Therapy in a Nutshell: Loss and Resiliency

When my husband, Rich, died I went through a period of time that I think of as “the void.” I was vacant and weird. Going out in public was avoided as much as possible for several reasons. The biggest one was that I never knew if I could “hold my space” and keep from becoming a chocolate mess. I also never knew what I would need to handle. It might be as simple as someone saying, “I’m so sorry. How are you doing?” It often was something like, “How has Rich been doing lately?” I would stand there staring and gulping and choking out, “He died.”

That was intense. So I stayed home and worked obsessively on the house and garden. Each day I made it as long as I could until I fell into bed exhausted. This was usually about four o’clock in the afternoon. Those were the days when I was able to function. Some days I did not.

The days I did not function were not pretty. I would do this thing I called “blowing apart.” I was usually a sobbing, screaming lump on the floor. If I could not stop, after about two hours I would call my youngest daughter, Ashley. We worked out a routine. She would pick up the phone and hear me sobbing hysterically. I remember her gentle voice saying, “I’m right here, mom. Breathe. Do you need me to come over?”  I would choke out, “No. Just talk to me.” She always focused on what I was feeling with loving words. Ashley did not avoid the words like death, loss, grief and sadness. She talked about them openly. I needed that. I did not want platitudes. I wanted reality. I needed truth. My daughters Tara and Ashley were my anchors in a horrible storm even while they, too, suffered the loss of their father.

Something profound that I have learned about loss is that it truly does fall on a spectrum. As a psychologist, I thought that I understood that there were different types of grief. Not until I lived profound loss, did I fully understand that the varying degrees of grief have a huge impact on a person. More importantly I began to understand the resiliency that is needed to survive.

We must be careful not to judge grief. We cannot quantify another person’s loss through our own frame of reference. Each person experiences a loss based on how much that connection meant and how much empty space is left in the void. Grief does not occur only with death. Loss comes in many forms and is highly personal. Death, loss of a relationship, financial hardship, trauma and crazy things that take you by surprise, can all create grief in varying degrees.

The powerlessness of loss must be overcome by the hopefulness of resiliency. This is the challenge for anyone facing profound grief. The reality is that huge loss takes you to your knees. It is a collapse of the physical and emotional spirit. Finding your way back to standing is the hard part.

I think the best thing I did for myself during the months after Rich’s death was to allow myself to be fully immersed in the sadness. I understand that I was fortunate to be able to stay home during this time. I could not work. I have this rule in my private practice that if I wouldn’t pay to see me, I won’t let clients pay to see me. I definitely was not in a place to take care of anyone else. Trying to survive and be there as much as I could for my daughters and my granddaughter was more than enough. So when I was sad, I allowed myself to feel it. When I was angry or lost, I held those feelings until they passed. I did not run from myself, and I can tell you, that was scary. Embracing the horrid, challenging and frightening emotions was my path into resiliency.

I believe the hardest part of attempting to be resilient is to find some vestige of hope. A glimmer of light in a very dark tunnel of despair. Allowing yourself to find and then move toward that light of hope is complicated. There was a part of me that felt that if I allowed myself to hope that there would be light in my life again, then I was letting go of Rich. That frightened me. I intellectually knew that I could overcome the losses and find happiness, but internally I was reeling with jumbled emotions.

There is a component of grief that has little to do with the actual loss and a lot to do with our own emotional issues. How resilient we are going into a loss depends on how emotionally stable we were when the loss occurred. Rich’s brain disease, Frontotemporal Degeneration – Behavioral Variant Type (bvFTD), created an eight-year decline in his functioning. The last four years were very difficult. The last year of his life was horrendous. It was tortuous for him. It was exhausting and devastating for me and the family. I went into the final loss of Rich exhausted and emotionally drained. I was empty and there was not much to draw on to achieve any sense of resiliency.

The first step in creating some internal strength to handle profound loss is to create some physical space to survive. I often tell clients that they must eat at least once a day, even if it is only a protein drink. I caution them to get the medical help they need to sleep and to not go more than two nights without good, quality sleep. These two things alone can create a foundation of physical strength that translates into greater resilience. Actually pulling off those two things can be a huge challenge. Even thinking about being hungry or choking down food was very difficult for me. A close friend would call me every day and ask, “When was the last time you ate anything? What exactly did you eat?” If I couldn’t remember, I had to eat something right then and there. It was not easy, but it truly helped me survive.

