Accept the change or loss. I recall as a young boy a visit to a distant relative, a woman who seemed extremely old to me at the time though she may have been no older than I am now. The distinguishing feature of the visit was a chair in her living room in which nobody was allowed to sit because it had been the favorite chair of her deceased son. It struck me then, as it does now, curiously sad that this woman had turned a piece of furniture into a memorial of her son. Without fully grasping it at the time, I now realize that it probably represented her difficulty in accepting that her son was gone and would never return to claim his old chair. Joan Didion recounts a similar story in The Year of Magical Thinking in relation to keeping her late husband’s shoes in her closet. In order to come to terms with loss, you have to let go of magical thinking and accept reality.
The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.
Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.
How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?
In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Norman Rosenthal . Dr. Rosenthal is best known as the psychiatrist who first described seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and pioneered the use of light therapy in its treatment while at the National Institute of Mental Health. He is the author of hundreds of professional articles and ten books for the general public including the New York Times bestseller Transcendence and most recently Poetry Rx: How 50 Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life. He is currently clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and maintains a clinical and coaching practice.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Rosenthal! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born to a middle class Jewish professional couple in Johannesburg, South Africa. My father was a lawyer, my mother a speech therapist. Two years after I was born, my twin sisters arrived. From my early childhood I was flagged as being unusual, with idiosyncratic interests, such as the names of the many plants and flowers in the garden; the stories of Greek Gods and heroes; and the contents of the leather-bound Harvard classics that lined the bookshelves, a legacy of a grandfather, who had died before I was born. In contrast to this intellectual side of my personality, I always loved having fun, and playing all manner of games, structured and unstructured. I went to private school, where I made lifelong friends with whom I remain in touch to this day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Life Lesson Quote: Make the most of every day.
My greatest life lesson occurred when I was 24-years old. I was attacked by gangsters, severely injured, and was lucky to escape with my life. It has been said that you only live twice, once when you are born and once when you look death in the face. On that occasion, I looked death in the face. Since then, I try never to forget the value of every single day, and not to take any good thing for granted, be it as simple as a sunny morning or a cool breeze in the evening. The tenderness, preciousness and fragility of life always hovers somewhere in my consciousness. As I look over my life, it seems to me I have learned the most when things went wrong. I collected stories culled from my life and those with whom I have been associated, and turned them into one of my books: The Gift of Adversity.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
1.Interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. First of all, I enjoy people and find them endlessly fascinating. I’m curious about how the mind works — other people’s and my own.
When I was 16-years old I decided to become a research psychiatrist. My best friend in high school always laughed at me for musing and speculating about what was going on in other people’s minds since he took a much more practical attitude to his dealings with others.
These interests have also been fundamental to many of my career achievements, including the one for which I am best known. When I emigrated from South Africa, I encountered severe winters for the first time. The short dark days caused me to slow down and feel less energetic than the giddy long summer days in New York City that greeted me on my arrival. These difficulties evaporated the following spring. Had it not been for my awareness of my own experiences with the changing seasons, I may very well not have described seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and pursued light therapy as a new form of treatment for the condition.
2. Field independence. I tend not to accept given wisdom or to follow paths that most other people take. In the words of Robert Frost, I prefer to take the road less traveled by. This applies both in my work and my life. One example in my professional life occurred when as a newly graduated psychiatrist, I came to the National Institute of Mental Health to become a researcher. I was invited to join several ongoing projects, but none of them caught my fancy,
Then I encountered a patient with a history of regular seasonal depression, who hypothesized that the seasonal changes in light might be driving his mood switches. That resonated with me and struck me as novel, fascinating, and amenable to scientific investigation, which led to the description of SAD. Many of my colleagues laughed at my single-minded focus on this apparently trivial condition. That was in many ways fortunate. Had they not thought so, it is hard to imagine that my senior colleagues would have allowed me to lead the project. As the work began to thrive, some colleagues became quite contemptuous of it, which confirmed for me that the idea must have some merit. That story is typical of many incidents in my life.
3. Tenacity. In my work as a psychiatrist and coach, I find what often separates those who succeed from those who don’t is tenacity. Even though people may be equally talented, many give up on a project too soon. Those who regularly achieve success typically don’t let obstacles stand in their way if at all possible. I have found that obstacles, setbacks and impediments often help people improve their game and lead to greater success.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.
- Accept the change or loss. I recall as a young boy a visit to a distant relative, a woman who seemed extremely old to me at the time though she may have been no older than I am now. The distinguishing feature of the visit was a chair in her living room in which nobody was allowed to sit because it had been the favorite chair of her deceased son. It struck me then, as it does now, curiously sad that this woman had turned a piece of furniture into a memorial of her son. Without fully grasping it at the time, I now realize that it probably represented her difficulty in accepting that her son was gone and would never return to claim his old chair. Joan Didion recounts a similar story in The Year of Magical Thinking in relation to keeping her late husband’s shoes in her closet. In order to come to terms with loss, you have to let go of magical thinking and accept reality.
- Reach out to others for help and support. Many people I know who have lost loved ones have derived great comfort from attending grief groups. Learning how others are dealing with their losses can be very helpful in managing yours. But losses can come in many different forms. I recall losing a large sum of money as a result of a scam. Many people feel ashamed when something like that happens — and I felt my share of that painful emotion as well, which makes one feel like crawling under the covers. Counterintuitively, however, one of the most helpful antidotes to shame is to reach out to supportive family and friends. I did so and it greatly improved my spirits and gave me concrete help and coping strategies I may never have figured out on my own.
