5 Tips to Handling a Sudden Life Transition or Personal Loss
If you’re like me this week…you’re probably asking….how much more of this craziness can we take?
As I watch the daily fire updates here in Oregon, as well as Washington and California, I see the shock, sense of hopelessness and despair in the eyes of people whose whole communities have been lost or forever changed throughout the west coast.
Thankfully, I also see positive examples, that show that the best of humanity is still rising to the call. People that chose the path of hope to help those in their community any way they could. Donations, volunteering, restaurants stepping up to p
rovide meals to evacuees, pet shelters helping displaced pets or people helping to transport animals out of harms way.
Just like our amazing fire fighters, these are our hero’s…concrete examples that no matter what horrific and tragic circumstances we may find ourselves in, there is always actionable love, hope and support available to help us get through the worst of times.
But, what about those moments when we’re alone, dealing with our new reality, whatever that may mean in each of our lives?
How do people process through an experience where they’ve lost everything they own, their homes, their livelihoods or worse, lost a family member or friend?
Sudden, tragic life transition is always one of the hardest things in life to process and make sense of. You feel a complete, and immediate, tearing away of your life foundation and everything that grounds you. That may be in literal terms, like a beloved home or family member that’s been lost or it can be on an emotional level, where we feel a complete lack of safety and well-being, or both.
Because it’s so unexpected, one is forced to operate within a rapidly changing environment that makes it extremely difficult to adjust to their new reality.
None of us like to feel like we’re out of control, let alone experience situations where we also feel physically vulnerable. Right?
But, there are ways to counter or soften these effects of major and tragic life transition.
What are they? Well, they aren’t too dissimilar from what our illustrious fire fighters use to get control over a major wildfire.
First, they never run into a fire without a plan. They assess the resources they have available to them, determine which one’s work best to curtail the fire, and only then, implement them.
In every emergency, there are usually lots of supportive resources available to help that operate from a well-prepared plan like the Red Cross or other local community agencies, places of worship and county shelters who all have emergency protocols to draw from.
You don’t have to be a professional to put a successful plan together either. There’s lot of emergency checklists, etc. online that can easily be downloaded to start with. But, we’ve seen some amazing local volunteers step up in the last week on their own volition, who didn’t ask what they could do, they just jumped into action and made it happen.
Which leads me to the second way fire fighters tackle a fire emergency.
They always go in as a team. You’ll never see a fire fighter going into a fire on his or her own. They use the buddy system, plus a team behind them to lend support, guidance and tools so they can get in, and back out, safely.
So, who is your team that can lend you that same support during a difficult life emergency or transition? Is it someone in your family, friends, members of your church or place of worship, your physician, a neighbor or co-worker? Draw on as many as you can to build your own unique support team.
I understand that COVID 19 and the social restrictions we’ve all been chaffing under have made it difficult to connect to those we love and want to be with in person, but even if your team or Buddy System is 3,000 miles away, you can still take advantage of all the technology we use every day and use Zoom online, Facetime or text them to get connected. If you aren’t comfortable with technology, just pick up the phone and call!
There are some people, however, who experience this kind of extreme or sudden loss, who aren’t ready for immediate connection. The shock of loss makes them hypersensitive to interaction with others and they’re unable to find joy in or handle the most common day-to-day of social activities. For them, their chosen path to healing requires a short period of isolation. Time alone to process their grief and find their footing to start the reconstruction of their lives moving forward.
This can be healthy, as long as it’s relatively short-term and part of an active overall healing process. I know it can be difficult to see a loved one choose isolation over support from friends or family, but if they do, try your best to respect and support that decision by giving them the space they need to heal.
Which leads me to the third strategy fire fighters employ to tackle a monster fire. They will always be looking for a location, somewhere in advance of the approaching fire, where they have the best chances of taking a firm stand to hold or stop the approaching fire line. They call this an “anchor”.
We can do the same in life when a tragic or sudden life transition threatens our sense of safety and continuity. An “anchor” can be a lot of things. It’s should always include our Team or Buddy System, because without them we won’t have the support we need to stand our ground emotionally and physically during the difficult days following an experience of loss.
It can also be as simple as finding a new place to call home. I know this sounds a bit simplistic, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent home. Even if it’s extremely temporary, like staying with family or a friend, the point is to get into a space where you feel a sense of comfort and safety, a clearing in the chaos if you will, where you can focus on the choices ahead and direction you want to head for your future.
Which leads me to the fourth fire fighter strategy and that is: when faced with sudden life-changing circumstances, take the time to identify your priorities. No fire fighter will attempt to attack a fire without getting clear on their priorities. Sometimes that’s saving lives, sometimes it’s trying to protect structures, but there’s always a specific plan in place to focus on.
It can be easy to stay in a space of inaction when you feel like your whole life has been taken from you because you just don’t feel you have the physical or mental ability to pull yourself out of that vast dark hole. Grief is a complicated process and there’s no rule book or guarantee to make the pain of loss go away.
It’s important to honor, not avoid or deny, the emotions and pain that accompany grief because it affects each of us differently and healing means different things to different people. But, it’s also a process that’s a natural part of life’s cycle and we’re meant to learn from it.
It’s also important to start the process of healing as soon as possible, even if it means the tiniest of steps, so a person can begin to rebuild a new foundation. Looking forward can be difficult and many who have survived tragedy, when others didn’t, wrestle with survivor’s guilt.
Most experiencing sudden, tragic life experiences will remain in a state of shock for some time, initially operating in a fog of auto-pilot behavior to just get through the day.
This is why the final and fifth step of my fire fighter analogy is so crucial. It’s the importance of self-care. A fire fighter who isn’t rested, fed, hydrated and kept fit between fires is less effective when it really counts, which he or she is fighting tooth and nail to knock down a fire, save a life or protect a community.
Survivors of intense physical or emotional trauma usually have little to no interest in self-care when it’s needed the most. So, it’s important to underscore that if you have recently had this kind of experience due to the wildfires, a loss of a loved one, a business or a home, give yourself the gift of self-care, however small, and do your best to allow others to nurture and support you as much as possible.
It can also be helpful to reach out to help others going through the same experience. Nothing means more to a person than connecting to others who have experienced the same thing, who understands the pain there are feeling. It may be the last thing on your mind, but it’s critical for your ongoing well-being and helps you think clearer and stay healthy.
My thoughts and prayers are with the fire fighters, first responders and local agencies working so hard to bring these fires under control. I also want to thank those in our community, including volunteers and local businesses, who have stepped up and made such a difference to those in need. You are truly the best Buddy System we can ask for during this extraordinarily difficult time. Keep up the good work!
If you’ve experienced a life changing event that’s making you feel that you need help coping with, I encourage you to take advantage of one of my free 20-minute introductory phone coaching consults to see if I can help or schedule a regular session.
Sessions are done by phone or via Zoom for the health protection and safety of my clients. To schedule, go to: