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  • Matthew Gallagher

Have the little funeral: negotiating and accepting loss

I remember receiving a call in the middle of my busy work day, my four-year-old daughter had fallen and hit her head on the corner of the wall with enough force to split part of her forehead just below the hairline. Her injury was minor but she needed care as soon as possible to close the wound. I had a full schedule as always but none of that mattered as I told my coworkers I was leaving to take her to immediate care.

A crisis like this offers clarity of obvious next steps (urgent care appointment) and

permission to address a clearly justifiable goal (health and safety of a child). Even for type A, goal-oriented personalities with lists and objectives for each day, the schedule falls away to address the immediate need. Most people struggle to make decisions when the balance of urgency shifts or their values are in competition. Most of us have heard the cliché “saying yes to one thing means saying no to everything else.” This is one of the reasons why psychological models have been developed to describe the process of making decisions.

Decisions are easiest when we have to choose between something we don’t want and something we very much want, like trading in an old car we never liked for the new one we have always wanted. It becomes much more complicated when we have to choose between good things, like two equally appealing jobs or college admission offers. We also struggle when we want something but are not yet ready to part with our resources, such as time or money. This is why I sometimes describe myself as an “and” guy, rather than accepting the choice of this “or” that.

In decisions with less clarity we have to negotiate these trade-offs in our minds, like having a little funeral for our expectations. We have the luxury of planning ahead for a routine medical appointment or car repair, but when an unavoidable crisis collides with our plans we often wait or re-evaluate asking “is it really that bad?” We can hear ourselves and others negotiating the tension when we try to schedule around our crisis (“I need help now but I don’t want to miss work!”). This may sound dramatic but acceptance is the last stage of the grief cycle, and we resist loss in many different ways. The tension we feel comes from grasping for two things at the same time. Letting go of our previous expectations, and accepting the loss, frees us to adapt to confront the unexpected problem. So have the little funeral, trusting that you will be okay even though today is not working out the way you hoped.

Matthew Gallagher, LCPC

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