Tip Sheet: Redirecting One Small Path Might Improve the Whole Journey

Photo credit Dave Sutherland

Personal loss strikes everyone. We have or will experience it in one way or another. Can we avoid loss? Unless you live under a rock, I just don’t think so. Why not take a quick moment and look at the image inserted at the top of this blog. What do you see there? Perhaps a well-defined paved walking path that is straight in front of you? Then you notice a barely carved out breakaway trail to the right of the main path. It is uneven, snarly with roots and debris, almost overgrown and somewhat uncertain. Does it call to you even in the midst of an inability to move forward?

The journey through loss is complicated and riddled with pitfalls. It will affect, (sometimes forever) the way we look at certain things going forward; our health, financial concerns, relationships, jobs (especially if your loss IS your job), and the daily routine we were sure was so safe and secure. If you could take out your wand and magically remove the loss, then everything in your life would go back to the way it was, right? Without loss, the daily routine’s thought and action is familiar, expectations seldom need to alter, and the sun comes up and goes down just like always. Our true destiny, however, reveals that the magic wand doesn’t work, our loss must remain, thus making the requirement of moving through it on day 1 after it occurs.

Working through a loss, especially if it is traumatizing and tragic, is a journey in which we will have many choices even if we don’t believe that we do. Most of us, in the midst of grieving a loss, can be quite convinced that an unexpected blindsiding event pretty much deprives us of choice. Grieving, in and of itself, is normal and required, even healthy. Without experiencing grief, it could prohibit us from starting the journey altogether. But grieving past the time of reasonability can muddy the waters of healing, and make the “journey” disappear into the horizon with no end in sight. Look at the photo again; is that endless walkway disappearing over the horizon for you?

Everyone seems to ask me the question, “How long should I expect grief to last? What is normal?”. I don’t believe anyone can answer that question. It certainly will be different for everyone, since the severity of each loss is individually perceived. Furthermore, we are each different in how we display, experience and describe our grief. Consider that a loss can be described anywhere from “upsetting and inconvenient” to “the worst thing that has ever happened in my lifetime”. You can understand then what I am referring to when I suggest it is quite impossible to create a grid that answers the question of how long should grief last for each type of loss. It is infinite. I do believe, that somewhere inside ourselves we intuitively know when grieving has moved from a stage-of-life to a way-of-life. Somewhere along the way a choice arises to break off on a path of discovery that could lead us in a turn to the new normal. Look at the photo one more time – could that lumpy undefined path be just that? A new pathway opportunity might feel subtle, and require some bravery to move away from the sure well-known footsteps of anger, sadness, longing, regret and isolation. If you feel the tug of change, then it’s probably time to change. If an opportunity comes to explore this pathway away from the ever-present feelings of loss, what will you decide? 

Perhaps an example would help illustrate what I mean.

Let’s imagine M has just left/lost a cherished relationship in life. It’s been many months and still grieving continues. M may see this lost loved one around the community from time to time, often with another person by their side, comfortable and happy in a new relationship. This reinforces the loss to M each time it happens. Therefore, getting out and about becomes nearly impossible to consider. Isolation begins to emerge. Picking up the normal activities of the day-to-day has not happened for M. Walks in the park where they spent much of their time together is one of the only activities M does now, simply because it reinforces how happy they used to be as a couple. M has little to no dates or encounters with other people or groups. It wouldn’t feel right, and venturing out of the comfort zone is threatening. Invitations from friends are put off or gently refused. Working at the job longer and longer hours seems a perfect outlet. M keeps artifacts or clothing of the lost love close at hand. Touching them is critical, and removing them is non-negotiable. Focusing on the past takes up a lot of mental energy.

Out of the blue an opportunity to visit another walking park with an acquaintance presents itself. This small path emerges as a choice and it awaits a decision. Yes, means going to something new, even though it could be snarly with roots to trip on, debris to hide the traps and pitfalls, and decidedly unmarked. Or No, to remain in loss.

A mentor of mine once said to me: “Unless it is dangerous, illegal or unhealthy, just say Yes.” What is the worst that can happen to M if agreement to go is taken? 

  • M hates the new park, but actually enjoyed the company of the new acquaintance. 
  • M didn’t really connect with the person, but loved the new park. 
  • M didn’t care much for either the park or the person, but learned that the previously unseen community was lovely and inviting. M thinks this warrants new considerations.

Outcome: the loss has diminished in some way and healing has begun. M may have just overlaid a thin positive layer over the sad and negative mental framework faced up until now, and the “journey” has been altered for the better.

Well, this is indeed a Tip-Sheet, so here are some tips you can follow to assist yourself with feeling stuck in loss, and ready to consider elevating your healing in the face of it:

  1. Observe your grieving: is it continuing beyond what might be outside the boundaries of what you or others might consider normally acceptable? If you think the answer might be yes, are you willing to look at options? Make a commitment to watch for a redirecting path, away from the journey you have been following, and allow it to present itself. Deciding to move away from living in loss is the First Step to healing.
  2. Chose new locations to spend your time over those that are associated with your loss. This will move you away from moving over the same tired track of sadness, despair, regret and lack of change. Make a SMALL list of possible locations to visit. Initially, go by yourself if you feel exposed, or bring someone along if that makes you feel safer. Either way is the right way.
  3. Pause before you say NO to any invitations that would represent a path redirection. Consider the details of the invite, remove any of the general reasons you give for saying no, and think of the possibility of gaining new information, starting a fresh interest in some topic or starting a journal. Say YES and carry through at least 1 time. Finish with an honest evaluation of what you learned from the experience that can guide you in the future. If you are not clear of how well it went for you, give another event of the same type a try and then re-evaluate.
  4. Plan and organize at least one new experience for yourself that takes you out of your comfort zone. If a holiday is near, plan a gathering of others to celebrate in the location of choice. If you are ready for an expunging, look to being in your own residence, since a successful experience can change the outlook you have about a space you shared with your loved one. Clear the air! Chase the shadows out and refresh the space.
  5. Use counseling, if it is clearly indicated that you are not being successful in expressing your feelings safely. If you are worried about depression, unabated sadness or harming yourself in any way, do NOT hesitate to seek professional advice, immediately.

Remember: you are the writer of your own life. Be happy in the novel you are creating!

Gabrielle Doucet

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