Seeking Order In The Aftermath Of Loss

Eleanor wrote a pretty great post on shattered assumptions about the world after a death, and she described the following as a common reaction:

“The sense that their death was meaningless may ultimately lead to the question of “Why?!?”

“Why did they have to die? Why did this happen to me? Who is at fault? What can I do to prevent this from happening again?”

You may also fall victim to other people’s assumptions about the meaningfulness of the world. Remember, some people want to believe that bad things only happen to people who deserve it. So if someone has ever made an insensitive comment about why your loved one deserved what happened or how they brought the death upon themselves, this may be why.”

Not sure if this rang true for you, but it rang overwhelmingly true for me. I read it and did a quick inventory of my own quest for “why” along with that of the hundreds of grievers I have seen grapple with this question over the years. Alone in our grief we often believe if we had just parented a little better, if a doctor or a medical facility had done something differently, if we could just have faith in God’s plan, if we had just taken action sooner, things would be different. We go down these roads, hoping to find order.

The human mind is a wondrous thing. It strives to make sense of the world at every swipe. We see faces in inanimate objects. We find patterns where they exist and where they don’t exist. In the case of our losses this order can feel especially important, because in subtle ways we think if we can figure out what the “cause” for a death was we can prevent it from happening again. We can convince ourselves that if we just do something differently next time we won’t be in the same situation again.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that is somewhat true – there is a very clear source or cause for a death. There are things that, if done differently in the future, could change the outcome for someone else. There are lessons learned from so many losses: to stop smoking, to avoid risks like drunk driving or texting and driving, to go to those annual check ups. But in many cases we spend weeks, months, years dwelling on coulda, woulda, shouldas, blaming ourselves and others, when the even scarier reality is the world is sometimes a senseless and unexpected place.

I stood at my mom’s wedding recently and an old friend of hers, who knew her back when my dad was still alive, said to me “I still sometimes try to make sense of what happened to your dad and it just never makes sense”. I gently smiled and nodded and thought to myself, well, that is because sometimes life just doesn’t make sense.

There is a second aspect of this whole order to the universe we seek that can come up around a death. That, of course, is our want for grief to make sense. Why are the “five stages” of grief the one and only thing most people know about grief? If I had to guess it is because they put order to something that generally scares the crap out of us. Grief is messy and disorganized and makes us feel like we are going crazy. But if we could just put an order to it. If we could measure it and analyze it and fit it into tidy little stages it sure would feel less scary. It is comforting to imagine it has a neat little beginning, middle, and end. As we have written about many times before, unfortunately it isn’t quite that simple.

When I read Eleanor’s post I thought, we need to pull this whole quest for logic, order and meaning thing out and break it down a little more. Because sometimes we don’t even realize the ways it is impacting us and those around us. So let’s talk about just a few common examples.

Things you may be saying to yourself that is born from this need for order:

• If I had just done X,Y or Z this never would have happened.

• If I hadn’t done X,Y or Z this never would have happened.

• If my loved one who died had just done X,Y or Z this never would have happened.

• If [insert relationship here] had just done something differently this never would have happened.

• This must be punishment for something I have done/something my family did.

• If we had just gone to a different Doctor or different hospital.

• Something is wrong with me, I am not grieving right.

• Something is wrong with my [insert relationship here], (s)he is not grieving right.

Insensitive things others may be saying to you that are born from this need for order:

• People have to want recovery/sobriety. (After an overdose, implying your loved one just didn’t want it/try)

• Did you try to get him help? (After a suicide, implying there must have been something to do you just failed to do it)

• He must not have been taking good care of himself. (implying if you just do it all ‘right’ you’ll never get sick and die)

• Oh, you are just in Anger phase, it’ll pass. (implying there is a neat little order that they can predict about how you’re feeling)

• Don’t you think you should be ‘over it’ by now? (implying  there is a ‘recipe’ to get this grief thing right, any you’re not following it)

• Everything happens for a reason. (This one pretty much sums it up).

So what can you do?

On a very simple level, you can start by becoming aware of how some of your thoughts, especially those guilt and blame thoughts, may be coming from this want to put an order to things.  Thinking about those thoughts, and reality testing those thoughts, can actually help.  For example, I may be consumed by thoughts of self-blame that I internalize, beating myself up all the time for being a bad person, a failed daughter/wife/friend.  One way I can start to dig out of that cycle is to determine whether that underlying thought is actually true, or whether it might just be coming from my want to put order to things and blame someone, so I blame myself.  It may not actually be true that I am as much to blame as I think I am.  The same can be true to blame that we are directing towards others.

When it comes to grief itself, it is reeeeeeally tempting to hope there is an order.  Assuming you’ll move through five neat stages, in order, over the course of a year, and then you’ll be back to normal.  If you find yourself beating yourself up, or someone else up, because it isn’t working that way it is important to take a step back and say, maybe the problem isn’t me.  Maybe the problem is that I (and society at large) have tried to create a simple order to things because it feels safer.  As terrifying as it is to let the order go, there is an immense value in being open to your grief as it comes and showing yourself some self-compassion, rather than assuming you are doing it ‘wrong’.

What’s the final word?

It can be hard to take a hard look at our thoughts to see if our want for order is creating some unhealthy blame or self-blame but, in the words of Henry Adams, “Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.”  As scary as that is, there can be some liberation there.

Got something add? Leave a comment.  And, as always, subscribe!

