When my daughter, Jenna, died in a bus accident in 1996 while on the Semester-at-Sea program in India, I was in choiceless agony. So were the parents of the three other girls who died in that accident.
That same year, I started the Jenna Druck Center, a non-profit foundation, to honor my daughter’s life and spirit — and created Families Helping Families, a program to help other bereaved families.
The response was overwhelming. We started receiving calls from all over the world and, to date, The Jenna Druck Center has been a lifeline for over five thousand bereaved families.
After our first year, however, something completely unexpected happened. We started getting calls from parents whose children were still alive – but who were grieving their loss none-the-less.
Their children were either missing, strung out on drugs, debilitated by a mental or physical illness or an accident, estranged, incarcerated and/or lost to them is some other way.
These parents were suffering horribly and in as much need of support as those whose kids had died.
Feeling helpless, scared, confused, angry, humiliated, guilty — and living under a dark cloud of fear, dread, despair and sorrow – everything from their health, to their relationships, to their work and sense of purpose for living were all profoundly affected.
The future they had envisioned for their children, themselves and their families was in great peril, or had already been lost. They were in dire need of understanding, emotional support, guidance and resources to help their children — and themselves.
And so I began inviting these mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents and friends from all corners of the community to come together to support one another, learn from experts, develop effective intervention and survival strategies and share vital information about resources in our community.
Since then, the “Living Losses” program has been helping families from all over the world for 16 years.
I have been giving public workshops and running support groups for families in every imaginable situation. And the need is even greater today. Let me explain a few harsh reasons why:
1. Alcohol and drug abuse has become pandemic – resulting in a dramatic rise in the number of families suffering from living losses.
2. Increasing numbers of young people, including soldiers returning from war with fractured bodies and hearts, are struggling horribly to stabilize and settle their lives. They have lost their way. Many of them are at risk. Their suffering, and the desperation of those who love them, is immeasurable.
3. Debilitating depression, anxiety, autism and antisocial behavior are running rampant in our kids and young adults, creating a black hole of despair in countless thousands of families.
4. Stress, environmental and food-based diseases are on the rise, claiming the health and shortening the lives of millions of people. Health, illness and disease-related problems are incapacitating aging baby boomers.
5. Children and young women disappear or go missing every week somewhere in America, creating perhaps the most brutally terrifying, savage and violent kinds of living losses.
And so on.
One of the most powerful, yet little known, truths I write about in The Real Rules of Life: Balancing Life’s Terms with Your Own is that we grieve for the people we love while they are alive. And that many of our worst losses are “living” losses.
Our society has yet to recognize the severity of pain associated with living losses – or to provide adequate resources to those who are suffering.
Living with alcoholism and drug addiction, or someone who is debilitated, estranged, traumatized or has gone missing, is heart-wrenching. Lost, or at risk, are their hopes and dreams for the future.
Parents, spouses and siblings fight valiantly to help their loved ones, in some cases just to keep them alive. The cost of living on edge, depleting their own limited resources, seeking help from the community and going to sleep/waking up every day hoping for a miracle is considerable.
The frustration, pain, confusion, humiliation, exhaustion, heartache and feelings of utter helplessness can be overwhelming. Believing that somehow, some way, things will get better, and devoting our time and energy to making that happen, takes tremendous amounts of raw courage, faith, hope, determination and human resources.
Sometimes things do get better. An addicted or alcoholic son or daughter goes to rehab, stays sober and builds a good life for themselves. A returning vet gets job training and trauma counseling, falls in love and slowly puts their life back on track. An estranged daughter comes home after years on “the road.” A missing child is found alive. A dying 74 year-old man who has already said “good-bye” to his family receives the transplanted heart of an 18 year-old boy who died only a few hours earlier in a car accident.
And sometimes they don’t. Living losses become life losses. Casualties. And we grieve a death.
What can those of us who suffer from living losses do to help ourselves? Our loved ones? Where can we turn to find relief no matter what the source of our suffering? What can we do to save a loved one’s life? Salvage their future? How can we take care of ourselves, “process” our grief, continue to learn from experience, remove ourselves from the torture chamber of guilt and summon the strength to survive? How can we fight our way back into our own lives?
Here are three resources that exist in many of our communities.
1. Attend a Recovery Program or Support Group
Programs like Alanon and “Living Losses” support groups directly address these inner and outer challenges described above through peer support and education, resource and information-sharing, expert advice, experiential learning and community advocacy.
You will quickly learn that you’re not alone! We all have much to learn about living with and even preventing living losses and promoting the kinds of things that reduce and/or prevent them. There are devoted, knowledgeable experts in almost every community. But we also have one another. Peer support and education can make all the difference. Our slogan at The Jenna Druck Center is “Hope Loves Company.”
2. Self-Help Resources
We also have the amazing ability to help ourselves. How we do this is the core of my “Real Rules of Life” book. By taking exceptionally good care of ourselves, getting the help and support we need, learning more about how to cope with the pain, sorrow, anger, fear and frustration that come with a living loss, we can fight the good fight.
Becoming our own best friend and supporter also means freeing ourselves of the debilitating blame, guilt, judgment and punishment that many of us have unknowingly turned against ourselves. Learning to treat ourselves with kindness, patience, self-compassion, forgiveness, encouragement and understanding is the key. Each of us is human — and a work in progress. We deserve a second chance. Helping ourselves changes everything.
3. Getting Professional Help
Getting professional help from a qualified therapist, counselor, Living Losses Coach or spiritual advisor/ clergy can make all the difference as a stand-alone activity or complement to the other options mentioned above.
We don’t get to play God in this life. No matter how healthy, wealthy or wise we become, there will always be things that are beyond our ability to control, or understand. We can, however, learn to live valiantly, humbly and honorably in the face of life’s most devastating living losses, setbacks and tragedies.
We can summon great strength and face each day as it comes, doing the best we can, working hard to help ourselves and our loves ones create the best of all possible futures. This takes time and great courage.
Rising out of the ashes, mobilizing resources and fighting our way back into life is how we grow our souls. This is also the greatest triumph of the human spirit, but it only happens one breath at a time.
This article was originally published on MariaShriver.com. Copyright Ken Druck, Ph.D., author of The Real Rules of Life (Hay House, tradepaper 2013).
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