Who's in Charge Here? Coping with loss of control

Emotion / Emotion : Eleanor Haley

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 one's ability to control what happens to them and to their 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 ultimately 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.”  

When a person feels truly helpless and vulnerable for the first time, they may think to themselves – "Nope...never letting this happen again." So they attempt to control their emotions, their environment, and the safety and health of their family and friends. But here's the problem - there are things that are out of your control. It's impossible to prevent any and all future negative experiences and trying to do so is an all-consuming full-time job.

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.

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 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.


We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

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15 Comments on "Who's in Charge Here? Coping with loss of control"

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  1. Natakia  July 11, 2019 at 7:15 am Reply

    Hi. After three years of an amazing relationship with my boyfriend, with a marriage proposal in between and a dress and a venue all paid; after building all of our relationship over the same life priorities, which the main one was not wanting kids. He always, thru 3 continuous years, said he hated kids, they were noisy and he is very impatient, he criticized a lot his friends life’s as for the deep financial and relationship stress due to the parenting choice. Every time we saw or interact with kids, or in airplanes when babies cry, he insisted that he definitely does not want kids, and all of those times , he asked me, are you sure you don’t want kids? Please don’t bring up that later un our relationship. I always reassured him because in fact I don’t want to have kids. Totally different reasons, even loving kids and education and caring and tenderness, but other deep reasons made me decided before meeting my boyfriend, that I don’t wanted to be a mother. After three years of relationship keeping this speech, even hate speech, his father passed away, after fighting for 4 years with a lung cancer. First months he was obviously sad, I could understand that, but our relationship, at least in feelings, was the sabe. One day, weeks after he came back from a volunteer experience were he had to interact with kids, he told me that he felt something inside his body, and then when he saw how a women pediatrician help a girl taking care of a small bruise in her knee… nothing has been the same for him and for us again. He now says that he feels empty, no life project, even the relationship with me is not a life purpose, and that maybe he wants kids just as his father had his normal predictable life (were he is the bread winner, and mother does all the family, raising up kids stuff.). Then he told me that the pediatrician he saw, confused him,, like not necessarily feeling towards her, but towards that “kind” of woman, and that he does not see that in me because of all this talk during three years of me not wanting kids and even considering abortion if something unexpected came up, off course, a thought in line with he hating kids and me not having kids speech for three years.

    So, what is going on in his mind? I am terribly confused. I feel he does not want me anymore not as a couple not as the women in his ideal possible new model of life he is considering like the right one. I am diagnosed bipolar and with an eating disorder, and those are two of the fundamental reasons for being more than scared about pregnancy and post birth depression. At first, in our relationship, my mental conditions, which I have been in treatment still, was not an issue for him, but know he brought that up, like even if I want kids, I don’t know if I want them with you (having the pediatrician scene in his mind) . He asked me for a couple of weeks to clarify his mind.

    I am so scared, so terrified of what is going on. Were is my fiancé? Were is the man who was in love with me and told me every day how awesome women I was for him. I come from the academic field, so he always admired me and always had this image of a great woman of me.

    Now… what? Were does all of that went ? Is it possible that a grief process make someone change their mind in such a drastic way? Like the model of life you choose with someone and you are executing, some day father loss+ pediatrician scene, changed everything in his mind???

    Please, please! I do really appreciate any thought someone can share with me. I not only feel sad, and like mis valued as a woman, I feel like three years of promises, dreams, and deep love…. magically disappear.

  2. Beth  June 8, 2019 at 9:30 pm Reply

    Hi to all,
    Sat and read everyone’s post. My heart feels for you all. I have suffered with cumulative grief within the last 15 months. I lost my dad last Feb 18 to Parkinson’s disease illness for 30 years and he also suffered with Dementia and Alzheimer’s the last 5 years of his life. In May 2019 I found my sister dead age 48 she was an alcoholic for 22 years. How do you deal with the loss of love ones so close apart. Its really changed me and my outlook on life. I understand how life is not always in your control now. I understand how time is so precious too. I understand our journey is very short on this earth. I understand now that you must cherish what you have loved ones in the living world and live in the Now or the past will eat away at you, if you allow it too. I have stopped worrying about the future as I understand we have no control over it. The memories of our loved one can never be taken. ‘Those we love dont go away they walk beside us every day’.
    Remain strong and allow our memories of our loved ones to stay with us forever, until we meet them again one day.

  3. Becky Livingston  July 10, 2018 at 12:04 pm Reply

    After my daughter died (she was 23) I quit my job and went traveling with her ashes (some of them) in my suitcase. I was gone for 26 months. For me, the loss, which came three years after the death of my fiancé, was evidence that none of us has control over anything in our lives except how we respond to what life throws our way. Leaving my daughter’s ashes around the world was what worked for me.

  4. Denise Joy  February 20, 2018 at 1:04 pm Reply

    I have found after five weeks of grieving my husbands suicide, people will eventually drop out of your support system. It’s as if your “aha” moment didn’t come soon enough. You will wear them down if you begin to reach out too much and it will show in their reactions. You the. decide you need to stop putting your grief on everyone else because of those reactions. They do not know how to handle you. So you stop reaching out and then they tell you or yell at you that you are trying to control the situation of when you are allowing support if you don’t respond or aren’t where they think you should be in your healing. I’m extremely confused. It’s seems the only course of action is to respond with pleasantries because no one wants to handle the truth of how you’re feeling. And we wonder how emotional avoidance occurs?

