Picture Your Grief History on a Loss Time Line

I had to take my husband to the hospital emergency department last week. Although I’ve done this before, it was more difficult this time. Five days ago my husband had surgery and he felt tired and “beat up.” Certainly, he didn’t need any more medical complications. After undergoing some tests, he was transferred by ambulance from one hospital to another, and re-admitted.

I thought I would never see him again.

At one o’clock in the morning I crawled into bed and, to my surprise, slept well. When I woke up I still had anticipatory grief feelings. Because I’ve experienced them before, I recognized them, and took steps to contain my fears. I focused on the facts. The healthcare team had examined my husband, discovered he had an infection, and given him medication for it. His vital signs were stable and my husband wasn’t in danger of dying.

Then I had a revelation. The past losses in my life were making my anticipatory grief worse. What is a loss and what is a loss history?

Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS answers these questions in “Enhancing Well-Being by Understanding Grief and Taking a Loss History,” posted on the Medical Wellness archives website. She defines loss as the disappearance of something cherished and says it is “a byproduct of living.” Grief is a normal response to loss, she continues, and taking a loss history can help you understand the scope of your grief.

I thought about the losses I’ve suffered in the past eight years: death of my daughter, death of my father-in-law, death of my brother, death of my twin grandchildren’s father. If I were to make a time line of my losses, 2007 would show this cluster. Another cluster would appear in 2013, when my husband’s aorta dissected and he had three emergency operations. During the third operation my husband suffered a spinal stroke that paralyzed his legs. The next year, 2014, would show secondary losses related to this development: loss of a home (we had to move to a one-level place), loss of a strong, active husband, and loss of independence when I became his caregiver.

Making a loss time line may help you. Draw a horizontal line on paper. List your losses and the dates of these losses above the line. Your losses may include loss of a job, friends moving away, death of a child, developing chronic illness, loss of a beloved pet, and other events that make you feel bereft. Which year has the biggest cluster? Which loss had the greatest impact on you?

After you suffer a loss you need to take care of yourself. Eat regular, balanced meals. Try to get enough sleep. Stick to your daily routine. Keep some social connections. Join a support group. Spend time with people who understand your loss, such as The Compassionate Friends. Get a medical checkup and tell your doctor about your losses. As Dyer notes, sharing this information can help you “change, integrate the loss, begin living again, and restore balance, energy, and well-being” to your life.

Start your time line now and see the picture that appears. You may have more losses than you think.

by Harriet Hodgson