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. Patty

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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