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Is it Possible to Prepare for Sudden, Unexpected Heartbreak and Loss?

Dr. Terri Daniel, CT, CCTP Founder, The Afterlife Conference Certified in Death, Dying and Bereavement, ADEC Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist. IATP 707-827-3156 www.spiritualityandgrief.com www.afterlifeconference.com

We hear a lot about preparing for disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and fires. If we live in areas prone to these kinds of events, we are acutely aware of the potential for catastrophe, and most of us have followed the recommended preparedness guidelines. We have an evacuation plan, a sturdy set of shoes under the bed, and dual sets of survival supplies; one for the house and one for the car.  

But what the pamphlets and public service announcements don’t talk about is how to prepare emotionallyfor sudden tragedy. Is it possible to prepare the heart and soul, in addition to the house and car? 

In a word, yes.But it’s not as easy as packing a suitcase or making sure you have enough bottled water. This preparedness plan requires us to delve deeply into our psyches, to clear away our beliefs and assumptions, to question our sense of entitlement, and to condition ourselves to think differently about our sense of safety in the world. 

Most of us live our lives holding on to certain beliefs about how the world works. If we didn’t believe, for example, that marriages should last forever, and children shouldn’t die before their parents, we would be less likely to risk getting married or having children.  For example, most people would agree with these statements about how life shouldbe:  

. Bad things shouldn’t happen to good people

. If I’m faithful in my religion, I should be protected by God

. A child should not die before its parents

. If I treat others well, they should treat me well in return

In a less abstract sense, here are some of the mundane, day-to-day assumptions that we embrace without question, because they are critical to our functioning. We assume that: 

. When we drive to work or fly on an airplane, we will arrive safely. 

. Our job will support us so we can buy a house and get a dog. 

. We will keep that house until we decide to sell it. 

. The dog won’t get hit by a car or bite the neighbor’s kid 

. Our spouse will be faithful

. Our children are safe at school

We cannot survive without these assumptions. If we didn’t cling to them, we would never buy a house, get a dog, drive a car or send our children to school. We would not take any risks at all. Life would stop.So we trudge onward, trusting that every day will be more or less like the day before, and despite the expected ups and downs of human existence, things are more or less status quo.

Until they’re not. 

A natural disaster, the sudden death of a loved one, or even the death of a beloved celebrity can send our world into a tailspin. It forces us to look at our vulnerability, our smallness on the planet, and the fragility of the social and religious constructs that we expect to protect us. We lived in one reality before the tragedy, and now we’ve been thrown into another. The question here is this… Is it possible to become more competent at navigating that transition? 


While we can never be fully prepared for the unexpected, we can teach ourselves to become more resilient by reframing the way we look at the world and relaxing our grip on our assumptions of safety. The less attached we are to those assumptions, the more fluid we can become when we face our losses. Because there willbe losses.

There is a popular parable – which has many versions and has been incorrectly attributed to the Buddha – known as The Parable of The Teacup.  This is Jack Kornfeld’s version from The Wise Heart

One day Ajahn Chah held up a beautiful Chinese teacup, “To me this cup is already broken. Because I know its fate, I can enjoy it fully here and now. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.  When we understand the truth of uncertainty, we become free.”

Understanding the truth of uncertainty is an uncomfortable concept for most of us. But it is a foundation on which we can build inner strength and the ability to be flexible and resilient. 

Here are some tips and tools for cultivating a more resilient spirit:

1. Strengthen your inner resources

 The American Psychological Association identifies certain inner qualities that may contribute to a person’s capacity for resilience: [1]

. The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
. A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities
. Skills in communication and problem solving.
. The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

If you are lacking in any of these areas, work on strengthening them through therapy, meditation, and self-improvement practices. This is not an easy process or a quick fix. It might involve working through past traumas, breaking free of cultural or religious conventions, healing family issues, improving time management skills, and changing lifelong habits like procrastination or conflict avoidance.

2. Lose your belief in specialness

The rich and famous are no more special than the lonely and destitute. A Christian is no more protected from harm than an Atheist or a Wiccan.  We’re all equal in the cosmic scheme of things, regardless of our bank balances or which god we pray to. Recognize that your assumptions about safety and protection are illusions, and practice loosening your grip on them. We can learn a lot from theologies and belief systems that teach about accepting impermanence and practicing non-attachment.

3. Create spiritual practices for releasing expectations and assumptions

When I was going through a very difficult divorce, I developed a meditation that helped me tremendously. I call it “The Forgiveness Fly-By,” and it works for any situation in which we find ourselves resistant and clinging to the way we WISH things could be.  Here’s how to do it: 

. Take a moment to get into a calm space, and breathe deeply. 

Imagine that you’re “flying by” the painful situation (the scene of the tragedy, the person who harmed you, the traumatic memories from childhood… whatever you need to release).  

. Survey the scene, and then say out loud, “I release you completely to your path.” Say it several times. You can do this exercise several times a day if you need to. 

It is extremely difficult to do this. 

We don’t want to release the philandering husband or the drunk driver who killed our loved one. We want to punish them forever. We want to cling to anger, blame and our desire for control. But that clinging does not help us heal. What helps is learning how to release our attachment to how we think things shouldbe. We wish our parents hadn’t abused us. We wish a hurricane hadn’t destroyed our town, or that our house hadn’t been lost in a fire. We don’t want our loved ones to die. We don’t want our spouses to cheat on us. 

Nobody wants these things. But they happen anyway. Acceptance is the key to survival. The fly-by ultimately shifts our focus from the external events to the inner transformation required to heal. 


[1]The Road to Resilience,”www.Apa.Orghttp://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx

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