Cultivating Resilience Amid Life’s Losses
“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
– Maya Angelou
This month I went back and forth about what to write about. As an emerging writer, I’ve learned that this is part of the gig. Some days the words flow and other days they do not. Sometimes the busyness of the everyday gets in the way. Other times the underlying noise within me creates thoughts I’d prefer not to notice.
In recent months I’ve become deeply aware of a very real aspect of the human condition – loss. Even as I understand that losses are an inevitable essential part of life, I don’t like writing about them – reduced freedoms to move about freely during the pandemic, loss of confidence in the U.S. political process, loss and changes in relationships. And very near to me is the sad experience of slowly losing my mother day-by-day as she struggles with memory loss.
As I write this, I recall the words of writer Judith Viorst in her book Necessary Losses (1986). From Viorst’s life-affirming explorations and my own experiences, I came to realize that losses are a natural part of what it means to be human.
“We begin life with loss. We are cast from the womb without an apartment, a charge plate, a job or a car. We are sucking, sobbing, clinging, helpless babies” (Viorst, 1986).
And so it goes. Throughout our lives, most of us pursue connections, and all of us suffer losses, large and small. Loss can be defined as the process of losing someone or something we value. Grief is the feeling that may accompany this experience of an end or a change in something familiar.
Here is a brief list of some common losses (and these are just a few):
- Loss of something that used to bring us pleasure
- A defeat of some kind
- Loss of our youth
- Loss of income
- Loss of health
- Loss of freedom
- Child leaving home or a loved one moving far away
- Loss of lifestyle as you knew it
- Moving to a new community
- Loss of a loved one, colleague, or friend
Most of us bring all kinds of hopes and expectations to significant relationships. And then no matter how much we may resist, things change, losses happen. We learn experience-by-experience that in some ways we each stand alone and that – whether we like it or not – loss is inevitable in the flow of life. Alas, loss is part of the human experience whether we like it or not. And resilience – responding to and moving forward from life’s losses – is also common to our human experience (Bonanno, 2004).
Volumes have been written about responding to loss and grief. There are many pathways to shift from loss toward resilience and this brief article does not intend to cover all of the territory. Rather, the purpose here is simply to acknowledge some of the losses many of us are experiencing and offer a few ideas for consideration:
1. Offering Compassion to Ourselves and Others: Compassion – self-compassion and compassion for others – seems so simple and yet can be so powerful. Rachel Naomi Remen, MD (2000) writes that it is not our expertise, but our compassion that can help in the process of healing from suffering. Remen writes that we all share the commonality of our vulnerability and that in her own experience, once she experienced deep grief and suffering, she was no longer afraid of it. “I have been around it and with it and come through it and I know it very well. I have also somehow survived it.”
2. Seeking Meaning from Loss: It is important to recognize the losses we experience, to acknowledge how we feel about them, and to let it be OK to feel what we feel. According to grief expert David Kessler, PhD (2019), finding meaning can be an important step to learning how to live after the loss. Finding meaning takes time and only we can figure what meanings resonate for us in any given loss or situation. To learn more about seeking meaning in loss, here are a few resources:
- Kessler, D. (2019). Finding meaning: The sixth stage of grief. New York, NY: Scribner.
- Kessler, D. (2021). Grief.com: Because love never dies.
- Remen, R.N. (2000). My grandfather’s blessings: Stories of strength, refuge, and belonging. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
3. Calling on Our Character Strengths: Consider what character strengths within yourself you can call on to help you cope with difficult times. We each have our own top character strengths. As I write this morning, my strength of perspective comes to mind. I hope to be in this life vibrantly for the long haul. Thus, in this moment as I pause to take a breath, I consider and ask myself what strength I can bring to this situation (Niemiec, 2018). With my strength of perspective, I remind myself that this too shall pass – I know that these feelings I am experiencing will not last forever and I can let the emotions flow through me like leaves floating down the river of life. I can cry when I need to. I can read, listen to, and learn from the wisdom of others who have walked a similar path. I can call a friend and ask her to listen. I can feel my losses and when I’m ready I can continue to work, play, love, and strive to make a positive difference in this world.
What character strength might you engage to help you respond to an experience of loss? For more information on identifying your strengths, you can take the free VIA Strengths Assessment.
4. Remembering Positive Emotions Too: Even during times of loss, use of positive emotions and laughter can help bolster our resilience, boost coping, and reduce our levels of distress (Bonanno, 2004; Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998). Laughing, smiling, and moments of gratitude, interest, and hope can offer a bit of balance, perspective, and respite. When you’re experiencing a loss, how do you add positive emotions to your life?
5. Connecting with Others: Relationships matter deeply. Reach out to family, friends, and community. If you are experiencing loss, grief, and depression and feel it’s more than you can deal with on your own, reach out for professional help, such as your primary care provider, a counselor, or a therapist. You can also contact your state psychological association for referrals to a psychologist or a local community health center.
“I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” – Mother Teresa
I’ll close with this thought. A full life is not always easy and losses can be tough, but I’d rather live a full life. I’d rather care deeply, taking chances on love, on relationships, on kindness, on learning from mistakes, and on the strength and resilience of the human spirit. This is the path I choose.
* This post is for educational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
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- Bonanno, G.A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? American Psychologist, 59 (1), 20-28.
- Niemiec, R. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.
- Viorst, J. (1986). Necessary losses: The loves, illusions, dependencies, and impossible expectations that all of us have to give up in order to grow. New York, NY: The Free Press.
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