Dealing With Tragedy and Loss

June 1st, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

How does one mentally and emotionally deal with serious tragedies such as the loss of a loved one?  What about global tragedies like natural disasters, genocide, or famine?  Is it only human to feel down and depressed after such events, or is it possible to remain conscious and positive throughout?  Is there a deeper meaning behind these seemingly random and tragic experiences?

My views on this subject stray quite a bit from the social norm, but as with all of my writing, my intention is to help you think about such things more consciously, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with me.

What is a tragedy?

Our social conditioning teaches us to interpret events like the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a permanent disability as tragic.  To experience emotional pain when such things occur is considered perfectly normal behavior.

There’s even a process we’re expected to follow:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  These stages were defined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying as the 5 Stages of Dealing with Catastrophic Loss, later popularized as the 5 Stages of Grief.  You can find many variations on this, but the basic pattern is that we must experience the pain of the loss and then (hopefully) get over it and move on.

Of course, many people never complete the “getting over it” part.  For some people a tragic loss becomes a death sentence.  They simply give up on their lives.  Game over.

But what defines a tragedy?  Nothing but our thinking makes it so.  A tragedy is a form of attachment to circumstances.  When you become attached to circumstances and then experience an outcome that runs afoul of your expectations, emotional pain is the natural result.  And the greater the attachment, the greater the pain.

Suppose your favorite pet dies suddenly.  For many people this is a tragic experience.  But is it the loss of the animal’s life that defines the tragedy?  Not at all, especially considering those pet owners who’ll happily pay someone to put their dinner animals to death before eating them.  What’s the difference between the pet and the meal?  Emotional attachment.  Where there’s no attachment, there’s no sense of tragedy.

Socially conditioned attachment

I was taught from a young age that it’s appropriate to be attached to circumstances.  Moreover, I was taught which level of attachment was appropriate for each set of circumstances.  I was conditioned to feel a certain way when certain events occurred.

For example:

  • Death of a loved one = tragedy.  Death of a stranger = news.
  • Killing a dog = cruelty.  Killing a pig = dinner.
  • Americans killed = terrorism.  Americans killing = heroism.

Current social conditioning still encourages us to think in terms of our emotional attachments.  Consider the “Support our troops” slogan that you’ll often see on car bumper stickers in the USA now.  Support our troops… but not theirs.  We’re supposed to be attached to one set of human beings but not the other.  Us vs. them.  Me vs. not me.

Moving beyond attachment

The root of attachment is fear.  Without fear there’s no attachment to circumstances… no emotional resistance to outcomes.  If you could remain open to everything and attached to nothing, then you would experience no fear.  If you would consciously chose to live a fear-based existence, then attachments are fine.  But if you wish to rid your life of unnecessary fear, then such socially conditioned attachments must eventually be rejected and replaced by conscious choice.

On average over 150,000 people die on this planet every single day.  That’s more than a million a week.  Given those figures why should the deaths of people we know be any more tragic than the deaths of people we don’t?  If we’re going to eventually confront the 5 Stages of Grief, why not do it up front?  Move past denial and over to acceptance right now.

Our social conditioning frames our lives within a context whereby certain events are labeled as tragic.  But there’s nothing inherently tragic about those events.  They are what they are.  We have plenty of other viable interpretations available.  We need not remain loyal to a context that creates unnecessary pain and robs us of joy.  The dead do not require that we suffer upon their departure.  All the pain we create is our own — by allowing ourselves to adopt a disempowering, fear-based context.

Instead of viewing certain events as tragic, why not choose a context in which they become transformational?  Change is a natural part of human existence.  Perhaps instead of resisting change, we can learn to embrace it… in all its various forms.  Instead of labeling events as good or bad, we can withhold judgment and simply accept them for what they are:  the ever-unfolding dance of consciousness.

