Any loss can trigger a domino effect of secondary losses that one needs to adjust to. In the case of a death or trauma, one needs to not only find a way to survive and redefine the day-to-day but to reconstruct meaning and accept who they are in the context of life after loss. Adjustment is tricky work and it can feel darn near paralyzing when you’re also dealing with the complicated emotions of grief.
Adjustment and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
A significant loss has the capacity to impact every level of a person’s functioning. It starts out as a crack and then slowly spreads and splinters until everything in life seems broken. As humans, we need to stabilize our most basic needs like health and safety before we can reconcile more high-level needs, but this isn’t to say that our brains can’t concurrently grapple with issues at every level. There may be one dominating motivation, but we’re still aware of other needs and the result can be a maze of confusion and gobbledegook.
For our purposes, I would like to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to look at adjustment after a loss, starting with our most basic needs and working all the way up to self-actualization (that’s the tip of the pyramid you see below).
(I borrowed this image from Google Images because it was both cute and informative. It appears to have originated from www.timevandevall.com.)
Physiological and Safety
Financial insecurity: There are many reasons why one might struggle financially after a loss. Sometimes financial security is threatened after the breadwinner or the source of either the primary or secondary income dies; other times a person might lose all or part of their income when they can’t work due to trauma, illness, bereavement, or caregiving. Although many places of employment are flexible about employees missing work due to hardship, not everyone is guaranteed a job after both long and short stints away.
Whatever the necessitating reason, adjusting to financial insecurity can be a tough task. Lack of finances may require a person to give up things that were important like hobbies, private school or higher education, memberships, cars, vacations, etc. They may experience anxiety over paying the bills, depression, and shame about an inability to support themselves or their family, confusion about how to budget, and poor health if they can’t provide consistent food or shelter for themselves and/or their family.
And because people also must adjust to events perceived as ‘positive’ I’ll also mention the other side of the coin, adjusting to a windfall as a result of inheritance, law suit, etc. Anyone who’s heard the lottery-winner-to-bankruptcy horror stories might guess that receiving a sum of money (especially as the result of a negative event) can be difficult to effectively manage.
Returning to work: What do you do when financial stability is threatened? You hit the pavement. Going back to work after being out of the workforce can be a frightening and humbling experience. Those who can’t find a job quickly run the risk of feeling dejected and discouraged by their options. Those who do find a job must adjust to life as an employee.
For some returning to work is an exciting prospect, while for others it means finding child care, juggling responsibilities, sitting in traffic, adjusting to the company culture, learning and re-learning the skills necessary to complete the job, getting home and dealing with the household chores, going to bed and doing it all over again in the morning. Now I know this is a reality many people deal with on a daily basis, but the adjustment can be rough for those who aren’t accustomed to managing ‘it all’.
Relocation: The need to relocate is a common outcome of loss or life transition. If one is lucky, they have the time and resources to find a new home they’re happy with. Loss, however, is often unexpected and oftentimes people are forced to leave their homes quicker than they would have liked. Again, many are fortunate enough to have the resources to quickly find a suitable place to live. Also fortunate are those who can move in with family or friends in a pinch (although we all know living with family can present its own set of challenges). Saying goodbye to a home can be tough on anyone, but it’s especially hard for kids who often have to leave the only home they’ve ever known, say goodbye to friends, and deal with the added adjustment of attending a new school.
Dependence: Raise your hand if you hate asking people for help. Oh, you too? For some, being dependent on others can feel awful. In fact, many put off asking for help or what they consider a ‘handout’ for as long as possible. After a loss one may become dependent or friends, family, community, charity, or government for financial assistance, childcare, help with household tasks, emotional support, housing, etc
Threats to Safety: Whether the threat is real or perceived, it can trigger fear and anxiety and prevent finding comfort and balance in life. Whether a person moved to an area they perceive as less safe, have to walk where they once drove, work in an unsafe area or an unsafe job, or lost their protector – perceived threats can make life seem like one long dark and scary night.
Love/Belonging and Esteem
Changes in the family structure: Death, trauma, and transition can impact the entire family unit. The death of someone who connected one side of the family to another can put distance between cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren, and in-laws. Additionally, fighting over the loss, grief related misunderstanding, the division of property, and shifting family dynamics can lead to familial rifts. All these factors, if not dealt with, can lead to estrangement.
Another potential adjustment is the ushering in of new spouses, step siblings, and extended family. It can be difficult to make room for new people and personalities, especially when grieving a loss.
Emotional and physical intimacy: Intimacy can be thought of as both emotional and physical. Sources of general affection and comfort can be found anywhere – a mother, sibling, father, spouse, or best friend; while physical intimacy is usually shared with a spouse or partner. When one loses someone they were intimate with, they have to adjust to life without that specific bond.
Some will choose not to find a new outlet for this intimacy, while others will find different ways to express and receive emotional and physical comfort and fulfillment. The original bond can never be replaced or replicated so individuals will also have to adjust to the norms and expectations of new relationships.
Social support: People who’ve experienced a loss are often shocked when their family and friends start disappearing. As a result, many are forced (or make the decision) to redefine their support system and social circle.
Redefining roles: Roles inhabited prior to a loss – parent, sibling, employee, friend – may need to be redefined in its aftermath. Although one may still inhabit the role, the way they execute it often changes. On the other hand, some have to take on new roles as the result of a loss. The overall result is a shift in responsibility, identity, purpose, and priority.
Identity and Self-Perception: All the aforementioned factors, plus some of those relating to self-actualization, might have an impact on how a person views themselves. Do they think less of themselves for the things they have struggled with? Are they proud of the adversity they’ve successfully overcome? How a person sees oneself after a loss is ever changing and ever evolving.
This is the tip-top of the pyramid. Personally, the tip-top gives me the most trouble. If one is lucky, they’ve constructed a world-view they feel good about – they have a good sense of identity; they know their stance on questions of morality and ethics; they are comfortable with their understanding of religion and faith; they can deal with hardship and they believe they know something about happiness. Over time they may question, resolve, revise and evolve their world-view but generally, this is a slow shift.
But sometimes out of nowhere something big happens like death, illness, transition or a traumatic event and this makes a person question everything – self, the world, faith, security, significance, meaning, trust, and morality. Seismic quakes in one’s fundamental understanding of life can be one of the most difficult adjustments a person will ever have to make. In reconciling major shifts in outlook one often has to redefine their sense of self and their belief system, which has a ripple effect on how they relate to pretty much everything.
When you can’t adjust:
Let me start out by saying, grief is complicated. Adjusting to a primary loss is difficult enough without factoring in the demands of adjusting to subsequent loss and transition. This is why we always say if you’re having a tough time months after a loss and want someone to talk to, go ahead and seek counseling. A counselor is merely someone to talk to, not an agreement to take medication or a commitment to long term treatment.
Individuals who struggle with an inability to adjust to transition or stressors are at risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, hopelessness, suicidal ideation, disturbances in sleep, difficulty concentrating, recklessness, avoidance and isolation, poor performance at work or school, substance abuse and other negative coping. Although the validity of ‘Complicated Grief’ is debatable, Adjustment Disorder is a real diagnosis and many people require only short term therapy before they feel able to say “Thanks, I’ll take it from here.”
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