Tools for Tough Times: Coping With Loss

Today’s TTT information come from a digital event with Dr. Jill Morris on the topic of “Coping with Loss.” The event was hosted by a healthcare emergency management network on April 27, 2021, and focused coping with the vicarious trauma and ambiguous loss experienced by healthcare workers and others during the ongoing pandemic.

Dr. Morris identified several factors that are associated with one’s experience of vicarious trauma, including the following. 

  • History of personal traumatic event exposure
  • Gender
  • Avoidant coping
  • Fewer years of experience/training
  • Level of stress of clinical work
  • Regulating rumination, the dwelling on memories of distressing events
  • High workload
  • The high percentage of patients with traumatic event exposure
  • Lack of support

The COVID 19 pandemic, along with the dismantling of so much of the”normal” in the family, community, nation and world, has led to a sense of loss for many people, often profound and compounded losses.  These include the loss of…

  • Sense of safety, predictability, control
  • Social connections
  • Financial security
  • Trust in systems (government, education, health care, economic)
  • The belief we can protect our elderly and other vulnerable communities
  • Dreams, plans, rites of passages

Dr. Morris also provided an excellent description of vicarious resiliency factors.  These included witnessing growth and resilience in others, regaining hope, witnessing the power of healing, sensing the purpose and meaning in the profession’s value, a more positive and informed world view, and giving thought to self-care.  These factors are supported by our networks of social support, effective mindfulness, active problem-focused coping, and spirituality.

These vicarious resiliency factors help to explain why it is important to read resiliency stories of real people. With this in mind I stopped reading fiction over thirty years ago to focus my story reading on true stories of resilience. This practice has greatly influenced my sense of resilience, which has been greatly tested over the ensuing years.

For many, dealing with the unwanted thoughts, feelings, and memories of our traumatic experiences turns into what is referred to as “experiential avoidance,” the efforts to avoid, suppress, or get rid of unwanted private experiences.  This means the losses and vicarious traumatic experiences go over time.

The answer to making progress is found in the idea of willingness, the making of room for painful feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, urges, and memories.  As Dr. Morris pointed out, “It is not about wanting negative thoughts and feelings, conceding to them, or even liking them,” but it is “simply about letting them be there as they are.” It is an openness to the experiences and dropping the struggle with them. 

The strategies Dr. Morris suggested to assist us in gaining a greater willingness to embrace and not avoid our painful events included the following:

  • ALLOWING: You do not have to like it or want it—just allow it.
  • EXPANSION: See if you can open up and expand around the feeling.
  • THE CURIOUS CHILD: Observe this feeling as if you are a curious child/scientist.
  • MINDFUL NAMING: Label the feeling mindfully: I’m noticing anxiety, Here is sadness, I’m feeling anger.
  • NORMALIZING: This is what normal humans feel when there is a gap, a void in us.
  • COMPASSION: Hold this feeling gently and softly as if it’s a crying baby or a scared puppy.
  • BREATHE INTO IT: Breathe into this feeling. It’s as if your breath flows into and around it.
  • HEALING HAND: Lay a hand on the part of your body where you feel this most intensely. Imagine this is a healing hand—the hand of a loving nurse or parent, or partner.

Dr. Morris closed with a powerful question we can ask ourselves each day: “How am I making sense out of the pain and suffering I witnessed today?”  She also provided a link to a simple, straightforward “Self-compassion Break” exercise.  It is at: https://self-compassion.org/exercise-2-self-compassion-break/

Image via Pixabay

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