Coping with Disappointment and Loss

by Sharon Grabner, MSW, LICSW

We all get pictures in our heads about how we think our lives should be or are going to be. These pictures drive our expectations, our hopes, and our dreams.  But these pictures also reflect our values and priorities, our sense of what is right from the perspective of our own worldview. These scenes in our heads might encompass our visions, hopes and expectations for marriage, career, children, finances and health—essentially everything from how we expect to live, to how we expect to die.

But what do we do when real life does not match these pictures in our heads? How do we make sense of these (all too frequently recurring) moments of incongruity, when what we thought should be does not come even close to what really is. And how many of life’s situations fall into this category? We see them every day in our clinical setting and in our own lives as therapists – relationships full of promise wither and die, joy around an eagerly awaited child becomes fraught with anxiety or conflict, the ideal job is lost in a layoff, a loved parent disappears in dementia, a chronic disease stifles productivity, trauma robs one’s sense of self and safety, or elections do not deliver the hoped for outcome.

Any such mismatch between the core of what we have expected and the reality of what actually occurs can bring people to an acute sense of loss with accompanying grief, often masked by anger. I believe it is this gap, between the expected and the actual, that brings us all to distress and, potentially, reflection and growth. So what do we do when we find ourselves facing the gap?

There are undoubtedly many websites we could turn to that would encourage us all to employ the standard tools necessary for coping. The tools that can be found include diet, exercise, sleep, socialization, meditation and tending to one’s unique personal needs. But I think these only get one to the starting gate.

Therapy strives to go beyond the starting gate, to help clients look at beliefs and patterns in their lives that are either helpful or detrimental. And whether one utilizes professional therapy or not, I believe this particular focus of reflection is at the heart of coping with life’s multiple losses, including grief after an election.

Here are some questions to ask ourselves in the face of life’s disappointments. “From whose perspective do I believe this shouldn’t have happened?” “Was I entitled to have it go my way?” “Is the story over yet?” And perhaps most importantly, “What does it mean for me to live in the midst of death, loss and grief all around?” It’s in the struggle with these questions that we can find growth, centering and a solid stance in the face of the buffeting uninvited twists of life.

I leave you with the refrain from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in