If you have suffered significant loss in your life, you have some emotional “clutter”. You have probably heard of the acronym, OHIO, which stands for Only Handle It Once. This is supposed to help people learn better time management and be more efficient. Some feel it’s an excellent approach for keeping paper clutter under control in your home or office. It doesn’t really work when it comes to dealing with trauma, grief and loss. We wish we only had to handle something really painful once and then could be done with it. No, that’s not how it happens!
If you have survived painful life experiences, or are grieving the loss of a loved one, you know that the pain, the anger, the fear and sadness have a way of recycling and hitting you anew. Sometimes the triggers are highly predictable, such as an anniversary date, a sentimental song, a holiday, or even the scent of certain flowers lingering in the summer breeze. At other times, we are knocked down unexpectedly and have to really dig to figure out why our pain has blindsided us and maybe stopped us in our tracks.
So, what do we do? When we are overcome with those familiar, gut-wrenching, and even terrifying emotions, I think we need to acknowledge them right away and give them some respect. We need to accept that they are part of what makes us who we are, even when they hurt and not always try to banish them to another country. We need to not judge ourselves. I think it helps to embrace how we feel and let the feelings happen.
Obviously, if we are conducting important business, are in the middle of teaching a class, working with a client, or whatever, we can’t just melt down in a pool of tears or brooding. We have to carry on with our lives to the best of our ability. I know I have occasionally had to ask permission to share something personal. Then I have stated briefly that I was just reminded of a very sad, unhappy time, or of someone I miss, but that it had nothing to do with the person or people I was with. Without going into great detail, I acknowledged my feelings, explained just a bit and moved on. Sometimes I found this was a beneficial “teachable moment,” but that depends on the individuals with whom you are working and their circumstances.
It’s not that I don’t believe in professional boundaries, because I do, but I also want my clients and others in my world to know that I am human and have feelings and hurts to live with, and to manage, just as they do. My experience is that it helps to give them “permission” to deal with their own baggage when they know that someone they trust and respect has to do it as well. It helps them to know that people are resilient and that we can and do bounce back.
I think, for me, the most important and useful thing I have learned is that I cannot sweep these feelings, thoughts and memories under the rug. If I did, my house would look like desert sand dunes with huge bumps and hills everywhere. I tend to be a bit physically clumsy, so I know I would be constantly tripping over those bumps and hills. That’s exactly what happens when we do try to sweep things under the rug. They trip us up, interfere with our ability to be joyous and with being productive people.
When I anticipate that a difficult “anniversary”, or a triggering event is coming, I try to plan for it in advance. That used to mean keeping as busy as possible and not allowing myself time to reflect and even to cry. It meant constantly attempting to distract myself. It never worked. The dark cloud would hang over me. It would follow me wherever I went and would often cause my unhappy thoughts to be prolonged and more intense. I wasn’t pleasant company on those days, I couldn’t focus on work and I wasn’t much good to anyone. Now I take some time off on those days, when I can. I give myself a gift of time to sit quietly somewhere and I take in the quiet and the peace, in order to clear my head. I let the feelings pour forth for a while. If they don’t come to the surface easily, I use a facilitator, such as photos or music. Sometimes I write down thoughts and feelings and as soon as I give myself permission to do this, priming the pump, I start to feel release. Essentially, I give in and I know that it’s ok. Once I get it out, I can move on with the day. If I have a lot of time commitments, even a half-hour of this helps. I dry my eyes, put the thoughts I’ve written on my tablet away in a safe spot, wash my face and get on with things.
When the issues of the past, or negative and haunting stuff catches me unexpectedly, and with violent force at times, if I can stop what I am doing and go to some quiet space and once again, give in to it for a bit, it helps. If I am in a situation where I can’t easily do this, I take some deep, slow breaths and make an appointment with myself to face it all at….four-thirty, or seven, or as soon as my schedule permits. I take my appointments with myself pretty seriously. After all, I pride myself on my reliability and punctuality with others, so why not with myself?
The agony we have gone through in the past, the loss, the trauma, will not go away completely. Because we are human, it will resurface in different ways, but it is indeed in the past. We somehow managed to survive, to bounce back when we never believed we would, to build new and impressive strengths in spite of what we endured. The hard lessons we have learned are uniquely ours. As we breathe and allow ourselves to be in the moment of remembering what makes us sad, we are inviting our hurt to wash over us, to cleanse us and to move out again like the tides. We have learned that “this, too, shall pass” and that the most important time is now.