A number of years ago, a school therapist who worked with grieving and traumatized children told me her goal was to ensure that at the end of the school year each child in her programs would know that God loved them. I questioned whether it might be a better goal for each child to come to know self love, since it is difficult to see outside of ourselves what we do not see within.
Any major loss brings with it multiple subsequent losses, and most people, after experiencing a difficult circumstance, are surprised at how the tragedy has ripped away at their self worth. There is often a sense of having been taken apart and put together wrong, which in turn creates a need to redefine one’s identity and then come again to love and cherish this new self.
Learning to love and cherish a self that we are just beginning to know does not happen automatically, but with desire and focused effort we can reclaim a life that is rich with satisfying experiences. Here are some tried and true suggestions for ways to relearn how to love your new identity, cherish your new self and embrace a life that is filled with joy and promise.
Allow more pleasures. The Talmud, The Jewish Book of Wisdom, states that “We will be called to account in the hereafter for all the God-given pleasures we have failed to enjoy.” Yet after the death of a loved one, we may need to come to terms with feelings of guilt when we allow ourselves to have fun, dress elegantly, wear jewelry, or buy something we admire. We may feel that to enjoy the pleasures of life is somehow dishonoring our grief and dishonoring the one who has died. It is, however, important to recognize that part of embracing a new life is to learn to celebrate as much as we mourn.
When describing his prison of war experiences, Victor Frankl noted that, for him, what often made the difference between life and death was to find one thing of beauty to focus on each day. Sometimes that would mean something as simple as focusing on the sun shining on a brass button of a soldiers’ uniform.
Allow laughter back into your life. Laughter increases Endorphins, the body’s own pain relieving medicine, and likely also increases Interleukin 2. Interleukin 2 is a neuron-enzyme associated with cancer prevention. High levels of stress decrease Endorphins and Interleukin2 levels, and grief and trauma both place a tremendous amount of stress on every system of the body.
Some years after my son’s death, on hearing the laughter of my sisters, I realized that I had not laughed in a long time. Yes, I smiled, although barely, but by then, it had been years since I had enjoyed a good out-loud belly laugh, the kind recommended for health and healing. So beginning the very next morning, out in the prairie field, far away from the eyes and ears of anyone who might surmise that I was on the verge of insanity, I forced myself to laugh. I did it again and again and again, day after day after day, until once again laughter was able to find its way out of my body of its own accord.
Downplay the small stuff. Life can be lumpy but a lump in the breast is not the same as a lump in the gravy. Finding joy and inner peace means crossing the threshold from being a bundle of grievances, into being a force of honoring the goodness in life and in all. This little poem attributed to an unknown Tibetan Monk reminds me of the value in re-framing thoughts and shifting perspective.
“Once little cares annoyed me, when little cares were few;
And one fly in the ointment would make me fret and stew.
Now my life has taught me each little joy to prize;
And I am happy to find some ointment, in my little jar of flies.”
Spend time in nature. Being out in nature each day allows us to be a part of the rhythmic pattern of life and to recognize that the seasonal changes that are occurring around us also occur within us. The metaphoric teachings of nature remind us that even the worst and coldest winter is followed by spring. Spring turns to a time of productivity and eventually to a time of ripening and harvest.
Tragic events can knock us off course, making us feel anxious and ungrounded. Spending time amidst the trees and flowers can help us regain our footing and allow us to again feel like we are walking among the living.
Live a life of gratitude. While in the beginning following a tragedy, it may be almost impossible to feel a sense of gratefulness, a large part of embracing a new identity and reclaiming a life of joy and promise, means to acknowledge all the goodness that is present all around us.
Some years ago I began a practice described by Abe Arkhoff in The Illuminated Life which is to frequently call to mind at least one thing I was grateful for equal to the number of years I had lived. I found the practice helped shift my consciousness from concentrating on, because of my son’s death, what I no longer had, to focusing on the benefits and good things that were in my life. This practice helped me recognize that what I was grateful for then seemed to come to me in greater abundance.
If it is time for you to embrace life more fully and completely, I highly recommend applying the above techniques to your life. As you do so, I trust you will recognize that you have within you the power to reclaim a new identity and to live a life more filled with joy and promise.