Free will gives us the opportunity to choose our thoughts, and that includes our context.  To label events as tragic and defeating is a choice, one that fully conscious people would be unlikely to make.  You are not a victim of the circumstances of your life.  Sometimes you may find yourself unconsciously overwhelmed by circumstances, but when you regain your consciousness once again, you always have the option of choosing your mental response to events.  And your mental response will dictate your emotional response.  The more you resist circumstances, the more pain you experience.  The more you accept them, the more joy you experience.

We’re taught that a painful, fear-based response is appropriate in certain circumstances.  But that is an arbitrary choice… and a highly disempowering one at that.  Even a seemingly tragic loss as perceived from the social context can be viewed as a joyful transformation from a different context.

I, for one, prefer to adopt a context which leads to joy and empowerment, regardless of circumstances.  I see no reason to buy into a context that disempowers me.  Some would say that I’m living in denial.  And from a certain perspective that would be accurate.  I will gladly deny myself unnecessary suffering, so I can avoid the greater tragedy of living in denial of joy.  I accept events as they occur, but I choose my own interpretation of them — the most empowering interpretation I can, one that puts me in a state of joy and peace rather than suffering and depression.  From a state of joy I am free to act without fear.  From a state of fear I feel trapped and usually do nothing.

Joyful transformation

Suppose you experienced an event which would be viewed by most people as a tragic loss, such as the sudden death of your spouse.  Initially you’d experience an unconscious reaction.  Most likely you can’t accurately predict what exactly that reaction would be.  It would probably be a big shock.

But eventually you’d regain consciousness and have the opportunity to consider what this event means to you.  That’s where you’d have a choice.  You could opt-in to the prevailing social context and endure a long-term pattern of grief and pain.  You could blame others or yourself for your partner’s death.  You could be angry that s/he left you.  You could dwell on the challenges of raising your children alone.  You could suffer for years if you chose to.  You could even choose to check out of the game of life.

But to interpret that event as a tragic blow isn’t the only option you have available.  You do not have to interpret such events from a position of fear and loss.  You can choose to view them from a context that leaves you empowered, one that makes you experience even deeper peace, deeper joy, and deeper love.

For example, in my belief system, none of us really die.  We simply change form.  Even though I would miss my wife’s physical presence if she died suddenly, our spiritual connection will always be there, and for me that’s the most important part of our relationship.  Our connection would experience a transformation, but it wouldn’t end.  Most likely I’d continue connecting with her higher self during meditation.  I even do this now while she’s alive, and it’s a wonderful experience.  She left town for several days last weekend, yet I still felt her presence with me because I’ve chosen a context that allows me to experience that.  I receive tremendous joy from our spiritual connection because Erin and I are very much soul mates.  So instead of rooting my feelings towards Erin in an impermanent human relationship based on attachment, I’ve decided to root it in something more permanent that has the potential to endure beyond physical death.

In fact, I actually do this with all of my relationships.  Several years ago all four of my grandparents died, each at different times and from different conditions.  As an adult I didn’t see any of them very often (my paternal grandparents lived in another state), but after they passed on, I began feeling their presence in my life much more strongly, especially my maternal grandparents.  Another person who was doing an intuitive reading for me a few weeks ago even picked up on my grandfather’s presence and described his appearance and personality.  Last year I gave a speech about him for a speech contest and often felt like he was there in the room with me while I was practicing.  But I never had such experiences until I shifted to a context — a belief system — in which such things were possible.  Even though my grandparents are no longer here physically, I have no doubt they’re still very much alive and well.  Sometimes they even pop in for a visit while I’m meditating.

I see funerals more like graduations, an acknowledgement of passing from the physical back to the non-physical.  Any pain experienced is relative to one’s attachment to circumstances.  I would hope that when I die, my family throws a party to celebrate my graduation.  Meanwhile, I’ll be working on Personal Development for Dead People.  Anyone happen to know a good channeler?  ;)

I’m well aware this viewpoint runs contrary to the social context.  Perhaps I’m just a misguided left-hander in a right-handed world.  If you don’t feel any of this resonates with you, feel free to stop reading.

