Open to Hope: Getting the Love Back in Your Life After a Loss
Every February as Valentine’s Day approaches, I find it’s a great time to take a survey of where I stand on my love meter. Am I on the high or low side this year? How is my relationship with my husband, Phil? With my daughters and their families?
Is there any misunderstanding or disagreement with a dear friend or colleague that still needs some attention? I take a quick inventory.
Inevitably, thinking about the people I love takes me hurtling back in time to what I call my “Ground Zero.” For me, that was in April 1983, when my 17- year-old son, Scott, was killed in an automobile accident. That boy was the love of my life. After his death I wondered if I would ever be happy again.
Your “Ground Zero” may not be the loss of a loved one, but the loss of a relationship, a job, or even a dream. Dealing with any big loss takes time. Afterwards, you may find, as so many of us have, that doing even the most routine chore the first, second, third, or even fourth time can utterly besiege your heart.
Let me illustrate this point with a story about banana yogurt.
After Scott’s death, I remember one of the activities that I found most painful was going to the grocery store. The first time I went shopping, I just tossed things into the grocery cart without much thought, avoiding people who I knew as they avoided me. (Most people still don’t have a clue about what to say to a bereaved mother.) “The task to be done today,” I told myself, “is to push cart, lift items, place in cart, and get out as soon as possible.”
I was confident that, by sheer force, I could get this job done. When I got to the dairy counter, I selected eggs and milk, and then tossed in 10 cartons of banana yogurt. I trudged to the checkout counter, happy to have another task under my belt.
Several days later, I opened the refrigerator and my eyes locked on those 10 cartons of banana yogurt. I was stunned into utter silence. Tears welled up and trickled down my face as the reality hit. Scott was the only one in the family who ate banana yogurt. I quickly tossed the cartons into the garbage and made a note to cross it off my grocery list.
On my second trip, I again labored through the supermarket aisles in a fog. When I noticed a vaguely familiar face staring at me across the produce counter, I quickly turned and pushed my cart to a distant corner of the store. After collecting myself I began shopping again. As I selected some cottage cheese in the dairy section, I looked sadly at the banana yogurt and felt a wave of grief. My eyes began to tear up. I longed to put just one or two cartons in my cart.
For weeks, whenever I opened the refrigerator, I felt an empty pit in my stomach as I looked at the second shelf, which no longer had those little containers displaying a jolly little yellow banana. I still felt a huge lump in my throat, but I didn’t cry.
On my third trip to the grocery store, parking and shopping seemed to be a bit easier. I even managed to pick up a couple of strawberry yogurts, which I knew Heather, Scott’s 14 year-old sister, loved. By the fourth trip, I found that food shopping had become another routine that I had again mastered as a part of my changed life. With time, I passed the dairy counter with little thought.
Now, after over two decades later, I smile just thinking about my boy and how he lived, not how he died. He was amazing—so smart, so easygoing, and so fun loving and so strong. I remember how he used to carry four grocery bags at a time for me from the car into the house. Now I have to make four trips.
So like my experience with banana yogurt, some of your firsts will become routine during the first year. But many others, including the first day of school, the first holidays, the first spring, the first birthday, the first death day, can take years. Some events only happen once in a lifetime, like a wedding or a graduation.
Facing these events and milestones takes persistence and courage, but eventually they will begin to feel more routine. By “routine,” I mean that we develop new brain patterns so we don’t have to think so much about a task or action that had previously been second nature to me. After a major loss, we are again like newborns. We have to learn to crawl before we can walk.
In fact, researchers have found that it takes 35 exposures to learn a new field of study, as we must assimilate and then accommodate the new information. Thus, the first year is a time of learning and retraining.
Where am I today on my love meter? I am pleased to say that I am on the high side this year. Perhaps it's the right time for you to take a look at your life and relationships and assess where you are in relation to your “Ground Zero”?
Look for areas where you can bring more love and joy into your life. Start with taking care of yourself. Ask yourself the following questions: Am I pushing others away? Do I put myself out for others?
Remember, you get what you put out there: hugs get more hugs; kindness begins by being kind to you; positive energy attracts; negative energy rejects.
In the end you are responsible for your own experience. Why not try some of these to get the love back in your life?
- Give yourself some love—take a bubble bath, get a new haircut, download some new music, or join a gym.
- Reach out and make a new friend or get in touch with an old one.
- Be a mentor.
- Send a loving message to someone through Facebook or Twitter -- or a leave a positive note on someone else's blog.
But most of all, be the friend to yourself that you have always wanted to have.
Join the conversation below: How do you plan to nurture yourself this year?
Dr. Gloria Horsley Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Clinical Nurse Specialist, and a Clinical Member of The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. She is the founder of the Open to Hope Foundation, a web-based resource for the bereaved. She is an internationally known grief expert, psychotherapist, and bereaved parent. Dr. Gloria co-hosts the Internet radio show, “Open to Hope,” and has authored a number of books and articles including “In-laws: A Guide to Family Therapy”; “The In-law Survival Manual” and has co-authored along with her daughter Heidi “Open to Hope: Inspirational Stories of Healing after loss” and “Open to Hope: Inspirational Stories of Handling The Holidays”. She has been on a number of radio and television shows including the Today Show.