ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Dealing with Loss

Jack Bragen
Friday May 31, 2019 - 10:08:00 AM

One of the challenges in getting well and staying in remission is that of appropriately dealing with loss. Remaining out of the hospital involves a lot of self-management. This includes methods for dealing with emotional hard times. To stay well, a person with mental illness must be able to deal with the hard things that life brings, without going too far into an abyss of pain, yet without trying to sweep difficulties under a rug. 

A loss that is too devastating can trigger a relapse of severe symptoms. When we lose a person, place or thing, something or someone that meant a lot to us, it can evoke strong painful emotions--and we may have already been somewhat fragile. 

In some instances, recovery from a delusional system can bring about feelings of loss. We may have believed things about ourselves that made us feel grandiose, and which were not accurate. Or we may have believed a particular good thing was going to happen for us, and we realize it won't happen, at least for now. Recovery from a delusional system can be emotionally difficult. 

A mentally ill person may experience a relapse as a form of loss. Following a relapse, we experience the aftermath. We come to realize that it has happened to us once again, and this entails a major setback, and it means starting over on many things. The losses could be of liberty, levels of functioning, and other life circumstances. 

Loss exists in life, whether we are dealing with the loss of illusions, or the loss of something reality-based and meaningful to us. 

I am experiencing the seven-year anniversary of losing my father. Part of what I'm facing is that I have unfinished business with him. And I realize that this will not ever be resolved. 

Perhaps the first step in remaining well is to acknowledge that we have experienced a loss, and that we should expect emotional pain from it. Secondly, we should get the support that we need. This could come from family, from a therapist, or from a friend. 

Mindfulness can help with loss. Yet, we should not expect that mindfulness will prevent the pain of loss. We should expect that it will allow us to feel the inevitable emotions and will allow us to tolerate these emotions. 

Yet, we must also be careful that we do not fall into a bottomless pit of grief. If the emotions become too powerful to handle, we may need to take steps to lower the amplitude of the painful emotions. Whether or not a painful emotion seems valid, too strong of one can do harm to us. 

Medication could be an option. A temporary increase in meds may help us remain stabilized in a time of emotional difficulty. A non-drug option is to distract ourselves. Or, both can be used in combination. 

We should remember that it is necessary to keep up on our treatment--especially any medications that are prescribed. We should also make sure we are getting enough sleep. And, we should not push ourselves too hard at work, whatever form that work takes for us (whether it is a job or other, e.g., volunteering, school, or household tasks). 

If we feel that we need help, we should ask for it. If things are at the point where we become desperate and have suicidal thoughts, and/or thoughts of harming others, we are better off going into the hospital, rather than having consequences that will be worse.  

We should realize, whether our loss feels like a setback, or feels like we are moving into uncharted waters, that life will continue, and there are many things to live for. We should realize, that these emotions are temporary, and we will feel better in the future. 

We do not need to allow a setback, or a loss become a defining thing in how we see ourselves. We can continue liking ourselves, whether the loss is of someone close to us, or whether the loss seems to affect who we are. In fact, loss doesn't affect who we are. 

Above all, we need to be gentle with ourselves and with others. This means that when angry or upset, getting some space for a while. It means making sure that we don't blame ourselves. It means that we maintain basic respect for others, and especially for ourselves. 

Jack Bragen is author of "Understanding People with Schizophrenia" and other titles.