What do you do when your work becomes your personal life? Perhaps you spend your time helping others with substance abuse, and a family member starts abusing; or you work with grief counseling, and suddenly, you’re faced with the death of a parent, a spouse, or a child. It’s the place that Sherry Walling, a licensed mental health professional, found herself in. In Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss, she shares the stories about losing her father and her brother.
If you want to make sure that the person you’re talking to is oriented to the world – or connected with reality – you can ask them four key questions looking for practical rather than existential answers:
- Do you know who you are?
- Do you know where you are?
- Do you know when you are?
- Do you know why you are here?
If they can’t answer these questions, then there are big issues. When you feel your grip on reality slipping – or at least you’re concerned that it is slipping – you can reconnect to a set of basic truths and ground yourself in the world by knowing these orienting questions. The existential answers to these questions can be orienting as well.
In dealing with loss and the grieving process, one of the issues is that a loss can challenge three of your four existential orientation answers. If you are a father and lose a son, are you still a father? Often, we wrap our identities in with other people. This is mostly good but can be overdone. If our identity is wrapped into a person we lose, don’t we lose a part of ourselves? Are you in the middle of your life, or is this the end for you as well? If you’re not here as a part of this other person’s life, then why are you here?
The Club No One Wants to Be a Part of
When you lose someone close to you, you become a member of the club that no one wants to be a part of – but everyone eventually will. The family of grief is a painful group that no one wants but everyone must one day have. It’s common in loss to hear people accepting the reality of the loss of their loved one and simultaneously hating it. They long for a way to not have this reality and, at the same time, understand that it’s unchangeable.
Goodness, Safety, and Predictability
It was years ago at the Indianapolis Zoo. My wife left the wagon, which we had brought for my son to ride in, outside an exhibit. When she returned, the wagon was gone. We ultimately recovered the wagon when I spotted some people with children struggling to get it in their car. I had a custom jacket in the wagon that they hadn’t removed, so it was easy to identify. To this day, I don’t know if it was an honest mistake, or it was malicious.
However, to my son, it was the first time that he realized that the world may not be good. Until that time, he had been sheltered from negative realities. Luckily, it was a relatively small disruption to his sense of goodness.
We also attempt to instill in our children a sense of safety. We know that the impacts of stress aren’t good, and that fear makes us behave in unpredictable ways. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.) In general, our egos protect us from the reality that we can’t protect ourselves from everything. (See Change or Die.) We like the illusion of control, because it makes us feel safe even when we know that control is an illusion. (See Compelled to Control for more.)
Prediction is one of the primary functions of consciousness. (See Quiet Leadership for more on Jeff Hawkins’ theory.) Consciousness, and higher-order brain function, is very expensive from a calorie perspective. It must have an evolutionary benefit to exist, and prediction is proposed to be that benefit. We know that we’re not always right – but being right even some of the time is evolutionarily useful. (See The Signal and the Noise, Superforecasting, and Noise for more on our errors and ways to combat them.)
The loss of someone threatens all three of these. How can a good world have allowed our loss? How can we be safe if we’ve lost someone we love? Who could have predicted this?
Landmines of the Psyche
After a loss, you never really know what will set you off and when it will come. One moment, you’re floating through your day, and the next, you’re consumed by feelings of loss and sadness. Years after the death of my brother in a tragic airplane accident, my wife got me a gift certificate to get up flying again. (See Rusty Shane Bogue for more about the accident.) I went from okay to very much not okay in a moment. I was grateful for the gift, but it caused the memory and feelings of the loss to become unstoppable. Sure, I recovered after a few minutes, but it was an instant return to the moments and days after his death.
This is far from the only time that I’ve been humming along and suddenly get derailed. It’s a common experience with those who have experienced grief. It comes back at us in a moment without warning.
The actions preceding the death are never certain. When you’re told by an addict that they’re using, and you thank them for trusting you with the information, are you doing the right thing – or not? As you’re considering the visitation time with a terminally ill family member, do you spend enough time with them – or too much? The problem is that we perceive these as critically important times, and we have no way of knowing if what we’ve done is right or not.
We could quite easily become consumed by these thoughts and worries. “What if” becomes the question that haunts the mind – until we’re able to find ways to accept our imperfection and realize that we did the best we could.
A natural response to a death is to try to figure out the cause and the blame. Was the cancer caused by the workplace, the pack-a-day cigarette habit, or service in a foreign country? Did the heart attack come because of high cholesterol or a genetic predisposition? These and a million other questions race through the minds of those who are grieving as they attempt to make sense of the situation so that they can regain their ability to predict and find a way to reclaim the idea that the world is good.
The problem is that, in many cases, there are no answers. The accident just happened. New tires or old tires don’t matter. No caution or plea to be careful can rewind time and change the outcomes. Answers are often nowhere because there are no answers.
Meaning and Brokenness
The loss of a loved one leaves us with brokenness, one that we’ll have to mend without their help. One of the ways that we can do that is by looking for meaning – for us – in the events. (See Finding Meaning for more.) Brokenness and meaning are their own worlds that are intertwined with our experience of grief. In the end, we find ways to find ourselves through the mess with our efforts to be Touching Two Worlds.