Sunday, November 7, 2010

A dialogue of loss

I was asked to write about loss for a local charity that supports those who have received burn injuries. I agreed and then had second thoughts. My experience of loss is unique. It is even different from the experience of other fathers who have lost daughters. Could I really address the concerns of those who had received terrible burn injuries and survived in a respectful and helpful manner? So I thought about whether there were some aspects of loss, whether it is a death or life-altering injury, that were universal irrespective of the specific type of loss. Then it occurred that the focus could be on how all of us survivors receive support from others and what we can do to help the process. Here is an excerpt:

One of the variables that has been identified in studies of loss as predictive of the path personal suffering may take is our perception of the support we receive from others. If we believe that those around us are interested and care about us we are likely to do better. Mental health professionals speak of “being present” or empathic listening. This is the ability to listen to someone intently and convey through the process that you understand not only their words, but how they feel and what is like to be them and that you deeply care. Unfortunately many are not able to listen in a caring fashion when we need to speak about our loss. So what we need from others to help us is often difficult or impossible for them to provide. One of my clients, a twenty-one year old man who is paralyzed from the waist down, told me that he would welcome someone asking him what it was like to be sitting in a wheelchair. He could see their faces, their eyes looking down at him as he sat in the wheelchair and knew they were thinking about how awful his injury was, but they would not talk about it. What was now part of his life, his new story, was being ignored. Ignoring what had happened was the same as ignoring him. He desperately wanted people to listen to him, and to know that they cared and accepted him as he was. After my loss I have experienced the awkwardness and discomfort of others when confronted with a parent’s grief. I have learned over the past year that if I wanted to tell my story and have someone listen I would often have to lead the way , almost giving “permission” to the other to have a dialogue about what had happened. This is supported by preliminary results from an ongoing study concerning loss which indicates that nearly all of those surveyed desperately wanted feedback from the survivor about how to be supportive.

In this way I have made it easier for others to be supportive and give me what I often need-a caring person who will listen. It is also a way to take some control over my situation and responsibility for what I need as a survivor. This does not always work, but when it does, and my story has been heard I feel connected and less isolated.

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