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A Guide to Processing Loss

Every day, life blesses us with beauty, sweetness, magic and love. This can come in all shapes and sizes whether it's a loved one, a career, your family, friends or through mother nature. We are given an opportunity to enjoy everything life has to offer through the senses given to us whether they're physical (sight, sound, smell, taste, hearing) or interpersonal (emotional, behavioural, social). The connections we make through life are essentially what it's all about. It's what makes up life, love and everything else.

Unfortunately, the blessings we can receive also come with loss. The deeper we value and love these parts of our life, the deeper the sense of loss. This sense of loss can understandably make you feel empty, grief stricken and take you to the depths of emotions you might not have known you had. Any reminders can start to serve as emotional triggers which are often triggered in spaces or places where you might not be prepared. Ultimately, this can affect your health, well-being and relationships by isolating you from the world and blocking joy and happiness.

There's a number of things that can help to process loss. The key word here is process. Processing means that there won't be a clear-cut change where everything returns to normal, but it does mean that you can slowly change your response and memories around loss. Our brain carries a negativity bias. This is a natural response of the brain to avoid things it perceives is causing us harm. The challenge is that our brain is extraordinarily powerful and can't dissociate if something is extrinsic (like a predator) or intrinsic (a personal loss). So, the response of the brain to loss or injury will invariably bring about an unfavourable emotional response.

Jhaimy Alvarez-Alcosta, a Peruvian Currandero (Traditional Healer) once said to me when talking about personal loss "When you lose someone, wherever they go you can think they take a suitcase with them. In that suitcase we have a chance to put everything we feel about them in this life. You can give them all the love, understanding, positive memories and love. They take this with them to whatever comes next which will make the journey filled with love and ease. On the other hand, if we give them sadness, frustrations and anger it can act as an anchor to this world and make it difficult to pass on."

So, it is up to us in honouring the memories of our loved ones to process how we feel and let them rest in peace. In saying this, no one really knows how you feel about your loss. No one will ever truly understand this so it can become a very personal and lonely experience. Support groups can be beneficial to find people who have a shared experience but as we're all different no one can ever truly understand which can be frustrating in itself and come as a hard truth to swallow.

Processing grief can come through conversation or through internal reflection. It's important to be guided through your process with an empathetic professional who can understand your point of view and offer more than logical advice. With regard to the internal work, I can offer a few exercises that have helped me and others with how they go about processing.

First of all, we're going to remember core memories in a controlled environment. These can be your 'go to' when faced with triggers or reminders. You want to train your mind to habitually go to these feelings and memories which can take practice and time. You can start with two or three key meaningful past experiences. If you like, you can associate these with a photo, an ornament, some art or whatever else you like. Carry this with you in your wallet or pocket as a symbol or resource when times are tough.

When strengthening core memories as a practice, you're trying to re-live the beautiful experiences as best you can. This can feel a bit like going to the gym, but for your mind. The key to strengthening core memories is to focus on your senses throughout the experience.

  • What are you hearing?

  • What are you smelling?

  • The sensations of your body at the time, what are you touching?

  • What you're seeing to the finest detail?

  • Who else was there?

  • What season/time of year was it? What was the temperature?

  • What are you feeling?

The more realistic you can recreate your core memory with your senses, the stronger your emotional response to it will be. While you're doing the practice, it can be helpful to hold your symbol and create a protected, impeccable space that is free of any unwelcome emotion or negative thought pattern. Focus on the memory itself, not on your reaction to it. It sounds silly but give it a try.

What happens when we strengthen core memories is it helps to cushion us from traumatic ones. We can't heal scars, but we can heal around them to focus on the thousands of positive memories that get blocked by the brain in the grip of trauma.

Secondly, as we focus on the smaller things that life has to offer it can help us to process and let go of attachment. Unfortunately, attachments tend to taint relationships. The attachment we feel for things can serve as anchors which can sink not only us, but also sour our memories of loved ones. There are two steps to letting go of attachment. Firstly, you can list all of the things that bring you happiness in this life. You might need more than one page. This can be all the little things like the sounds of birds, the taste of chocolate, a good movie, pets, friends, holidays or whatever else has brought you a smile. Before you know it, you'll find more and more causes for joy. Next, list the conditions for happiness you may have unconsciously attached to yourself and all of the expectations you have placed on yourself to have happiness. This is what you need to let go of for peace. Focus on the first list and realise that peace and happiness can come from all angles in this very moment.

For more information regarding attachment, processing loss and cultivating joy. I can strongly recommend Thich Nhat Hanh's book No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering. I wish you blessings of protection and compassion on your path. The sorrows of our heart are the echoes of love.


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