Coping with Loss

  • Published
  • By Maj. Leigh Johnson
  • 8th Medical Group clinical psychologist
Death is never easy to come to terms with; but, it is particularly stunning when it is sudden, unexpected, and targets someone who had only just begun to fill the pages of their life. Recently, Kunsan lost a valuable member of the Wolf Pack. As the chaplain noted during the memorial service, the death of that member leaves us with many questions for which there are no easy answers.

According to Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief: denial, "this can't be happening;" anger, "it is not fair;" bargaining, "I will give my life savings if only...;" depression, "why go on;" and, ultimately, acceptance, "it's going to be okay." But what does it really mean to accept death? Somehow, acceptance in this case feels like surrender --- because it requires our acknowledgment that the world is not predictable or orderly, and that it does not subscribe to the rules that we cling to in order to feel safe and in control, "if I do the right things, bad things won't happen to me;" or "bad things don't happen to good people." Acceptance of any death also implies some acknowledgment of our own mortality. Perhaps "acceptance" is an elusive goal--something we can strive for but never fully attain.

According to Dr. Kubler-Ross, not all grievers go through the five stages of grief sequentially, and grievers will often return to one or more of the stages several times before completing the process. Regardless of the path taken, the key is that grieving is a process that cannot be avoided. It's tempting and natural to want to protect ourselves from the pain of sadness, to somehow circumvent the grieving process. But, sorrow has its own momentum --- when we try to prevent it from taking its natural course, it seeps out in other forms --- such as depression, alcoholism, anger, or social isolation.

One of life's important truths is that joy and sorrow are inextricably linked. To the degree that we attempt to protect ourselves from sadness, we also protect ourselves from happiness. Kahlil Gibran wrote, "When you are sorrowful look into your heart ... and you shall see in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight." We don't grieve things unless we once cherished or cared for them. Through the process of grieving, we acknowledge our vulnerability--but we also honor the very person or thing that we once cherished. Looking around during the recent memorial service, it was abundantly clear that Jarred Crowley was cherished by his friends, his fellow Defenders, and by the Wolf Pack.

For those of you who are struggling with making sense of Jarred's death, here are some constructive ways to get yourself through the grieving process:

-- Reminiscing with others about Jarred

-- Prayer/reading the bible/attending church

-- Creating a tribute or memorial to Jarred (i.e., creating a website in his memory, or writing a letter to his mother about what he meant to you)

-- Actively seeking to adopt a quality of Jarred's that you admired, so that he can "live on" in your behavior and example

-- Journaling/writing down your thoughts and feelings (if this is difficult for you, you might try reading others' thoughts about loss and grief)

-- Increased willingness to voice your care/affection for those around you

-- Exercising/engaging in activities that are fun, relaxing or masterful for you

-- Increased appreciation of the time/body/friends/family that you have

Surely, looking down on us now, these are the things that would bring a smile to Airman Crowley's face.

Joy and sorrow are one--inseparable. Let us have the courage to embrace both!