- Maintain your daily healthy habits. One friend who had lost her husband, said her daily walks, preferably with a companion, were a lifesaver. Other forms of exercise, especially in group settings, have been immensely helpful in helping her adjust to the loss. Aerobic exercise plus companionship seem like a powerful remedy for the loneliness and sadness that follows loss.
- Meditate. For the past 15 years I have practiced Transcendental Meditation twice a day and it has helped me in many ways. One specific way that comes to mind is when I lost my younger sister. Somehow letting go of my overactive mind in my regular TM sessions and slipping into the calm pleasant state of transcendence was like a balm that soothed me during those difficult times.
- Write about it. James Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin has done extensive research about the benefits of writing about one’s deepest thoughts and feelings. His exercise requires writing down one’s deepest thoughts and feeling for 20 minutes three or four times over about ten days. In one study of fired Texas Instrument workers, one engineer wrote, “Lost job. Must tell girlfriend.” Later he said that writing exercise (just 5 words!) had been very helpful. It turned out that he had not told his girlfriend about the job loss, which might require relocation and strain the relationship. Simply writing it down persuaded him he needed to do so. Pennebaker’s exercise has been studied in hundreds of experiments where it has been found to have far-reaching physical and emotional effects.
In the wake of my sister’s death, I had to meet a book deadline. I asked for an extension but was told that the book was already listed in the catalog and I was expected to deliver it on time. I brought my grief and sadness into my project and wove my sister’s story into the book. I turned the chore of writing into a sort of catharsis and, with the help of a friend, got the book done by deadline.
Let’s discuss this in more specific terms. After the dust settles, what coping mechanisms would you suggest to deal with the pain of the loss or change?
I have often thought of the different ways in which the people of different cultures grieve. With over half a million dead from the pandemic, millions of people are experiencing this painful process. Probably they all have much in common but I am most familiar with Jewish tradition. In this tradition, the period of mourning is divided into intervals: 7 days, 30 days and 1 year to be precise. Different behaviors are prescribed during these different intervals, beginning with those that fully consume the mourner’s days, and becoming less stringent over time. Other activities are proscribed. At the end of the year, however, the mourner is encouraged to get back into regular life again. Although I don’t prescribe any specific rules to my patients and clients, I recognize the wisdom of such a tapered approach — including encouraging people to return to a full life when appropriate. I always try to assess what is comfortable for the client in light of her or his particular cultural background.
Although other losses are generally less traumatic than the death of a loved one, they may create a comparable type of grieving. I have seen this, for example, with the loss of a beloved pet, one’s good health, or a life dream, such as a career or a business.
How can one learn to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
Here again, I think that coming to terms with reality is an important life skill. One major negative aspect of loss is anger (and other self-destructive feelings) towards . . . oneself or another. We now know that anger and other negative emotions often hurt the angry person more than the object of anger. They can delay physical and emotional healing. One friend who was left by her husband for another woman never let go of her anger. The rest of her life was miserable, and she died young of a rapidly spreading malignancy. I always wondered to what extent the stress of holding on to her obsessive anger might have worn down her immune vigilance.
Aside from letting go, what can one do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
Here I would take us back to my favorite quote and the philosophy I live by and encourage others to do the same, “Make the most of every day.” I remind people that hours spent on negative thoughts such as anger, revenge, regret, and self-recrimination are a waste of their precious days and hours on earth. This time is what we throw away if we continue to allow our minds to drift in a self-destructive direction. I might ask them to visualize throwing away their precious possessions and see how that makes them feel. I remind them that these possessions can be replaced, but lost time cannot.
One of the important influences on my life was the great neurologist Victor Frankl, whom I had the privilege of meeting when he was in his early 90s. We spent a few hours together in his summer home outside Vienna, and I saw in him a man who lived by his philosophy and dictum: that everything can be taken away from a person but the ability to choose where to direct your mind, to choose your own way. So, I would explain to those who immerse themselves in negativity that they have the choice to redirect their feelings in happier and more constructive ways.
How can one reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation?
The answer to this follows logically from the above response. Once people recognize that they have some capacity to decide what they are going to think about and how they choose to spend their time, and that they don’t have to linger on the negative side, all sorts of more constructive and enjoyable possibilities appear. Reframing is a great art and one that as a therapist and coach I have spent a lot of time thinking about and working on. Although it is difficult, in this short space to go into detail about methods, pointing out cognitive distortions such as black-or-white thinking, overgeneralization, and fortune telling can be very helpful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I know this is going to sound odd, but it might be something like Thrive Global. Through my training, research and writing I have focused on helping people live their very best lives. I also encourage people who have worked hard to make the most of themselves to reach out to others in various ways, thereby spreading their knowledge and wisdom to help create a better world, however large or small the impact might be.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
The world is so full of fascinating, brilliant, and successful people that I have a hard time pinpointing anyone in particular. As I said above, I love people, especially if they are smart, thoughtful, and creative. I also like people who are kind, generous and funny. I’m reminded of an exchange that takes place in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion between the heroine Anne and a certain Mr. Elliot. Here it is:
Anne: “My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”
Mr. Elliot: “You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company; that is the best.”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Here is my professional title and best way for readers to reach me:
Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
Georgetown University Medical School
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!