A spiritually-minded context

To some people this context will no doubt be too much of a stretch.  For others it will seem very attractive.  The reason I adopt this context is that I find it extremely empowering.

A spiritually-minded context allows me to loosen my attachment to events in the physical world.  Regardless of what happens, I’m able to find the joy in it.  When there’s a natural disaster that sends a lot of people to the other side, I see two things happen.  First, there’s a joyful transition from the physical world back to the non-physical for the departing souls.  After some disorientation, most are happy to be back home again.

Secondly, many of those humans remaining behind choose to view the physical event as tragic.  From a purely physical standpoint, the event does indeed appear tragic, random, and meaningless.  This interpretation produces fear which fuels even greater attachment, and suffering is the natural consequence.  But seeing people unconsciously choosing suffering instead of joy causes me to feel a great deal of compassion for them.  And that just motivates me to want to continue the work I’m doing to help people live more consciously, work that gives me tremendous joy regardless of its outcome.  No matter what happens within my context, all paths lead back to joy.

But is this spiritually-minded context empowering?  I certainly think so.  I don’t ignore events.  I simply choose to see the good in them.  To me this is actually a more accurate interpretation than labeling some things as tragic.  Where physical interpretations label events as tragic, random, and meaningless, a spiritually-minded context uncovers the joy, purpose, and meaning behind them.  Neither context can be objectively proven right or wrong.  So given the choice between being empowered and disempowered, I choose to take the more empowering path.

On a spiritual level, I see all of us as equally precious parts of the same whole.  Consequently, I do not support America’s troops over anyone else’s troops.  Compassion does not confine itself to national borders.  My loyalty is to the immortal spirits within us, not to the temporary labels we assign to various parts of our physical world.

I do not see my existence as more or less valuable than anyone else’s.  So I don’t believe in killing because it would be like my right hand trying to kill my left.  The whole body suffers.  Besides, no one in a truly joyful state would ever want to kill anyway.  Have you ever heard of someone going on a shooting spree because they were just too darned happy?

I also don’t eat animals, pets or otherwise, because I have no desire to see them harmed.  I’m even starting to feel compassion for insects.  If I find one in the house, I will often trap and release it outside instead of killing it.  And the more I continue moving in this direction, the more joy I experience.

The joyful expansion of consciousness

When I look around at a world that others would have me view as discouraging, one supposedly full of corruption, famine, disease, poverty, murder, and environmental destruction, I don’t see tragedy in any of it.  All I see is the joyful expansion of consciousness.  I don’t turn away from such events; I simply recognize the joy within them.  We have free will here in this physical universe, so anything goes.  If you can accept and even embrace that fact, then human life becomes a wondrous adventure instead of a series of uncontrollable tragedies.  We are free to make this reality anything we wish it to be, but we must first do it in our thoughts.  I choose to hold the vision of this world as a joyful place, regardless of circumstances.  Others may choose to view it in a less empowering manner, but I will not be joining them, although I do feel great compassion for the suffering they choose to experience (usually without being aware that they do have a choice).

We will not improve the circumstances of this physical world by labeling them as tragic.  That robs us of all our power to think and to act consciously.  Such attachment defines us as victims instead of as the creators we truly are.  Victims cannot save our environment.  Victims cannot end our wars.  Victims cannot transform our corporations.  Only creators have the power to make these changes.

But even while we regard ourselves as victims, we are still powerful creators.  We’re so powerful in fact that we can even choose to create ourselves as victims.

What is your choice?  Do you choose to be the conscious creator of your life or the unconscious victim of it?  There is no right or wrong answer.  You have the free will to do whatever you wish.  But even if you choose to deny yourself the full exercise of your true power, you can never deny yourself the existence of it.  It is always there, locked away in a safe place, and the state of joy is the key that opens the door.



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