My dear friend, Liz Silva, lost her husband, John, a few months before Rich died. We became cohorts in the void of grief. We would text and call each other in the middle of night. We could talk about anything because we “got it.” We could be as weird, angry, maudlin or frightened as we needed to be. The one who was a bit stronger at the moment would try to hold a space of reason and stability. Sometimes we were basket cases together. That middle-of-the-night, could-not-sleep, lost-alone-and-frightened space was often comforted by Liz’s presence, even though we did not live in the same city. Our mutual “weirdness” in our grief was a comfort. It makes me smile now when I think about it.

Some of those conversations with Liz will be topics for future articles. I remember the night we were both panicking about the thought of ever being with another man. We each had very long-term relationships — Rich and I were together 39 years, and Liz and John were together 39 years, as well. We alternated between frightened widows and giggly teenagers. Yes, we were weird. Some of those conversations created a glimmer of hope. Every conversation was an incredible connection that helped me survive.

Resilience through grief begins when we face the reality of what we have lost and where we are going. We must embrace the concept that there is indeed “life after loss,” even though it may be undefinable and illusive in the present moment. We need to “BELIEVE” in the indelible human spirit that, if we allow it, will strive toward survival. If we get out of our own way, that incredible spirit may even strive toward happiness.

It is a journey.

Dr. Patricia Bay
Patricia Leigh Bay, Psy.D. is a licensed Marriage, Family Therapist with a private practice in Redding, California. Since 1979 she has loved working with children, adolescents, adults, families and relationships.
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24 Responses

  1. Beverly Stafford says:

    Thank you for sharing what we all will probably go through, either with a spouse, child, parent, or other loved one. I still miss my mother every day, and it’s been 12 years since she died.

    • Patricia Bay says:

      I understand the loss of your mother. Mine died last month and it has added to the continuing journey of grief. Moms hold a special place in our existence. Whether a mother was a great one, as mine was, or a difficult relationship, the loss of our mother creates so much to think about. Thank you for commenting, Beverly.

  2. Linda Cadd says:

    Excellent , Patty! Knowing you, I would expect nothing else. I know you’ll touch a nerve with many who cannot express this as eloquently as you.

  3. Jerry Meredith says:

    Very proud of you! But most importantly thankful for you. Many will be blessed by your sharing of these experiences, as well as your kindness and selflessness Patty. Thank you!

  4. Terri Shoberg says:

    You have described my “void” so well. I force myself to go out every day but I never know when I will break down, so it’s very tough. I feel like I must embrace my grief because denying it is futile. Some days I think I’m making progress. Yesterday not so much. I was cleaning out drawers in the bedroom & found a Christmas card from Al with a message written by him, telling me how much he admired & loved me. I spent the next few hours walking around in the house, screaming & crying – my personal weirdness. I know moving on isn’t an option but I am so afraid of letting go of Al. Thank you for letting me know that I’m not alone.

  5. Rose says:

    Beautiful story of your sad time with the loss of Rich. You and family will always have a special place in my heart and I enjoyed you as neighbors. He will always be in our thoughts and hearts. I think of him often on my walks.

  6. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    I fear losing a child or grandchild before I go—I don’t know that I could bear the horror of losing a young person in my life…the unfairness of it. To lose my wife? I sometimes try to imagine how I would go on without her, and I can’t. I suppose I would cope, but I don’t know how.

    One of my favorite musicians, Jason Isbell, has a poignent song about the near inevitability of one spouse outliving the other. The woman singing harmony and playing violin in this video is his wife, Amanda Shires.

  7. Thank you, Patty, for sharing such a vulnerable piece of yourself. I know this is a topic with which anyone who’s lived and loved can relate. What a wonderful first column.

  8. Lorraine says:

    You have been in my thoughts and prayers through your journey of loss and tears my friend. Thank you for your article as it touched me in my journey as well!

  9. Ginny says:

    About a month before we discovered Chuck had cancer, after a lunch meal, out of the blue he said “I want to die first.” Told him that was selfish. He said he couldn’t make it without me. “Sure you can, if you allow yourself.” Then, the big C arrived. By the time more than six months of living with this cancer, he died, but I remember reading the 23rd Psalm a few time the day before, and then praying to the Lord that He would take Chuck. Anyone in that much pain should have to go Home. Wanting him to stay here with me would have been very selfish of me.

    When our son, his sister, and I waited for Chuck to leave us, when it happened my son got up and put his arms around me. A few seconds of his comfort; then I said, “I can’t fall apart as I have too much to do.” So for the next year or so, the tears didn’t fall until Pres. Regean’s Funeral over a year later. I cried through the whole thing.

