Letting Go: 3 Essential Strategies to Heal Grief and Loss

“Why can’t I get over it?” I have heard this question from clients countless times over the years. I understand the struggle to move through grief and to let go of the past. I understand it as a therapist, and I understand it based on my own encounters with grief and loss. The struggle to let go varies between individuals based on both unique experience and differing levels of resiliency, and it can last long after the actual event or events regardless of what has happened.

The aftershock of traumatic experience can take many forms including perseveration, an endless streaming of disturbing self-talk or random images that can hijack our thoughts at any time. It may also include intrusive symptoms of Anxiety and Depression manifesting through substance abuse, self-injury, and even suicidal thoughts as we try to make sense of what happened and escape ourselves at the same time. Learning to let go, untethering ourselves from the past takes time, but there are strategies we can employ with ongoing intention that can make the process bearable.

Honoring the Loss

Active grief includes both acknowledgement and ritual. Acknowledgment of who or what we have lost is important because the impact can be profound. Our grief and loss experience deserves adequate space to roam yet the instinct can be to run from it, ignore it, push it away, or lock it up without the realization that we are only fleeing from ourselves. This lack of acknowledgement is simply more of what trauma communicated in the first place, that our feelings do not matter. Probing the wound allows it to heal. Being gentle on our tenderest of days, celebrating a life that has passed, remembering to be thankful for the time we had, and marking progress in recovery are just a few of the ways to find new growth in the burnt underbrush. This process is also a way to remind ourselves that there is always space for love and gratitude.

Creating Realistic Goals

Although my younger clients may need me to do this for them, most of my clients are able to validate themselves through the process of re-establishing their needs as important and worthwhile. If people are unsure of what they want to work toward in their lives, whether it is due to the daze of trauma or because their world has fundamentally changed (or both), I usually encourage them to start by spending time exploring their values. If we live in a valued way, things tend to line up naturally. In addition to acknowledgement of the self, an added benefit of spending time creating meaningful goals is the opportunity to regain a sense of purpose and to also re-establish the belief that we are the captains of our own ship. When someone I am working with slips back into obsessing about the past or overwhelming worry about the future, I remind them to gently steer back toward themselves as soon as they can, coming back to their goals and to the present moment. Whether it is changing careers, going back to school, or changing our daily habits, anchoring to inherent values and realistic goals can keep us from moving too far off course in any direction.

Surrendering Control

We do not get to pick and choose what we feel. We are either open or not. Honoring the loss and creating meaningful goals are both ways to open back up to the elaborate spectrum of human emotions and the current experience. This type of openness allows us to reconnect with ourselves, with others, and with what it means to live an authentic life. A compassionate process, healing from traumatic experience must include an understanding that moving forward sometimes feels as if we are falling backward. I remind my clients that although they may doubt their progress in a particular moment of intense activation, we never go back to the beginning once we embark on the voyage that is recovery.

Needing to be open but not overwhelmed, we have to let the waves of grief, anger, shame, and the feelings of profound helplessness crash over us without getting caught in the riptide. Through our practice we can simultaneously build a tolerance to work through these painful emotions, while also learning how to effectively distract ourselves when we need to rest on dry land. Messy but essential, surrendering control over to our emotions, trusting our innate ability to heal, and re-establishing faith in ourselves can strengthen forward focus.

Regardless of how we arrive here, it is the inability to integrate what has happened into our life story that can either slow our growth or stall the process of healing completely. Forward. That is the letting go…that..is..the..letting…go…to still enjoy all that I learned, to be better than I was, and to just let it be. That is more to the point isn’t it? Just…Go.

Clear Reflections

What are you struggling to let go of? What are the barriers that are preventing you from moving forward and what can you do to let go of them?

What is the compassion you have for yourself and your struggle to let go?

What is the proof you have already taken steps to heal? What additional steps can you take to honor your loss?

What is your next step?

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