Help me not be defined by my losses
March 1, 2016 2:08 AM   Subscribe

I let the losses of loved ones, which I have experienced quite a lot over the years, define who I am and how I behave. I'm in therapy and working on it, but I'm looking for advice from people who fear losing others on how to deal with that ever-present shadow.

I lost my mother when I was in my early teens. I lost my brother and sister when I was in my early twenties. Various friends of mine fell to various medical conditions or additions before I was thirty, and most recently I lost a friend in the Paris terror attacks. A morbid personal factoid is that I've been a pall bearer 8 times, twice for the coffins of children.

All of which makes things hard for me when I'm forming relationships. I get scared of the loss that will inevitably come, one way or another, of the pain and grief I'm going to feel. It leads to me holding people at arm's length. I don't have many close friendships as a result of this, because I don't let myself expose much of my inner workings to people on the off-chance that they're going to die or otherwise leave me.

Most recently, this sabotaged my long-term relationship (much documented here on the green). It probably also had a hand in me staying in an abusive marriage for too long -- because I didn't want to abandon someone who professed to love me.

The realisation of all this has come in therapy, but it's been highlighted by an email I received from my ex, with whom I ended things at the end of last year. In the email she tells me that I "allow my losses to rule [me] and define who [I am]" and that that's "kinda pathetic" in an adult (she went on to accuse me of trying to play her and other nasty things... the email has served to remind me why splitting up with her was a good idea, as well as highlighting my personality faults).

Now, I'm trying not to see my fear of loss in light of spiteful, angry comments from my ex. I just want to get to the point where it doesn't get in the way of forming meaningful friendships (forget dating; I'm out of the pool now and intend to stay that way for at least a year. I'm working on this in therapy. But I wanted to ask you, strangers on the internet who have had similar issues, how you cope with this.

What are your strategies to prevent your fear of loss affect how you relate to people? What have you found that works for you?
posted by six sided sock to Human Relations (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: *addictions, not additions.
posted by six sided sock at 2:08 AM on March 1, 2016

I lost my daughter, after years of therapy trying to learn to trust the universe a little more after a childhood of trauma and abuse. I do think therapy is your best ally here.

After I had my next child, I was kind of a wreck for the first two years of his life because I was living in terror of loss. As you and I know there is no scorekeeper who makes sure that things even out, and I was so so scared. I still am with both my kids at times, frankly.

But...I came to realize that what I wanted most for the daughter I lost was that she had had a chance to live, laugh, love...take risks, with safety equipment, but still, to climb mountains or go parasailing or whatever. So first I grit my teeth and very, very painfully and consciously kept trying to choose life for my son. I gave myself the okay to verbalized (to his principal not to him) my fear that, for example, the school bus (whyyyyyy do school buses not have seat belts???) for his field trip would crash.

And gradually choosing living for him became a habit. I am still a pretty cautious parent and sometimes I have to go for a long run to not literally sit and freak out. But I want him not just to survive but to live.

After doing that for my child for a while, I had a year where I took the days around the anniversary of my daughter's death off work, but instead of mourning her (although I did that too), I really came head to head with the fact that I needed to choose life for myself, too. I had leapt into having first one and then a second child, work, housework...but I had not really let myself feel the way that loss had truncated my own love of...well, living.

It was like I was waiting for the next thing to be taken away. I still struggle with that but it was kind of an epiphany of realizing that I was myself just surviving. It's a process. I'd already read When Things Fall Apart and the badly titled When Bad Things Happen To Good People. I'd chosen behavior as a parent towards living. But I also had to start consciously doing that for me.

Anyways, I think all the thinking and searching you are doing will help. Ultimately though I think you probably need in part to make a choice about what you will choose, acting out of fear or despite it. It is really hard.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:51 AM on March 1, 2016 [27 favorites]

For me, I have kind of made tackling my fears a habit - and I'm talking about little things (which, when you have anxiety, are ever present and seem much larger). Going to the grocery store, learning to drive, flying on planes without indulging in a week of speculative terror beforehand - every small fear I tackled helped me build a habit, so that when the fear of loss creeps up I have a little better Arsenal that helps me push it aside and move on.