    But by then, I had pulled my self together. I had heard Chuck’s voice come to me a few months after he died, saying, “Why are you doing this by yourself?” What I was doing was making hats for other cancer patients. I felt, basically, Chuck voice came to say he was OK with being gone, and to go on with my life, but be sure to have a purpose.

    Love life, but also honor the person who is gone Home to be with the Lord, for that is God’s plan, even if it isn’t ours. I will see Chuck again when God’s Plan is fulfilled for me.

  10. Kathleen says:

    Patty, thank you so much for your beautiful words. So meaningful and helpful.

  11. Gerrine says:

    And losing a child is even worse……..hard to imagine. A sucker punch for parents.

  12. Margaret Beck says:

    Patty, you asked for comments. I would have to say that the statement ” we cannot quantify grief ” is one of the most powerful. We all experience our emotions at different times, different levels and different manifestations. As humans we all will experience profound loss and the best we can do for one another is simply hold our hearts open to those in need. It’s a personal journey. Sharing your story can only help others and hopefully yourself as well. Thanks for doing so.

  13. Gerrine says:

    Thanks for sharing with others. As a widow it is rather a never ending cycle of remembering. Two steps forward and one back. No one wants to forget, but it’s the odd moment when memories pop into your brain. I’m glad that you have a friend to share with. Essential.

  14. Linda says:

    I’m touched by your beautifully composed article . Grief has so many facets . I loved you sharing Liz and your daughters . We must hear,talk,speak. You have given us much to ponder. Thank you Patty.

  15. George says:

    Beautiful words. Thank you Steven for sharing this artist and his song. Here are just a couple lines that are expressed so well.

    Maybe time running out is a gift
    I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
    To give you every second I can find
    And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

    It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
    Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
    Maybe we’ll get forty years together
    But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone?

  16. Patricia Bay says:

    I am loving reading all your comments, thoughts and sharing. Thank you for your participation and warm welcome!

  17. Gary Solberg says:

    Patty, Thank you for sharing more of your story.
    In March of last year I unexpectedly lost a partner of 18 years. I am still emerging from the grief. Years ago a suffered from major grief for a very different reason, and turned to the medical profession for sleep aids. Within 2 weeks, I concluded that was a mistake and stopped taking sleeping pills. It took about three days of severe insomnia to get back into some more natural sleep patterns.
    In a recent book, “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, the author, who has studied sleep and why we sleep extensively, concludes that there are far better ways to deal with lack of sleep than taking pills. I am not a professional but I feel, for most people, turning to sleeping pills is not a good idea.

  18. Patty Taylor says:

    Thank you for your transparency and the invitation to feel the grief and set the time frame aside. Grief looks very different for each one of us but the thread that weaves us all together is that void. What in the world do we do with that dark night of the soul feeling? You articulate your journey in a way that makes it so easy to relate. You are an amazing woman. I’m so glad to call you my friend.

  19. Lee says:

    Patty, my friend, you sharing your path of grief provides so many of us with the recognition and understanding of someone who gets it!
    Your guidance is and has been a beacon. So wonderful that you are able to share this with so many… your insight is invaluable.
    Thank you for your candor, care and modeling of “new beginnings.” You have given many gifts in sharing. Thank you !!

  20. Margy says:

    Well written, thank you for sharing.

  21. Patricia Bay says:

    Gary, I agree medication is not always the answer. I encourage people to explore holistic options. The important thing is to GET IT that getting decent sleep is a huge priority in establishing and maintaining functioning during profound loss. Thank you for taking the time to enter into the discussion. Thank you to the others who also contributed. Your input is welcome and deeply appreciated.

  22. proba says:

    I have had panic attacks in two durations of my life up to now. Once when I happened to be 20 . I happened to be having a class and suddenly I thought I couldnt do it anymore. I really couldn’t stand being there and went out. It had been my new experiencing this occurrence i did not know it even existed. Yes it was frightening, not safe and makes u feel alone. But I discovered to handle it.

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  23. Common Sense says:

    Welcome, Patty! What an exceptional heartfelt sharing you have written…I am saddened to see so many dying.

    There are natural cures for Cancer out there….but most don’t want to talk about it. The Government doesn’t want to talk about it but their Patent for the Medical Benefits in the natural plant is just one of many Hypocrisies out there.

    Grief is a very personal thing….there is no right or wrong way to do it…..I can relate and have empathy for anyone that has lost a loved one. I understand the not eating and the draining of energy and the whole experience. When we lost our young daughter many years ago the pain was too much to take… I shut down…..shut my wife out……only existed for a year or so…..

    To happier times and to LOVE…..the Answer is Love…..the question doesn’t matter when you already know the answer….

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