This week in The Brain BS™ Blog and Podcast we are going to explore how to manage our minds when somebody we care about, but is not central to our lives, dies unexpectedly. We hear a lot about how to cope with the devastation we feel when we lose somebody very close to us, but not so much when it is somebody outside of our inner circle who we may have not even see on a regular basis or anytime recently. Unexpected losses that do not devastate us impact us in a different way. They essentially magnify our mortality and our fears of dying which can be quite uncomfortable for us. I will discuss the process I use to accept these losses, minimize my suffering, and work through the emotions so I can grieve in a healthy way.
Okay, let’s first start with what I mean by people who are not in our inner circle. I am referring to people who you maybe once had a close relationship with, or maybe currently have one with but you do not see much of them. It could be a childhood friend who you lost touch with or even a celebrity or musician whose work you love. I am not talking about close friends or family members here as those losses cause us so much pain that we are usually thrown into a tailspin and downward spiral. The losses I am talking about here still impact us profoundly, but in a much different way.
In fact, I recently experienced just such a loss. A few weeks ago, I was notified that an old boyfriend of mine had died unexpectedly. Man, I just could not wrap my head around it! It felt surreal and unbelievable. I had not seen this man for years and dated him when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, and I am now in my late fifties to give you some context. This guy had not been a part of my life for a very long time, yet I was definitely shook up that he had died. Somehow the world felt strange and kind of weird without him in it. When I examined how I was feeling a little closer, I realized that I was experiencing sadness, fear and yes, even love. Let’s look at the thoughts now that triggered those emotions.
The first thought that popped into my mind was that I felt terribly sad for his life partner and his siblings that were left behind. His family grew up on the same side of town as mine and there is a certain type of bond that comes with that common upbringing. Sad felt very appropriate to me given the situation, so I did not make it a problem that I was feeling this way. In fact, I tried to pay close attention to how the sadness felt in my body and purposely chose to not resist it so I could process it. The next emotion that I became aware of was fear. My old boyfriend was just a few years older than me, so it scared me to be reminded of how fleeting our time is here and how little control we have over that. The third emotion of love came after I worked through the other two emotions. I found this one to be the most interesting because I was able to acknowledge a deep love for him again, but in a totally different way. Instead of a romantic love, I experienced a love for a fellow human whose time had ended much earlier than anticipated. It made me appreciate all of the good stuff about him instead of the negative stuff that drew us apart because of emotional boundaries. His dying gave me permission to love him again in a way that I could not do when he was alive, and it allowed me to work through some unfinished emotional business that I had in regard to him in my subconscious.
Alright, now that we have explored some of the thoughts I experienced, I want to share with you some of the thoughts I purposely chose not to listen to or buy into for my own well-being. The first thought I chose to discard was that something had gone terribly wrong, and this was not supposed to happen at such a young age. Since I started to do this work, I no longer give credence to the shoulds because I know they are just a mental construct created by humans to torture ourselves and add layers to our suffering. The truth is the Universe does not make mistakes and has a plan for all of us that we have little to no control over. I mean we can help influence it by the choices we make and how we take care of ourselves, but ultimately when our number is up, it is up. This gives us all the more reason to stay present in every moment of our lives because we have no idea of how long we will have the privilege of being alive.
Another thought I chose to shun is that if I would have ended up with him, I would be a widow now. That is a pretty sad and scary thought that does not serve me at all. The truth here is that the woulds are just as bad as the shoulds and no more real. Again, everything always goes exactly as planned and I was never going to end up with him. The reason why we know that is because I did not end up with him. There is no alternative life path that exists anywhere where I would be a widow so complete waste of time to think about something so disturbing. Do you see what I mean when I say we add layers of unnecessary suffering when we chose to focus on thoughts that make us feel even worse than we already do? Us humans do that all the time!
I want to mention one more thought that I chose to get rid of because of the way it was making me feel. That thought was that I could die today, and my poor husband would be devastated. When I had this thought, I literally started bawling. The sadness was overwhelming and crippling if I stayed focused on it, so I for sure had to let go of this one. Also, let’s remember, that the coulds are no more real than the shoulds and woulds. Anytime we reject reality exactly as it is we are rejecting the gifts and lessons of the present moment. For example, instead of thinking something so terrible that upsets me, I could instead learn from the experience of losing somebody I used to love and share my process for grieving, which is what I am doing here.
Now, let’s look at another example that happened to me a long time ago. It was quite a few years back when Facebook was somewhat new to the scene. I was looking up my childhood friend who was my best friend when I was in the single digits, so it was a long time ago. I had tracked her down once before when FB did not even exist yet. She ended up coming to our house when I was in my late teens which was super fun. We lost touch with one another after that, and I did not give her much thought. Then one day, she popped into my mind many years later, so I did a search on FB for her and found out that she had died of cancer at a very early age, leaving two toddlers behind. I was stunned and heartbroken to find out that my best childhood friend had died and left this world without me even being aware of it. Given that it was so long ago, I did not have the ability to manage my mind and was in a funk over this news for quite some time. I kept thinking the shoulds and the coulds and that added extra layers of sadness made me feel even worse.
This sort of brings up another point actually and that is texting and social media make us so much more aware now when somebody is sick or dying. It used to be that we would lose touch with people and never know anything about them. These days we have access to pictures of them, their families, and updates on everything happening in their lives including illness and death. I have a family thread with my siblings and that is how I hear about everybody who has died that I grew up with in Ohio. Death is more in the forefront of our minds than our brains normally want to keep it because we are so informed with advances in technology and communication.
I am going to switch gears now to an example that is less personal but can still have a significant impact on our emotional state and that is when somebody famous dies. It could be a beloved former president, a musician, maybe an actor or your favorite author. I am pretty sure that anybody who is old enough can recall where they were when Kennedy got shot. I remember exactly where I was when I heard Elvis died and the Challenger blew up. Even though we have no personal interactions with the individual or possibly a group of people who die, we can feel a great senses of loss and sadness because of how connected we feel to them. Similar to losing a distant friend, we might imagine it could be us or our family going through the tragedy, and this adds to the suffering and that triggers our fear of death. As a result, we resist the feelings and thoughts that come up and that can actually make them feel even stronger. Sometimes it benefits us to visit the worst-case scenario, then set the thoughts aside, and process the feelings associated with them so we can release the emotions and feel better. If we learn how to process and release emotions correctly and make a point of doing it frequently, the feelings will start to dissipate, and we can reprogram our subconscious in a way that is working for us. There are many other thoughts and feelings that come up with a celebrity death, but I am just sharing the ones that are pertinent to this discussion.
In conclusion, the grieving process is going to look quite different depending on who has died and how they died. It will also depend on how involved they were in our daily lives and the level of connection we had with them. In this post, I am sharing the process I utilize when people I care about who are not in my inner circle, die suddenly and unexpectedly. I recommend managing our minds effectively, accepting the reality of the situation, and processing and releasing the emotions as they come up. I believe this can help us to confront our fears around dying and promote grieving in a healthy manner. Join me in The Brain BS™ Podcast to discuss this further.