I have two small sons and spent months working up the nerve to put them into school twenty miles away. The idea of being that far from my babies almost literally took my breath away. I had to work on it a long time.

I have often thought, in relation to the losses in my life, that the worst thing that ever happened to me actually happened to someone else. But it's ok to acknowledge that you are shaped by these things.
posted by annathea at 4:54 AM on March 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

- Being scared is like any other emotion. It feels super big and important but you are not actually forced to obey your fear. You can acknowledge your fear, give it a little wave like it's somebody you know across the street but you don't really want to have a conversation with them right now, and then go back to living your life. (This takes practice and I frequently have to talk myself down while doing the thing but it's gotten so much easier.)

- What are you afraid of? Try to dig deeper than "I will lose the people I care about" -> why is that so frightening? Are you afraid of the emotional impact (the hurt)? Are you afraid of being alone? It could be complex or it could be simple. Then ask yourself: is my current strategy actually protecting me from this? (In my experience, my current strategy used to be helpful or was helpful in a scary crisis moment but isn't suitable as a long-term strategy.)

- Practice doing the things that scare you, little by little. Your therapist is a good starting point, open up to them. Next time you feel yourself putting someone at arm's length, challenge yourself to open up even a little. Do it at your own pace but make sure you're doing it, not just making excuses about why it's so hard or too scary or not the time. (I find it much easier to open up to people via IM/text so right now that's how I do it.)

- Remind yourself: I have experienced loss before and I survived it. Despite the earth-shattering terror and the pain and the sadness and the grief, you survived it and you can survive the next loss that gets thrown at you.

- It sounds like you might spend a lot of time trying to control things you cannot control (loss, other people's behaviour, accidents/bad things) and then feel helpless when you realize that you do not control these things, so you withdraw. Do you mostly fear things that you cannot control? This might be worth investigating with your therapist's help. (You might find that codependency resources resonate with you because of this.)
posted by buteo at 6:16 AM on March 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I lost three members of my immediate family before I turned 37, and it's a tough situation because so few people who are your peers at that age know what it feels like. It is impossible to understand what the death of someone that close feels like if you have not experienced it. To have multiple such deaths pile on is overwhelming. There is this sort of TV/movie version of grief where people feel pain for a short period of time and just move on and go back to who they were before. For many people, that's where their understanding of grief comes from. Or their grandfather died and they think that's what you're going through. People say well-meaning things that make it very clear they have no idea what it feels like to experience so many deaths (I'm sure you have stories - I certainly do). And that's not even counting people like your ex, who says mean things. What I'm saying is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you because you are greatly affected by this. This is a normal response to horrific life experiences. The problem is that so few people get that.

I don't have an answer to your question of how you can not feel those feelings of dread and potential loss. Even after decades of therapy, I still struggle with it. What I think is important to remember is that there is nothing wrong with you in having this reaction. It is not unlike PTSD - you have been through a terrible experience that you can only process with time. Your feelings are not part of a personality flaw - they are a human response. There are no shortcuts to healing - and you will never be what you would have been if you had not experienced this. Dealing with these feelings is a lifelong process. I think the main thing is to just accept what is - you feel this way. It's hard. It will get better with time, but your losses are part of who you are - not something wrong with you.
posted by FencingGal at 8:07 AM on March 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

In Buddhism they take the opposite approach: embrace the impermanence. Know that all good things come to an end, so use it as an excuse to love more fully and with fewer strings attached because our time together is so short.

If the anxiety over the idea of loss is paralyzing you can go to therapy; again in Buddhism one would mindfully approach the feeling of terror in order to weaken its hold on you. Very much like exposure therapy, but with a cosmic perspective and some meditation thrown in. Memail me if you want more deets on how to do that (I used to teach mediation) but it does have to be done gently as you wouldn't want to re-traumatize yourself by feeling too much too soon.

You could consider thinking about past / future lives. Your loved ones are gone to you from this lifetime, but when you see them again in a different form you will know them by the warm familiarity they induce. Maybe it's a fairy tale but it's a nice one.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:28 AM on March 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry.

