Grief, Loss, and Depression: A Therapist’s Perspective
Coping With Grief, Loss, and Depression Part III
Human beings don’t like to suffer, and yet life is full of pain. In my previous articles, I have discussed how we deal with grief and pain, and have argued that we need to move toward our pain and find meaning and hope in it. In this article, I share my own experience of loss, allowing you to see one person’s experience of moving beyond the pain of loss.
Running No More
I have been a runner since eighth grade. I can still remember how easy it was to push myself one more mile, and then one more mile, with few limits to what I could do. I remember the triathlon days (only four years ago) when I could bike 30 miles and then lace up my shoes and go for a six-mile run. And then one day, this past February, my body decided it would run no more.
My running has been interrupted by two injuries: serious inner ear damage that causes dizziness and vertigo, and a herniated disc in my lower back. The inner ear damage occurred ten years ago and I have been able to manage it. The disc was injured seventeen years ago, but it finally caught up to me this year. There was no more bargaining with my body … no matter how hard I tried or stretched, or got adjustments from the chiropractor or deep-tissue massages, or took ice-baths, I could not run.
Even more significantly, my heart was telling me that this was the end, that it was time to stop. It was not the first time I had been in pain or needed to take a break. But it was the first time where I knew life would never be the same again. I asked myself: Is running an idol and is that why I am feeling this loss? No, actually, as much as I used to do it, I always had a love-hate relationship with running. My grief and loss has had very little to do with the physical act, but is more concerned with the loss of mobility. At forty years old, I am faced with the reality there is something I cannot do anymore.
A therapist colleague once noted that the greatest loss is the one that happens to you. I have found it easy to dismiss my loss. After all, as a therapist, I work with people with losses much bigger than mine. But that is the trap we fall into – we compare and judge. When we do this, we invite avoidance to be our primary defense mechanism. This does not heal our wounds, but only pushes them away, until the moment we are forced to face our inner demons. This is the place of vulnerability, the place we cannot avoid any more when something happens that causes the wound to surface. Brené Brown notes that, “For many of us, our first response to vulnerability and pain … is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through it, but rather make it go away” (Brown, 2010). It is only when we can name and process our loss that healing becomes possible.
A loss is a loss, even though not all losses have the same impact. Losing your homeland to civil war is not the same as losing your favorite picture album. However, as important as the impact might be, it is important that we acknowledge the loss of a particular event, no matter how small or how large. We need to recognize that there is an emotional, physical, and spiritual dimension to anything we lose. Loss uncovers a vulnerability, emptiness, and deprivation that was not previously experienced.
This resonates deeply with me. I previously always had the option of returning to running, but I no longer have this. I still experience the feeling of emptiness each time I see people running because I know that, at least at this point in my life, it is no longer possible.
I like the concept of acceptance. However, it has been perverted at times and has taken on a meaning that is more damaging than helpful. For some, acceptance implies being happy that something has occurred, or perhaps chastising others for feeling sad. How often have we heard: “Just accept it and move on”? McKay, Woods, and Brandley (2007) note that, “acceptance means acknowledging the present situation [so one can] focus on what he or she can do at the present moment.” It means acknowledging what we cannot control our energies, but need to re-center them where we have the power to make changes and grow. We may not be able to gain back the loss, but we can start to direct our energies toward a healthy balance of grieving and acceptance.
Grieving and acceptance are not mutually exclusive, and with time and effort they can run parallel to one another. While there is no time limit to grieving a loss, if we only allow ourselves to grieve then we strategically position ourselves to become victims and not survivors. I still grieve the loss of my mobility, but I have made a conscious effort (my wife helps to keep me accountable to this) to engage in activities that are still possible. I ride my bike, I walk, and I plan to start swimming again this fall. None of these activities are exactly like running, but I can grieve my loss while at the same time experiencing new-found joy in what I am capable of doing.
Christian Counseling to Overcome Your Pain
As a Christian counselor, I am privileged to accompany some of the people who are brave enough to confront and move through their pain. If you are suffering from loss and depression, and are aware of your need to find hope and gratitude, please seek help. You can find meaning in the midst of pain. Seek professional counseling and support from others. Your wounds may persist, but life can move forward and healing is possible.
“Landscape_mountains_sky,” courtesy of tpsdave, Public Domain License, all-free-download.com/free-photos; “Babbling Brook,” courtesy of the author, Michael Lillie.