When Life Happens…Hints for Surviving Traumatic Loss

by Kent Whitaker

Life happens to all of us, but have you noticed that some people come out of trials stronger, and some come out crushed? We can’t stop bad things from happening, but we do have some control over how we respond to them. I wasn’t much better at this than the next guy before my wife and son were murdered five years ago. But I have learned a few tricks.
In times of loss we need friends and family more than ever, to help us from feeling isolated and helpless. But the sad thing is, now people don’t know how to talk to you. They want to say the right thing, but don’t know what that is, and are afraid that they might make matters worse. Sometimes this indecision blocks them from saying anything, they get embarrassed and then start to avoid you, and isolation is your worst enemy. That isn’t what either of you want! Snip this in the bud and be proactive; send an email to everyone telling them that you know they don’t know what to say, and you don’t care; you just want them to call or drop by. Just being with you, knowing that they care is all you want. Put yourself in their shoes: isn’t that what you would want them to tell you if you were unsure what to do?
It is also important to realize that our bodies and minds are affected when we suffer a significant loss. At first I thought that something was really wrong with me because my memory got so bad. A friend who had lost her husband told me I just had what she called “Widow Brain”, and that it would get better in time. Although it is temporary, an emotional loss triggers physical changes to our brain cells that affect our mental processes. While this is very aggravating, it is also a blessing in disguise: God does this to slow us down so healing can take place. Imagine experiencing the full measure of significant loss without this numbing effect!
There are other physical consequences of loss as well. Grief and tension wear us out; we need more sleep. This is particularly hard because another characteristic of loss is that we are less efficient, so activities take longer. Accomplishing things takes on an added importance because it helps us think we are back in control of our life. Since we think we must get everything done it is very easy to steal time from our sleep. That is like a college student who stays up three days studying, and then fails because he sleeps through the exam. We must discipline ourselves to let some things go so that our rest is not lost. Most emotional healing takes place while we sleep.
How do we reconcile needing more rest, taking longer to get things done, and (as often happens within life’s hard times) handle the new problems that pop up as a result of the loss?
One thing we can do is accept help from those who offer it. When my wife and son died I had many friends and family ask what they could do to help. Everybody offered, but since I have never felt comfortable asking for help, I thought I was being courteous when I declined. But one of my wife’s best friends surprised me by stepping into my face, grabbing my shirt and shaking me.
“Kent! We are ALL hurting! It is your job to find something for us to do so we can feel like we are helping!”
I realized that there were many little jobs that others could do. The next Saturday I set up a work day, and the guys worked on the yard while the ladies gave my house a thorough cleaning. Then I made hamburgers and we all had a burger party. Friends want to help; they just don’t know what to do. Use your imagination!
Profound loss is not for the faint of heart, but we are stronger and more resilient than we think. Right now you may feel like you are drowning, but this will pass. With the help of friends, family, faith, and an understanding of how our bodies have been affected we can come out a victorious and stronger person.
Trust me!
Kent Whitaker is a nationally recognized speaker and author, whose first book, Murder by Family, reached the New York Times Best Seller List. His story of faith and forgiveness has been featured on Oprah!, 48 Hours Mystery, and ABC’s Primetime. Visit his website at http://www.Kent-Whitaker.com

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