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While the title of today’s blog may sound like the ballad in a sad love song, the reality is, love really does hurt — a lot. In fact, love can hurt like nothing else in the world, because the brain’s bonding center is the bedrock for our emotional brain. This means any loss or problems in our loving relationships create searing pain that can feel off the charts.

Recently, my aunt went to heaven. She is now with Jesus, free from pain and liberated from the struggles with cancer that ravaged her body. My aunt is experiencing unspeakable joy and profound peace beyond what we can imagine. For this, I am relieved.

Those of us left behind feel the large, massive hole where she used to be. We have a colossal absence now that she’s gone. Her family and friends miss her presence, her voice, and her smile. There is simply no replacing this beautiful woman.

I understand some of the science behind the sting of loss, what we refer to as “attachment pain.” My husband and I teach on this stuff. Well, to be more accurate, we train the skills to help people better navigate this stuff. In spite of my knowledge and understanding around loss, this particular loss caught me off guard the past few days. I loved my aunt. While she was not my parent or grandparent, nor was she a spouse or child to me, she was part of my life, my story, and my family. I deeply miss her. I grieve the absence left behind her departure to heaven.

Attachment pain and loss is something all of us experience at different levels in different ways. Even if we do not fully understand or know what to call this hidden iceberg, we still feel the pain of loss as it shatters our world and scatters remnants of our hearts all over.

It hurts to long for connection with someone who is not available in a given moment. The reason may be due to distance; they are too far away. It can be death; they are gone forever. It may be from distraction; they are emotionally unavailable. Regardless of the reason, at the end of the day, someone I need is not there when I need them. It still hurts. Loss feels like certain death. Words, excuses, information, choices, or willpower does little to alleviate this level of distress. These “solutions” can backfire and make the pain worse. Something more is needed.

The clearest form of attachment pain happens when someone dies, but we can experience the pain of loss in ruptured relationships where someone pulls away or when a loved one goes on a trip or has checked out on us and is emotionally distant and disconnected.

Personally, I notice less energy as I process my grief. My cravings are high. This means lots of licorice and chocolate. My head feels foggy. I can’t focus on my tasks. I have less patience. My creativity is missing in action. Everything feels empty and bland. I am weepy.

“So, what exactly are we supposed to do when we feel attachment pain?” I’m glad you asked! Dr. Jim Wilder makes the point that most of the brain has some recovery mechanism when things go wrong. When it comes to our attachment center, however, there is no quick fix or simple recovery technique installed into our brains. From the perspective of our brain’s bonding center, our brain works as though it was made to live forever, and never experience loss. (1) We are simply not designed for death! When we look at God’s design in the Garden of Eden, we see a portrait of life, joy, and connection; there was no intention of sin and death. God made us for life, not death, and our brain’s bonding center affirms this.

Despite our brain lacking an effective recovery mechanism for attachment pain, some things can help us navigate loss. This is a preview of the Sharing Identity, THRIVE Track 3, where attendees learn solutions for the five kinds of pain the brain knows. We will start with the easiest then work our way down to the more demanding solutions.

First, our brain needs to find God’s perspective on the situation and develop a narrative about why we hurt the way that we hurt. Often, when we receive what Jesus has for us, we may discover there is more going on than meets the eye. As we find meaning and create a story around this loss, it helps our brain understand our sadness. We find words and a language for our grief. This particular loss may stir up more loss from our past, or it triggers fears over a future loss. When we can understand our grief, it helps us process what’s going on.

Next, we need to discover who it is like us to be in the midst of this pain. Who did Jesus create us to be under these conditions? This is the acting like myself skill. For me, crying, extending some grace and tenderness to myself, extra time with Jesus’ peace, and focus on God’s gifts all reflect my heart and character. This means the licorice and chocolate are more “pseudo-comforts” to cope with my big feelings, and these may not be a good long-term strategy.

Next, we need someone to join our distress and share our pain with us. Here is the shoulder to cry on. Inviting Jesus to join us in our upset is always a good plan, and He often employs His people to be the physical shoulders we can rely on for comfort on His behalf. We need people who can weep with us and share our pain without trying to minimize or fix us. (2)

Next, we need to quiet ourselves. Sadness, grief, and loss are big feelings. The distress created from loss is intensely felt in our brain’s survival circuit. This distress is big, loud, and intense. We need a high-capacity mind to sit with us and remind us to breathe as we quiet our big reactions. Sometimes a hot bath, sitting in the sun’s warmth, taking deep breaths, snuggling with one of my favorite people (or animal) can bring some peace to help us quiet and rest.

Grief tends to roll in waves. When we feel the emotion, we must ride the wave as it ebbs and flows. When we resist the feelings and try to fight or run from the wave of emotions, it feels like a constant fight. The feelings continually try to bubble up, and this feels like they are always with us. Inviting people we trust to join our suffering, listen to our story, and share our distress will go a long way.

While I hope you are not grieving a death in your family right at this moment like I am, no matter what loss you are feeling, I want to encourage you to embrace your loss as a reflection of your values and propensity for life. You are made for life, and it hurts when we lose some life. Look for Jesus in this storm, and consider who it is like you to be. Share your distress with other people and find rest and quiet as you connect with your people. Attachment pain does not have to hold you hostage, and the chains of fear can be broken as you pursue shelter and security under the wings of the Almighty. (3)

Next time you feel the heaviness of loss, including some cravings that may be covering your pain, try these relational steps. They won’t fix your sadness, but you can find peace in the midst of it all. (4) Do you know anyone who can use some of this encouragement today? Please share this with others.

  1. Learn more about this with Dr. Jim Wilder in the THRIVE-at-Home online course.

  2. Romans 12:15

  3. Psalm 91:4, He will shelter you with his wings; you will find safety under his wings. His faithfulness is like a shield or a protective wall. (NET)

  4. Learn more about these important topics with Dr. Jim Wilder’s JIMTalks here.

Posted in Discipleship

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  1. Mike and Deana Woytasek

    Yes, thank you for sharing this Dear Jen; as at times, all of us can have heart wrenching attachment pain. Our hearts go out to you & Chris and all of your family in this sad and difficult time of the loss of your Beloved Aunt~May God comfort each of you~Much Shalom with Love & hugs, Mike & Deana

  2. Joe Johnson

    This is the best ever explanation of grief, and attachment pain and ways to recover than I know. I have a client who decided she was ready, it was time, to stop seeing me after 8 years. She is having a really difficult time. I am thankful you provided this “heavenly” resource. papa Joe

  3. stewart

    Well written and concise. Thanks Jenn as always. Perfect timing and relevant at a number of different levels for myself and those around me.

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