Somewhere along the way, someone convinced a lot of us that it’s not okay to mourn.
To be, you know, sad when we experience loss. To take time to feel that loss. Figure out what that loss means. Figure out how our lives might need to change after that loss.
To feel angry that we have to figure any of that out at all. To experience confusion and resentment about the fact that we even live in a world where we HAVE to figure out what to do when loss hits us.
It’s a drag. As much of a drag as loss itself is, it’s a drag that so many people feel weird about mourning losses when they occur. And they occur a lot more often than many of us think.
Actually, I suppose I should be fair: most of us have been taught that to mourn in SOME settings is okay. Like, most of us acknowledge that when someone close to us dies, that’s a loss that’s okay to mourn. The death of a pet, okay, that usually gets a pass. In our culture, the concept of “mourning” physical, bodily death is generally accepted.
If only that were the only kinds of significant losses we humans experience.
The way we humans work is, we look for patterns and get into grooves. We form beliefs about how the world works (in cognitive psychotherapy, these beliefs are called “schemas”), and we use these patterns and grooves and beliefs to navigate the world around us. It saves us from having to wake up every morning and learn all over again what the world is all about, what human beings are all about, what we’re supposed to be doing, how we’re supposed to be living.
When these grooves and patterns and beliefs get interrupted, however, we experience loss. Physical, bodily death is one way those grooves and patterns and beliefs can get interrupted, yes, but there are literally hundreds of other ways they can get shattered. As John Lennon once sang, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
Getting fired, or otherwise forced into a career change, is a loss.
Something happening to someone close to you in such a way that both yours and their life patterns are significantly interrupted, is a loss.
Loss can even come about as a result of positive change in life— getting promoted, moving into a new residence, having a breakthrough in psychotherapy. The common denominator of “loss” isn’t that it’s always a bad thing. The common denominator is that it requires an adjustment in how we think, believe, and behave in the world. It interrupts the grooves, patterns, and beliefs that we’ve formed in order to live effectively. And most adjustments come with discomfort.
That’s why we need to mourn. Even the little losses.
We kind of live in a “suck it up” culture. As I noted above, it’s generally acknowledged by others that the physical death of someone close to us should throw us for a loop, and most people will give us some leeway to not have our shit together for awhile afterward. For awhile, anyway.
(Though it’s my observation that many people have some pretty concrete ideas about how long people are “entitled” to mourn even after a physical death. But we’ll tackle that in another blog post.)
But when it comes to other, smaller losses, especially losses that are perceived to be (or, maybe actually are) our fault? Many people in our culture are far less tolerant of the kind of mourning that is appropriate or allowable after those losses.
Eh, there are a lot of reasons, and they’re varied. But, as a therapist, I can tell you that most of them boil down to: we generally don’t like thinking about loss in our culture.
We don’t like acknowledging it. We certainly don’t like acknowledging the necessity of mourning anything short of physical death— that might open us up to feeling things we don’t want to feel.
Things like vulnerability. Things like anger. Things like sadness. Things like confusion.
No, we don’t like to feel those things at all. So we solve that problem by treating loss and mourning with a suck it up sensibility. An attitude that, look, everyone experiences loss, and who do you think you are to need some time and space and, God forbid, some compassion to come to terms with your own losses, ESPECIALLY if your loss doesn’t EVEN involve a death?!?
Who do you think you are, indeed.
I’ll tell you who you should think you are. You should think you’re a human being, who was built with a certain set of emotional needs. Among those needs happen to be the need to mourn loses when they occur.
That’s right: I said mourning losses is a human need, not an indulgence or luxury.
We need to mourn losses, big and small, when they occur. Anyone who tells ya different doesn’t care about how effectively you’re coping with your loss (or even how effectively you’re living your life); they care about protecting themselves from uncomfortable feelings.
Mourning losses doesn’t have to consume your entire life. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic, emotional breakdown. A lot of the time, you don’t even need to cry to mourn a loss.
What you do need to do is treat yourself with empathy.
To acknowledge a loss has occurred, and that means your life needs to change.
To acknowledge that change is uncomfortable, that we were attached to our old grooves and patterns and beliefs.
To commit to giving yourself the time, space, and compassion you need to process what this loss— whether big or small, private or public— means for your life.
Giving yourself permission to mourn a loss is essential to your self-esteem. When we respect someone, we acknowledge their right to feel what they feel, and give them space to do what they need to do to get their needs met.
It’s hard to respect yourself if you’re not treating your own emotional needs with respect.
You have my permission to honor and mourn your losses.
(But, you don’t need it.)