  5. Denise Joy  February 20, 2018 at 1:04 pm Reply

    I have found after five weeks of grieving my husbands suicide, people will eventually drop out of your support system. It’s as if your “aha” moment didn’t come soon enough. You will wear them down if you begin to reach out too much and it will show in their reactions. You the. decide you need to stop putting your grief on everyone else because of those reactions. They do not know how to handle you. So you stop reaching out and then they tell you or yell at you that you are trying to control the situation of when you are allowing support if you don’t respond or aren’t where they think you should be in your healing. I’m extremely confused. It’s seems the only course of action is to respond with pleasantries because no one wants to handle the truth of how you’re feeling. And we wonder how emotional avoidance occurs?

  6. Michelle  September 4, 2017 at 9:24 am Reply

    I lost both my parents in the past 6 months and suffered a miscarriage last week I was two and a half months gone my mam was 56 and my dad 57 this year has been so stressful I try take my mind of things but am finding it very hard I feel so lost and don’t no how can I ever find happiness again I want to talk to someone but I’m scared to open up I feel I talk to people wil they think I’m looking for attention so I try to keep it to myself but feel as if it’s bringing me down

  7. Linda Farrell  June 20, 2017 at 6:59 pm Reply

    I feel for you Sherry.We lost our daughter April 18 from an overdose. I,too think of all the fighting the past 9 months and it makes me feel awful. Wish I never said some of the things I said but she made us crazy with all her lies. It didn’t have to be like that.Maybe if she trusted us more she would have come clean and tell us she was using again..It really is one day at a time.

  8. Sherry  May 2, 2017 at 4:59 pm Reply

    I lost my son to a drug overdose on 10th of April. I have read many posts on this. I have all the same emotions and questions. My son went to prison when he was 22 for selling drugs. He was also addicted to Heroin at the time. He was incarcerated for 5 years. The happiest day of my life was last June the day after my birthday. He called and said Mama come and get your boy. I dreamed of this day. I had big dreams for him. It wasn’t long and he was in contact with a girl that was a heroin addiction among other things. I know it wasn’t her fault. He’s to blame for his actions. So hard for me to believe after spending all that time in prison he went right back to that lifestyle. We had talks and we had arguments. I begged him to go back to rehab. He overdosed 7 march and survived this. He was in ICU for 2 days he left against drs advice. I’ve been in counseling myself. I was able to get him to go one time. So here I sit. My emotions all over the place. Trying to figure out how to go on without my son. I love him so much. The hard part is he was saying horrible things about
    Me and his family. That were not true. I have discussed this and have been told it was the drugs talking. I wish I could wake up and have one more chance. Just like everyone else going through this hell.

  9. Kathleen Vaudo  April 24, 2017 at 9:11 pm Reply

    This is one of those posts that I will print, carry with me, refer to and share with the other mothers in my grief group. My style is passively giving up while the others have controlling on their minds at all times. It’s a message that applies to us all. Thank you for another tool to add to my personal grief box and one I know the group can benefit from.

  10. Sue  April 21, 2017 at 12:45 am Reply

    I think, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I always tried to control everything. But now, after my son’s suicide, I think I have swung the other way, and I have little desire to exert the effort needed to make anything happen. Perhaps that’s a sign of depression, but it feels more peaceful to me.

    • Kim  September 19, 2017 at 1:51 am Reply

      I can relate. I went through the same thing as a kid. When I got older, my brother had brain cancer. I fought to get him insurance, the right care. Instead of me being the little sister, I became the protector instead of him. My dad got cancer, had a heart attack several blood clots. Both my brother and dad fought for many years to not leave me and my two kids. I gave up my career to take care of them. My brother passed 3/28/17 and my dad passed 8/8/17. Our dog passed in July. This was my first round with deaths. My dad and brother were my rocks. I fought so hard to save them. Now I just would rather not fight or make decisions it’s much simpler it seems to lay low. . Hard part is, I’ve been a fighter all my life. I’ve pulled off some hard tasks. Hardest year of my life.

  11. Helen Wynn  April 20, 2017 at 5:38 pm Reply

    This was a great message, but in the end seems beyond me. I am still not able, after three years, to think about the wonderful times my husband and I had. The pain is too intense. I am working with a psychologist. One of my problems has always been a poor support network. I dont find that my friends and family really have wanted to listen to me and have not understood my distress even though I have tried to convey it to them. Kinda stuck! Will reread your message several times to see how I can apply it to me. Thank you.

    • Eleanor Haley  April 20, 2017 at 5:44 pm Reply

      Hey Helen,

      I’m sorry to hear about your support system challenges. That can certainly have an impact on a person experiencing grief and hardship. I am glad to hear that you are working with a psychologist, in that way you already are doing some of what we recommended in this message. Other than that, just keep trying…even if the changes are small and slow. I hope that you get to a place where you can start to remember your husband without also experiencing such an immense amount of pain.


  12. Jeanette Winkelman  April 20, 2017 at 4:35 pm Reply

    I will read the last paragraph as part of the remembersnce when we place my husband’s ashes in the columbarium at the YMCA Camp in Estes Park, Colorado this summer. It is a beautiful statement!

  13. Erin Fanning  April 20, 2017 at 4:07 pm Reply

    Another excellent posting–thank you! I will refer to the last paragraph often as a reminder of the changing nature of relationships–it made me feel hopeful.

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