The First Step in Healing After Traumatic Loss

Healing after a traumatic loss that has devastated your life may feel impossible. Left alone and isolated, the human brain in this situation may remain in a loop of remembered and reactivated guilt, anxiety and depression. However, the first step in healing may not be as complicated as you think: it all begins with self-care.

Arthur Kleinman, medical doctor, renowned professor of both psychiatry and anthropology associated with Harvard University and Medical Center, believes caring for ourselves and others “is at the very core of what human experience is about.”

Kleinman (2014) wrote:

This means that each of us at some point must learn how to endure: the act of going on and giving what we have. And we need, on occasion, to step outside ourselves and look in as if an observer on our endeavors and our relationships—personal and professional—to acknowledge the strength, compassion, courage, and humanity with which we ourselves endure or help to make bearable the hard journeys of others. These are the qualities that make acceptance and striving, if not noble, then certainly deeply human—worthy of respect of ourselves and those whose journeys we share. (Kleinman. “How We Endure.” The Lancet. Volume 383, No. 9912, p119–120. 11 January 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.)

His personal memoir, The Soul of Care: The Moral Education of a Husband and a Doctor, was released in September 2019. It is a book in which a man speaks from his heart about his journey with his wife through early-onset Alzheimer’s. His poignant words offer a unique perspective that can help others who are dealing with the complexities and challenges of mental health issues and the mysteries that still linger in modern medicine. Sometimes we forget that life is more than what we can measure and that loss is the ultimate common experience for us all.

It is possible to heal and find purpose and joy, to come to a point where you can honor your loved one’s life without dwelling permanently in active grief. The first step — to endure — can involve amazingly simple tools, considering the magnitude of the pain that must be battled after any loss but especially when the circumstances involve difficult to understand or violent means … loss to suicide, murder, other illnesses that rob the body or brain of function and hope.

While professional help is always a good option (counseling, for example), peer support and coping strategies you can use on your own are valuable as well:

  • Practice simple relaxation and distraction techniques: take three deep, slow breaths; count down from one hundred; or picture yourself in a calm and relaxing place.
  • Engage in favorite activities such as hobbies, listening to or playing music, watching movies, talking with a friend, or reading. Alternately, try something new like photography or art lessons.
  • Exercise or just go for a walk outside. Being in natural surroundings is very healing.
  • Think about how you have coped with difficult situations in the past and remind yourself that you can use those same skills now, even if you don’t feel like you can.
  • Make a directory of people you can turn to for support. Add phone numbers or email addresses. Include the National Suicide Prevention Line (1-800-273-8255).
  • Write a list of things you are looking forward to doing. Schedule them on your calendar.
  • Focus on individual goals, such as spending time with friends or returning to class/work.

Sometimes, after the loss of a friend or family member, feelings of guilt can make people feel like they should not have fun, feel better, or think about other things. But it’s necessary to take your mind off of a stressful situation at times. Though it may seem impossible to capture moments like this at first, it’s okay to feel better.  

Think about how you want to remember the person you lost. Here are a few ideas, but you can add more of your own. Listen to your heart, and do what works for you.

  • Write a personal note to other family members and to friends who have been supportive. Share memories and invite them to send a memory or photograph to add to your own memory book.
  • Do something kind in honor of your loved one. For example, if he loved animals, volunteer at your local animal shelter or make a contribution.  
  • Write in your journal about the good memories and love you shared.
  • Tell someone how you feel or share with others the impact your loved one had on your life.
  • Do what children do: play, cry when you need to, and laugh when you can.

It may feel overwhelming to think about total healing after traumatic loss, but you only have to start with one step.

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