Who’s in Charge Here? Coping with loss of control.

Grief isn’t an emotional experience, it’s an entire paradigm shift.  When something bad happens that’s beyond a person’s control, like the death of a loved one, they often reevaluate their entire understanding of the world and their role within it.  If the world is erratic and unpredictable, then what does that mean about your ability to control what happens to you and your loved ones?

Your loved one’s death undoubtedly challenged your assumptions about life and forced you to face realities that you had previously been more than happy to ignore.  How you made sense of what happened and how you’ve decided to cope with life’s inherent risk and randomness depends on a number of different factors. As always, grief responses exist on a continuum.

Some people will evaluate their situation and say to themselves – “I hate feeling like I don’t have control” or “I hate feeling like I could lose control” or “This happened because I didn’t try hard enough to control” so “…let me try really hard to control things from here on out.”  

Grief and control

After a person feels truly helpless and vulnerable for the first time, they may think to themselves – “Never again.”  So, in an effort to minimize their future pain, they attempt to control their emotions, their environment, and the safety and health of their family and friends.

Obviously trying to obsessively control is a flawed coping skill.  First of all, you can’t control the bad away.  Second, the more you try and control, the more specific your expectations are, and the more room for error and disappoint there becomes.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people may come to the conclusion that they have no ability to exert influence on their environment, to control the things that happen to them, or to manage their intense grief emotions. There is a psychological concept called “learned helplessness” that occurs when a person passively gives up because they’ve learned from their experiences that bad things happen regardless of their actions. Someone who has developed learned helplessness may stop trying to escape their pain, stop looking for solutions, and/or give up on efforts to cope with or improve their overall situation. This end of the spectrum is not good either.

Passively give up

So if you can’t control the world and other people and you can’t just give up, then what do you do? I would suggest the best thing you can do is claw your way towards the middle of the continuum by (1) identifying the things you can’t control and then (2) focusing on the things that you can.

One thing you can generally control is yourself, even though grief has a tricky way of making you feel like you can’t. You may have to work harder than you’re used to to impact your thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors, but you can. Even if it’s only incrementally over time and even if you have to seek outside help to do so.

For starters, here are a few things that may be within your control.

Your efforts to control:

If you’re someone who feels as though you need to control everything and everyone, you can work on letting go of this tendency. This may not come easy and if you find that you cannot tolerate uncertainty, risk, and unpredictability so much so that it is causing you intense anxiety, you may want to seek the assistance of a mental-health counselor in identifying ways to cope.

The types of coping you choose:

From a psychological perspective “coping” is defined as,

“Active efforts to master, reduce, or tolerate the demands created by stress.” (Weiten, 2014) 

Note, this definition makes no mention of the types of efforts used to master, reduce, or tolerate stress. Although the word “coping” often implies positive or effective efforts, people can also cope in ways that are harmful to their mental, emotional, and physical health. In the past, we’ve explained negative coping in the following way:

“Negative coping encompasses any type of behavior employed as a quick fix to regularly avoid painful emotions or situations.  These are temporary distractions that reduce emotional pain in the short-term, but provide very little in the way of actual healing.  Negative coping is like emotional aspirin; it numbs the pain temporarily, but once it wears off the pain reappears. Often these patterns of behavior end up making your stress worse because they are unhealthy and require a lot of effort to maintain.”

Even if you don’t automatically know how to effectively deal with grief, it’s important to minimize negative coping and engage in efforts to identify positive coping skills that fit your unique coping style.

Your outlook:

I find that people don’t love being told that they should be mindful of their outlook. For this reason, I typically shy away from overtly suggesting that a person can, in many ways, choose their attitude. However, I recently re-read Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, which is based on his experiences in an Auschwitz concentration camp. Among many other important things, he said…

“Such people forget that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.” 

Reading this section, I had a serious “Aha!” moment. It dawned on me that when everything is out of your control, the one thing you can control is your internal mental life. No matter what life steals from you, your thoughts and attitudes are always your own. Furthermore, you get to decide how you find meaning in life after loss. It may take time, but you’ll get there.

Your support system:

Okay, so you can’t choose your family and sometimes you can’t choose your friends.  However, you can work on a few things relevant to your support system.

  1. You can work on utilizing your support system effectively.  Remember, everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.
  2. You can work on asking for help and accepting help.
  3. You can work on spotting emotional manipulation in your support system.
  4. You can search for community resources and mental health professionals to supplement your support system.

Your continued bond with your loved one

If you’re not familiar with the concept of continuing bonds with deceased loved ones, we’ve written about it here. The main idea is this:

“When your loved one dies grief isn’t about working through a linear process that ends with ‘acceptance’ or a ‘new life’…Rather, when a loved one dies you slowly find ways to adjust and redefine your relationship with that person, allowing for a continued bond with that person that will endure, in different ways and to varying degrees, throughout your life.  

Perhaps the greatest respite you can find in your grief and pain is in your thoughts of your loved one, your memories of them, and in recognizing the ongoing role they play in your day-to-day life. Death may have physically taken your loved one, but he or she will always remain in your heart and mind and nothing on Earth can change this.

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