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  • Tara Palmer

The Ripple Effect of Loss

Loss is one of the most complicated aspects of our human experience. The immediate loss experience often functions in our emotional and relational worlds like a stone tossed into a lake... there is the initial point of impact immediately followed by ripples of secondary loss.

We can experience this ripple effect across many situations... divorce, death, change in health condition, change in employment, or even relocation.

What does the ripple effect look like?

Divorce is a common experience that might help us consider how the ripple effect works. The initial point of impact in divorce is, of course, the loss of a partner. For many, this is the point of the greatest pain; for others the hurt seems to be more evenly dispersed across areas of related change.

We may become disconnected from specific friends, in-laws, or communities to which we had been deeply attached. We may lose time with our children, and have spaces of feeling single again (that we never wanted). We may feel we've lost the map that was helping us navigate our present-future territory; that is, living now in a way that supports a specific vision for our future. We may feel we no longer know where we are going.

The death of a close person in our life is another common experience where we are more likely than not to encounter the ripple effect of loss. We experience the immediate loss of our loved one (their unique blend of character, interests, quirks, and ways of living in the world). With time, we often begin to also feel a loss of connection to certain 'in common' others, or to specific activities that we only participated in when we were with them.

If the person who passed was a partner, we may have lost access to certain forms of functional support (home repair; financial planning; social coordinator), or emotional support (the person we shared our day with; a warm hug; a fellow problem-solver when we feel stuck). We may find our days full of spaces that feel empty, or even begin to feel disconnected or estranged from certain parts of our self, and wonder if we'll ever find our way back to being who we once were.

Why does loss create confusion about who we are?

Disney Pixar's film "Inside Out" gives us a glimpse into how loss can impact our sense of self. Riley and the characters that support the internal functioning of her brain are the core focus of the film. Early in the film, we learn Riley is going to be relocating with her parents for her father's job. The relocation is going to take Riley away from everything she has known and by extension begin to disrupt her sense of self.

The 2 minute clip below is worth watching as it provides a visual conceptualization to help us consider how Riley's personality or sense of self is shaped, and by extension may give us a framework to reflect on our own experience.

Riley had stand out experiences that became core memories and gave shape to her "islands of personality." Riley is a 'goofball,' a hockey player, a member of a family, honest, and a friend. As the film continues, we see the changes in Riley's life begin to create alterations to the meaning she attributes to each of the original core memories- so much so that the islands of personality begin to crumble. Riley loses connection to the islands. The snapshot below gives us a sense of what happens inside when the crumbling experience takes place.

It seems after the islands collapse, all hope is lost. There is a sense that Riley will never be herself, or be okay again.

Loss can be like that. When loss occurs, we may encounter various forms of crumbling. Sometimes, a loss will only effect one 'island.' Other times, a loss may have a profound ripple effect and impact all or our core parts or islands of personality.

We may feel anxious, uncertain, hopeless, and confused among other emotions. We may feel low energy, and lack motivation. For a time, it may seem that nothing much matters. All of the ways that we used for relating to the world have changed. We're no longer sure how to be or who to be. We may be lost in wishing for things to be the way they were before.

These experiences are nearly universal, and yet so different from the times in our life when we are not grieving or adjusting to loss that we can feel confused by all that is happening, and unsure whether we're on a good enough path for healing and adjusting.

Most often our natural desires (wanting to be with people vs. alone, reflecting on our old world and longing for it to return vs. desiring to create something new, wanting to sleep/ rest vs. move/ exercise) will support us in continuing to move through the grief/ adjustment process. It can be uncomfortable to stay with the shifts between waves of grief and everyday living, and yet allowing ourselves to move back and forth is often the best care we can give ourselves.

With time, we often start re-accessing our sense of self by adapting old islands of personality, or naturally creating new ones.

Consider Riley's experience...

Although it is clear Riley's world will continue to evolve, we can see that a new foundation has been built to support her sense of self and her new ways of living in the world. This new foundation allows her to move into the next season and live fully again.

Whatever spaces we're moving through, we often find that "Nobody Knows" or can tell us exactly how to find our way through these times. We can only let love 'move our feet to carry on.'

If it feels helpful, enjoy listening to the Lumineers while using the following questions to reflect on your own encounters of loss and change.

  • How were your 'islands of personality' set up before the loss?

  • Did parts of your islands crumble? What was this like?

  • How were your 'islands of personality' renewed?

*If you have recently experienced a loss and change, it can be helpful to find a support group, therapist, or coach to walk with you through this challenging time.

Nobody Knows
The Lumineers

Nobody knows how to say goodbye
It seems so easy 'til you try
Then the moments passed you by
Nobody knows how to say goodbye
Nobody knows how to get back home
And we set out so long ago
Search the heavens and the Earth below
Nobody knows how to get back home
Through the darkness to the dawn
And when I looked back you were gone
Heard your voice leading me on
Through the darkness to the dawn
Love is deep as the road is long
And moves my feet to carry on
It beats my heart when you are gone
Love is deep as the road is long
Nobody knows how the story ends
Live the day, doing what you can
This is only where it began
Nobody knows how the story ends
Nobody knows how the story ends

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