to Handle Loss

  1. Thank you for this article. It is so appropriate for my own personal experience right now. I’ve experienced job loss and home loss in the last 3 months. It’s been difficult to be excited about going back to work. I guess the way I’ve adjusted is to shift my focus to getting a job that is more meaningful to me. I suppose the way I’m re-integrating is by going back to school so that my future work will use my skills, talents and interests. I’m ready for change. The Serenity Prayer is extremely helpful too.

    • Those are some serious recent losses. It can be hard to get excited about moving toward something new when a part of you might still be sad and trying to process the pain. I hope that this will be a springboard to something more fulfilling.

      May you have the serenity to accept the things you can’t change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference!