Whether it be the death of a loved one, a heart-smashing breakup, or simply growing apart from a friend—loss can be panic-inducing and lonely. You may panic because there is no way to undo what has just happened. You may feel lonely because no one is losing exactly what you are losing, and therefore no one is experiencing exactly what you are experiencing. You may feel empty, rejected, and broken.
For a while.
The good news is, if we never lost anything, we would not have room in our lives for anything new. The death of a parent teaches you more about inner strength than you could ever imagine. Break-ups make room for someone or something better.
But simply getting through to the other side of a painful loss is tough. Everyone’s process is different, but these ten steps are universally helpful in surviving a loss.
1. Take time to process your loss…
Do not try to jump right back into your routine as if nothing has happened. It’s completely fine to need a few days, weeks, or longer to process what you are going through. Your routine, job, friends, the dating pool – all of it will still be there when you are ready to rejoin but do not rejoin before you are ready. Doing so will likely leave you feeling out of touch or confused.
The pain of loss is disconcerting, and it takes time to process.
2. ..then, ask for help.
The one regret I have about how I dealt with my father’s sudden death when I was in high school, is that I did not go to some sort of counseling at the time. Processing the loss ten years later was a lot to handle, and I wish I would have had someone to guide me through the process after it happened.
Our brains are really powerful, and they come up with all sorts of ways to protect us from emotional and mental anguish. Some of these ways effectively sweep our problems under the rug, preventing us from actually dealing with our problems in a healthy way.
Even if you do not think you need it, seeking professional help in the form of therapy is never a bad idea, no matter what you are going through.
3. Remember whatever you are feeling is valid.
The absolute worst thing you could say or hear after a breakup is, “Get over it.” Often, the people that say this have never loved deeply and lost, and have no idea what heartache feels like. Those people have no skin in the game, and their opinion of what you should be feeling does not matter.
In fact, no one’s opinion matters except your own. If you want or need to be around people, that is normal! If you feel like you need to be alone, that is normal, too. And if you feel both in turn – you guessed it, normal. The secret is that there is no normal way to process grief. Give yourself permission to feel however you feel, and ignore people who try to tell you that you should feel a certain way.
4. Allow yourself to be strong.
Sometimes we get caught up in the idea of loss as a life-shattering event and forget that we are equipped to handle it. You do not have to be crushed by a break-up, and you are not expected to have a complete emotional meltdown after losing a parent. If you do, that is completely fine. But often you can be sad and strong at the same time. Often, you will find unexpected strength in the face of loss, and recognizing and accepting is not always easy, but it is hugely important.
5. Be there for others….
Most of the time, someone else you know is experiencing loss at the same time you are. If you lost a parent, it is your sibling(s), your other parent, or someone else in your family. If a friend dies, you likely have another friend who is processing it as well. If it is a breakup, well, someone else you know may be going through a similar situation. Be careful not to commiserate with that person so much as show them support, understanding, and love during that time. Often, attempting to show strength on someone else’s behalf will actually make you stronger, and help you through processing your own loss.
6. ..but keep your boundaries.
After my father died, a family friend asked my mother, “How are you doing?” My mother replied, “I’m doing okay, thank you.” The family friend again asked, “No, really, how are you doing?” It was almost as if she refused to believe my mother could be in good shape after such a sudden loss.
While she undoubtedly meant well, that interaction certainly threw a wrench in my mother’s grief processing. It left my mother thinking that, maybe she was acting too happy? Or spending too much time in public?
Sometimes it is best to keep people at arm’s length during your recovery. It can be easy to want to accept everyone’s help and everyone’s advice, but the truth is that no one knows what is best for you except for you. If you need to politely shut a few people out during this time, you should absolutely do it.
7. Force yourself to do one new thing.
In the spirit of taking advantage of bad situations, use your recovery to improve your outlook on life. After a breakup, sometimes it is helpful to get away from your regular stomping grounds and travel if you are able. Even if this means just going to stay with a friend for a few days, a change of scenery and a new environment remind you that there is life outside your circle. Sure, it can seem inconceivable to even get out of bed in the days after a serious loss, but if you can muster the initial strength, a new experience is (almost) always worth it.
8. Expect new emotions.
I do not recall ever crying and laughing at the same time before recovering from my father’s death. One sweet girl from my high school wrote me a letter and, in her attempt to show that she understood my pain, rambled for page after page about her guinea pig or hamster dying. I was so grateful for her heartfelt note, still so sad about losing my dad, and so confused about what was even happening to me or happening in the letter, that I simultaneously burst into tears and laughter. I had no idea what I was feeling, but it was not the last time in my recovery process that I felt it. I did not fight it – and to this day, I try to remember that there is not always a name for whatever emotion I am feeling, but that it is important to recognize and to feel each and every one. Again, giving yourself permission to feel every conceivable emotion is key to healing.
9. Know that memories are important.
Yep, even memories from a relationship that has ended. If you block out memories to avoid pain, then you lose chunks of your life. I was always so impressed by my former roommate’s ability to talk about things she had done with former, quite serious boyfriends. I almost never talked about former relationships because it hurt too much – because I had not processed the loss. But that took years out of my life. The truth is, I had a lot of fun, exciting, and memorable experiences with former boyfriends, and them no longer being in the picture shouldn’t cheapen those memories. Being able to look back on your memories with a parent or partner is also key to healing from your loss.
10. Most importantly, be patient with yourself.
I cannot stress enough that everyone’s recovery process is different. There is no fixed timeline to healing, no itinerary to getting back into your routine if that is your goal. Take as little or as much time as you need. As long as you are honest with yourself, you will know what’s right for you, and you will become out stronger than you ever thought possible.