“I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”

~ Gail Caldwell,



Loss comes in many forms: the loss of a loved one, the loss of one’s health or the loss of our marriage and family unit. Profound loss is one of the most difficult experiences we may ever encounter. Such loss not only evokes deep grief and distress, but also usually brings about the loss of our self, of meaning as well as a shattering of our worldview and envisaged future.

Contrary to popular belief, the emotional pain, trauma and distress associated with life events such as profound loss does not heal over time on its own account. It requires us to take steps towards our emotional healing and recovery. Research has shown that without an active, ongoing effort to come to terms with such life events, it is not possible to resolve the loss. For example, bereavement studies show that surviving spouses or parents may still be seeking meaning in relation to the death of their loved one over ten years after the loss and experience distress or depression at their inability to do so. Psychological and philosophical studies have shown that it is a deep human need to understand our experiences and to seek meaning. People who search for meaning yet fail to make sense of the experience, are unable to find resolution until they can make sense of the event.

Any kind of loss is particularly hard to come to terms with because we perceive the experience as being out of our control – we did not choose to survive our loved one or to have a terminal illness, life confronts us with these experiences – we are confused, unable to make sense and distraught at the finality of the loss.

Loss means ‘being deprived of or coming to be without something that one has had (The Macquarie Dictionary). We have lost someone or something we care deeply about, that is meaningful and important to us, that we feel profoundly deprived about. The very essence of the word ‘loss’ means that in our perception we have lost something that we will never get back (a loved one, our health, our marriage). It is this perception of the finality that is very hard to come to terms with.

When we are stuck in the pain of our distressing loss, it can ease our suffering to look at the experience from many different perspectives, none of which are either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but have different effects on our wounded psyche. A perspective is a way of looking at something, of considering something. Scientific insights into neurobiology have shown that to change what we experience, we need to change our brain patterns – the neurological pathways that thoughts and emotions carve into our brain. If we don’t change our thought patterns, our emotional state won’t change. Not only that,  but repeating the same thought patterns over and over actually deepens the existing neurological pathways even more, making them more entrenched.

Changing our neurological pathways is not hard: neuroscience shows us that every time we look at an experience from a new perspective, we are changing our neurological pathways. If we change the story we tell, we gain a new perspective.

Sometimes we need help in our quest to work through our deep loss, in being able to make sense of the loss, in reaching for different perspectives and in meeting our many, often intense emotions that arise as a result of our loss.


Traumatic Loss

The most harrowing aspect of traumatic loss is that it is typically sudden and unexpected. This does not leave any time to prepare ourselves psychologically for the event. The word trauma is derived from the Greek, and means ‘wound’. It conveys a strong sense that a wounding, rather than only a disruption, has occurred to a person. The experience is too much to bear. The image of a festering wound in relation to emotional trauma signifies that it needs to be attended to. We wouldn’t let a physical wound unattended, yet at times we ignore the impact an emotional wound has on our health and wellbeing.

But the good news is that, like physical healing, we have the capacity to heal ourselves emotionally. As with a significant physical wound, in many instances there is a need for professional help and support.

Traumatic loss gives rise to the need to discuss the event and the emotional, physical and psychological consequences, to make sense of what happened.

All types of trauma, including natural disasters, acts of violence, and individual traumas such as sudden deaths, accidents and sudden illness, share one characteristic: acute distress and horror, and a massive disruption to the survivor’s life: their physical, psychological, spiritual and day-to-day functioning.

Healing from trauma involves accepting that this is what happened to us; accepting whatever emotions and thoughts arise in us as a result. Being compassionate with ourselves. Accepting that we have no control over the event, but that we can view the experience from a number of different perspectives. Some perspectives may cause us suffering, others may open the door to view how this event fits into the bigger picture of our lives, as well as our identity and perception of who we are. We can search for ways to make sense of this experience, and to grow from this crisis as a person, becoming more resilient, courageous and connected to our family and friends.