I lost my Dad as a teen, and a really close brother figure a few years ago. It was devastating at the time and It definitely wounded my family incredibly, but it brought me closer to the people that are still here. The losses reinforced my relationships with them and my love for them, and it made me more grateful for them. I found myself taking people for granted less in general, and I try hard to keep that up and not ever become complacent. In a way, I found myself wanting to connect more to people and make more friends, not less, because the more connections I made, the more likely I'd have a 'net' of people around me if something happened to one of them. I didn't do this consciously, but yeah, it helps to know there are people out there who are there for you. It also helped to talk to people experiencing the same loss, because other people just didn't understand the death of an immediate family member.

There are still moments I get intrusive thoughts about other family members dying, or something happening to my fiance or friends. But as St. Peepsburg said, everything ends, and when you let yourself think of that thought you can either let it cripple you, or embrace it while it lasts. For me, part of the anxiety is fear of loss, and fear of being alone. But sometimes, I think about the people who are gone, and I realize I'm doing ok. That I got past each tragedy, and I'm still here. Yes, it will always be a wound, but it's definitely scabbed over and I'm surviving and I'm doing ok. I will always love them and miss them, but I have other loving relationships sustaining me, and I'm actually not alone.

And lastly, again as St. Peepsburg said, I do like to think they're somewhere and I might see them again. I'm not religious, and I realize it's fanciful, but it's one of my ways of coping with pain that might be unbearable otherwise.

Take care.
posted by Dimes at 8:50 AM on March 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My best friend died when we were 16 of a grand mal epileptic seizure, very random. Soon after, my first semester college roommate fell asleep at the wheel and was hit by a semi. A few years later, my eldest son was stillborn, followed by another miscarriage right after, and then came the abrupt death of my father (age 55) during the third pregnancy. I also had a lot of very close loved ones leave me throughout these years because they were a mixture of jerks and people who simply couldn't understand/didn't know how to deal with the kind of intense emotion and grief I was carrying. I developed a misanthropic and dark personality as my twenties progressed. I was so desperate for love from anyone and so afraid to lose any connection that I could claw out of someone. Much therapy, all the medications, and indulgence in self-destruction and suicidal behaviors ensued.

The path I am following out of it can be distilled thusly: I stopped caring as much what other people thought about who I became as a result of my life experiences. Everyone in my life (especially family of origin and my ex-husband, who sounds a lot like your ex) had something to say about how I should feel, act, etc. Opinions offered never seemed to be about validating my true emotions and struggles --- it was all about how I made things so uncomfortable for other people and how I needed to focus on helping others and moving on as quickly as possible. Helping others is cool but, as they say in airline safety demonstrations, "put on your own oxygen mask first." That message really didn't show up in my life until I started telling it to myself. It made a big difference when I did it consistently.

For example, I'm working on picking better people to have relationships with, people who either understand me or at least don't judge/will submit to reasonable boundaries of respect. (Spoiler alert: there are not a lot of people like this so patience is key.) I also forgave myself for things like not becoming a doctor and being fat and having an anxiety disorder. For me, these things are par. I survived a lot of trauma, and I'm allowed to be a little bit messed up and sometimes even a little selfish. Even if some other people had it harder and/or I don't end up with a Congressional Medal of Honor before I die.

You will never be what you would have been if you had not experienced this. But you can be something else, when you're ready. The trick is holding on until that time comes. Read a lot; keep the faith as best you can that bad odds almost inevitably turn. Try things you think might make you happy when you have enough energy --- if this involves making new friendships, perhaps a support group of the like-minded would be a good first step. When you are down, don't fight it with self-hate. Just survive and wait for the next wave to lift you. It's a good idea to maintain a personal baseline, e.g. I will not hurt myself physically, I will not quit my job, I will not let other people take advantage of me because they know I'm lonely. Take notes and keep your eyes open and when you see doors, open them. You've already lost so much; what else is there to lose? What else is there to be afraid of? You are bad ass and brave, even if you don't feel that way. The proof is you're still here.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 5:37 PM on March 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

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