Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in an independent practice in Sausalito, California. Since 1981, his work has focused ...Read More
The past year has been one of tremendous loss for my family. Seven people in our circle of family and friends have passed away. Some were expected (inevitable due to illness), others unexpected, but each one filled us full of deep grief and loss. Some were close friends, others family members, and still others colleagues. We’ve attended five out of the seven memorials. Having testified as expert witnesses in homicide cases for the past thirty years, death has not been something foreign or abstract to either one of us. We have also experienced the death of all four of our parents in our lifetime, as well as some very close friends in recent years, and yet we wondered if these experiences prepared us for the cumulative effect of grief that we felt in the past twelve months.
A few months ago, several days after experiencing the loss of a dear friend, we were sitting at breakfast and I said to my wife, “Haven’t we had enough death in our lives this year? Why is this happening to us?” In her usual kind and loving voice, she said, “I know, I wonder about that too. But we didn’t do anything to create these losses, but perhaps there is something in the experience for us to learn. The trick is figuring that out.” I kept asking myself, what was in all this loss for me to learn? I remembered when I was in training, reading that Carl Jung said that he kept death on his shoulder. This awareness constantly reminded him of the fragility of life. Doing so helped him appreciate each day. The loss of my parents and two very close friends, in the past six years, taught me that important life lesson. As I sat there and contemplated this question, I was aware of feeling angry that the big L “Life” was making my little L “life” more difficult. But I was still left with the question, why all these loses now? As my frustration started to rise, I opened up the New Times on my computer and saw the link to a two-month-old article entitled, On the Road to Recovery, Past Adversity Provides a Map. It peeked my curiosity. Perhaps the universe was providing me an answer to my question.
In it, the author writes about the latest psychological findings on trauma, loss and resilience. One study in particular caught my eye. Mark Seery, a psychologist at the University of Buffalo,and colleagues, published a paper on the effects of adverse events on mental health. I was immediately intrigued by the title of the article;Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability and Resilience. The conventional wisdom is the more misfortune we experience, the more problems such as anxiety and depression may develop. However, his research showed that a certain amount of difficulty actually helps to foster resilience and a stronger ability to face setbacks in the future. The study included three groups of individuals: those with a high history of adversity, those will no history, and people in-between. What he found was very interesting. The people who recalled a very high history of adversity (up to 12 negative events) scored very low on a number of measures of well-being. This makes intuitive sense. At some point (and that point is different for different people) the growing stress of multiple negative events can eventually lead to psychological overload. This may not only cause difficulty coping with extreme stress, but may also make it hard to deal with the hassle of everyday living. This dynamic is particularly visible with people who live in war-torn countries or who are experiencing ethnic cleansing or genocide. Holocaust survivors are another group who have experienced countless deaths. For people who have experienced many losses, especially over a short period of time, feelings of depression and hopelessness can set in and affect a person’s outlook on life. It can make the burdens of daily living overwhelming, resulting in chronic feelings of negativity and a lack of well-being. Additionally, there is research that suggests that people who have experienced many personal losses tend to have intrusive memories of prior losses with each new loss.As a result today’s grief is intensified by yesterday’s grief.
What he found with the other two groups (no adversity and moderate amount of adversity) was the most surprising to me. The people with no prior adversity, or only one recalled adverse event, also scored quite low on the measure of well-being, just like the people with many negative events. This wasn’t what I expected. One would think that if you didn’t have prior adversity you would be a happier person. As I read on, I discovered that the people who were the happiest subjects were those who experienced two to six adverse events. This I found the most unexpected. When asked why they got those results, the researchers hypothesized that perhaps we need a certain amount of adversity in our lives to learn something about life. And when we learn those lessons, we are happier. For some that might be appreciating all they have such as good health, a job and friendship. For others it may be appreciating their partner and children. Adversity has the potential of teaching us, as Jung said, that life is fragile; everything can turn on a moment’s notice, so gratitude is key. People who have never had setbacks or personal adversity may not have had the opportunity to learn that important lesson.
As I finished reading the study, I noticed that I felt a sense of serenity. The anger disappeared and was replaced by gratitude, sadness and compassion. Gratitude for what I had in my life, sadness for the loss of such wonderful people, and compassion for the loved ones of those who passed. I thought, “Ok Life, maybe this is a time for me to learn how to get better at loss.” I could always improve my skill at acknowledging my feelings of vulnerability, appreciating all the gifts I have in my life, and feeling and expressing more compassion towards others. Call it a rationalization or a mind-game or turning lemons into lemonade, but whatever happened that morning definitely created a stronger feeling of well-being within me as I packed up to go to work.