When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. ~Victor Frankl
Great losses, particularly the death of a loved one, not only bring deep emotional and often physical pain, but are the basis for exceptional personal growth or regression. We can learn much from the big changes in life. They can cause us to evaluate and transform our limiting beliefs. Most importantly, they can be a catalyst for being open to new knowledge, experiences, and perceptions of the world.
The key concept here is being open, refusing to live in “what was” and meet change with alterations in our behavior. Life is all about changing personal behavior to meet the new circumstances that we must confront periodically. Change never ends. So how can we adapt to conditions and ease the feelings we did not expect?
1. Make a commitment to live your life in such a way as to honor the deceased loved one. This may mean doing the volunteer work your loved one used to do or choosing to start volunteering in a way that fits your talents and value system. It may mean reshaping some of your behaviors so you present yourself in a more pleasant and helpful way. Whatever you choose, it is with the intention of honoring the beloved. Committed intention is powerful for pain relief.
2. Vow to develop a positive character trait similar to one you admired in your loved one. Perhaps he or she was a good listener. As Paul Tillich said “The first duty of love is to be a good listener.” Can you increase that skill with all the people you relate to? Or maybe your beloved was very patient in dealing with difficult people and situations. Choose a trait and work on changing your life for the better through the motivation of your loved one.
3. Decide to develop skills in building stronger relationships with others. This will not only help yourself to increase hope, caring, and compassion but it will also help the people you choose to connect with. Connecting in relationships is built on trust, openness, and awareness of our basic needs for love and respect. We all need work in this area of our lives since the tendency of most is to have a small circle of friends. Yet, psychiatrists tell us that developing new friendships should be a lifelong project. Begin by asking yourself how you presently relate to others. How do you approach people you are about to meet? This will become part of the new identity you create as part of adaptive coping.
4. Care for your spiritual life. Choosing to develop trust and hope in something greater than the self is an integral part of managing the various changes that life presents to us. Consider meditation, prayer, being alone in nature, dream analysis, and the study of intuition as gateways to lifting your spiritual self to manage life from a different perspective. Look for someone in your social circle or an organization in your community that supports one or more of these goals and get involved. Taking spiritual action will bring great satisfaction into your life and help you adapt to the absence of you loved one.
5. Give positive emotions a high priority. The science of emotions has proven over and over again that carrying out behaviors that initiate positive emotions is good for every cell in your body, especially for your heart and brain. Ask yourself what a heartfelt smile or thank you, a true sense of appreciation, given or received, and daily gratitude does for the way you feel. Become aware of how your body responds when you share a beautiful story, feel joy from a beautiful memory, or when you are looking forward to an upcoming pleasant event. Sit down with paper and pencil and list events and behaviors you can include in your daily activities that result in a positive emotional disposition.
6. Work on deciding what you have control over in your life and especially what you cannot control. It is not unusual that we blame ourselves for sad situations that develop when in fact they were really not in our control. Or you did what you thought was the thing to do at that time and now you wish you did differently. When you realize what you cannot control be willing to give yourself a break and let go of the blame.
We all need a support network where we can bounce questions off various members, consider their responses, then decide if the issue is one in our control or not. If you don’t have a support network, then start building one. It takes work and much effort to build support but it will help immensely in obtaining useful feedback.
It is easy to fail to recognize that we can learn much from our pain. Having grieved the deaths of my daughter, a younger and an older sister, my brother and both parents, I am well aware of the pitfalls. Allow yourself the freedom to release some of your pain. Keep your loved one alive in your heart by trading pain for something good you can give to the world and the self.