Living With Layers of Loss
From the moment we’re born, we enter into a world in which we experience loss. It can be as simple as giving up a pacifier or a bottle as we mature from infant to toddler or as challenging as the death of a beloved animal companion. We struggle to understand the concept of something “going away,” and often there are no role models who are at ease with discussing the topic because they, too, may not have been educated in the ways of loss and grief. Add to that the reality of fractured families, dissolved marriages, mental health issues and addictions, and there’s little wonder why we’re surprised with recovery in the midst of it all.
Looking at Losses in Life
Take a moment to consider the losses in your life and the ways in which you address them. Some people in addiction recovery treatment have faced the death of parents, grandparents, siblings and friends. If your emotions around these experiences were repressed — for example, if you were advised not to cry — you may have a well of tears waiting to overflow. If you were told that a person “went to sleep” or “went away on a trip,” you might have feared closing your eyes at night or been fraught with anxiety each time a family member packed a suitcase.
These emotions may have lay dormant for decades and further held at bay by substance abuse. As we age, additional losses accumulate: job, physical vitality, cognitive functioning, children leaving home, financial challenges, and more. Each loss takes its toll on our well-being.
The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory incorporates 43 life events and a numerical rating scale of social readjustment for each one. Some of these life events related to loss include:
- Death of a spouse (100 points)
- Divorce (73 points)
- Marital separation (65 points)
- Detention in jail or other institution (63 points)
- Death of a close family member (63 points)
- Major personal injury or illness (53 points)
- Being fired at work (47 points)
- Death of a close friend (37 points)
When tallied up, these points indicate the risk of a major health breakdown, ranging from 150 points or less predicting relatively low risk to up to 300 points or more increasing the odds by 80 percent. Many of these events are to be expected in most people’s lives, but when a person is living with an addiction, the odds are greater that incarceration, marital conflict, injury, illness, loss of job, and death of friends and family members from overdose will occur.
About “Loss Layers”
Although I’ve worked in the bereavement field for many years, I was introduced to the term “loss layers” when reading the book entitled Glad No Matter What: Transforming Loss and Change into Gift and Opportunity by author and artist Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy (also known as “SARK”). It was written in the midst of her mother’s death followed by the passing of her 17-year-old cat and the ending of a romantic relationship. “Loss happens in spirals and layers and not in steps like a ladder,” she says. The image that comes to mind is that of the child’s game of putting one hand on top of the other and then moving the bottom hand on top of the person’s hand above it until a tower of hands is built. We can only reach so high before stretching too far and need to step back.
Loss layers can also be visualized as a tidal wave of emotion: Before we have a chance to recover from one loss, another seems like it’s piled on top of it. The natural tendency is to feel victimized or punished and want to stop the pain. But everything is a coping skill. If we have healthy and high-functioning coping strategies at our disposal — such as meditation, exercise, music, time in nature, being with supportive and loving family and friends, a spiritual connection, or whatever is meaningful to a person — there’s greater likelihood of enduring and growing from the loss and its pain. But if the default mode of coping is substance use or another type of self-medicating behavior, the chances of feeling like you’re drowning in both the loss itself and the consequences of the dysfunctional coping choice are increased.
Addiction recovery meetings, bereavement support groups, hospice programs, a compassionate and competent therapist, and pastoral support can help ease the sting of life’s losses. Although we don’t “get over” a loss, we have the capacity to move forward and embrace life, peeling back the layers of loss as we go.