March 28, 2017

17 responses on "Seeking Order In The Aftermath Of Loss"

  1. My brother was hooked on prescription pain pills and an alcoholic . He had been very bad for years I tried helping him as much as I could. But I would get so aggervated with him he would call me 20-30 times a day and never remember we had just gotten off the phone. A year and half ago I got that horrible call he had fell and didn’t survive. I feel so guilty I should have gotten him out of where he was living. His boyfriend abused him . I miss him so much

  2. I believe that you need to have some Grief programs. Every Grief program talks about having more kids. Mine was the only one and Noone to carry the name and I went from having a child to not being a mom at all.

  3. I don’t have any guilt and blame thoughts. He died in the World Trade Center on September 11. How is anything that caused it MY fault? But other people have tried to blame it on everyone besides the actual murderers. Or they stop wanting to talk to you if you mention you knew someone who was killed, which is how I learned to never say anything about it, or would have if I were the type of person who cares that people leave me when they hear I’m family of a victim and not completely okay with what happened.
    I can find no sense in it anywhere, not on any level. Especially not a spiritual one, since I know the person who died was extremely spiritual, way more so than I was even when I had full faith, which I certainly don’t now. I thought if you lived by the sword, you might die by the same but I never guessed that if you lived in peace you’d die by violence.
    There’s no sense to any bit of it, I’ve almost given up trying to find any.

  4. My husband died from a home accident. He was addicted to alcohol and I always felt his addiction was the cause and if he
    went into a recovery program he would still be here.

  5. Last December I lost my beautiful grandaughter of 21 yrs old to inhalants. We are not sure but think she did it in purpose. She was one day out of rehab for alcoholism and spent one night at a halfway house. She was fine and seemed happy when we saw her in Sat although the love of her life had broke off their engagement just a few weeks before. I keep blaming myself for not bringing her home with me. I have lost many family members and friends but this is the hardest one i have had to deal with.

    • BARBARA Likely you fee this because it is a senseless death of a young person…I get this Barbara
      We think we can control another’s addiction by just doing…you fill in the blank
      Reality is we can’t…addiction is so NOT in our control

  6. I feel as though I’ve had an “aha” moment! I remember being so update with my brother when my mom was in the hospital declining with a chronic Illness. As he was leaving, I asked how he thought she was doing. His response floored me. He said, “if people didn’t enable her and do everything for her she wouldn’t be in this shape.” What!? Perhaps his way of imposing order onto a situation he had no control.

  7. Wanting to feel the world is in our control…I can so relate to this post
    When my son Kevin overdosed in January I immeialty felt I had done or not done something to prevent this from happening…I was told this very thing by my daughter Jenny: it just happened and circling back to all the ways I could have prevented his death is my way of feeling I am in total control…and I am NOT

  8. One of the hardest things to deal with after my stepson died were the people who told us we should have been prepared or ready because he was a soldier and died in combat. Yes we knew why he died and who was responsible but that did not ease our pain in any way. Also many well meaning people still tell us he died a hero. He did and we have alot of pride mixed in with our sorrow but he is still gone. Then the guilt kicks in because we rather have him alive and not a hero.

  9. Me! My daughter died a year ago and I was a bit obsessed about organizing my “stuff”. I think it was one of the ways I had of coping with the very real sense that the world as I knew it was out of control.
    I also spent oodles of time wishing I had somehow prevented her from driving that night. Lots of “if only”. Sigh.

  10. I have found myself wondering if others who, like me, have lost someone recently and have been doing what I have felt almost compelled to do. I think I am almost desperately trying to regain some control over my life since my husband of almost 40 years passed away from cancer last December. I have been cleaning and deck uttering and re-organizing. Although I am mindful of not wanting to erase the memorabilia about him, I am so obsessed with putting my home into order. Closets, kitchen cabinets, whole rooms. I know my mother did this after my dad’s death. Is anyone else experiencing this?

    • I as well have found myself doing that as well. I think it provides me some control of my space; when my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer I felt so out of control. It also provides me with a sense of accomplishment. I can actually see that I have done something. Which is important for me to feel that I can do things now. I always was independent but now that he is gone I guess I need that.

    • I would love to hear others answers to that too, but my guess is – YES! I have heard this from many other grievers too and actually was thinking I would do a follow up post to this on on that very topic. When we lose control in one area it is very normal to try to seek it in other areas. That can be an okay coping mechanism in small doses, but it is one that also can get out of control if we don’t have some self-awareness about it and keep it in check.

      • Yes! Definitely. Cleaning and organising crazy. And I agree with Litsa. I’ve been obsessed with ‘order’ in my home for 6 months now and it is difficult to live with … For myself and my kids. If I really think about it I find this obsessing might keep me busy but the pressure of wanting it perfect makes me very unhappy. I’m not sure how to get over my quest for a super clean house but I am working through ways to manage. One of those is to outsource the work so I have time to do something more enjoyable. So today I interview a gardener. Outside was always my husband’s domain and he kept it lovely. Fingers crossed

    • Gail,. I have done the same thing. I have accomplished more in three months than I have in a couple of years. I have even
      painted part of the outside of the house. I am a 73 year old. We are looking for some kind of order and I know I am afraid of having to deal with everything. Also, I think I am trying to show myself I can do it all, but at what price? Hang in there. I lost my husband and my grandson in the same!e week.

    • I am so sorry for the loss of your beloved husband, Gail. I know that I have been a bit OCD with cleaning, organizing, purging, neatening, etc., since the sudden loss of my granddaughter nearly 3 years ago. All of these things are things that we can control. We can see a mess and then we clean and the mess is gone. These are all things that we can change — almost in an instant. The trauma of our grief and loss is something we can’t change, so we channel that loss of control into our “chores”. No, we’ll never “get over” our grief and loss, but we will move beyond it.

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