Surviving versus Living – What’s the difference?

It is interesting that we are commonly known to survive loss. We are thought of in our grief as surviving loved ones. We are called suicide survivors after losing a loved one to suicide. But what it means to truly survive loss is not well understood or even talked about at all. It’s just a word that’s been assigned to the bereaved.

The literal meaning of the word “survive” is to remain alive after the death of someone or the cessation of something under adverse or unusual circumstances. And remaining alive versus living are two very different things. I’m sure everyone would agree that losing a child is the least favourable circumstance to be in and is unusual and adverse in every way imaginable. For most if not all bereaved parents, surviving their child’s death is about the only thing they can do. But it’s also true that many grievers in general simply remain alive without much or any feeling at all after losing a love of their life. Without hope and loss of direction, some people may never feel anything again.

Interestingly, and somewhat related to this is research being done on whether or not you can be happy after trauma. This is important because trauma and PTSD is what catapults us into survival mode, where our ability to “live” is suddenly gone. Being in survival mode shuts down our ability to engage with others and is extremely isolating. At its most destructive, being stuck in survival mode batters our emotions and uses up all of our extra energy as we relentlessly try to stay alive while feeling under constant threat.

While any form of psycho-therapy would assure us that our survival instinct is necessary even today to warn us of danger, the difference for people who have suffered trauma and are only in survival mode is that when the danger passes, their body’s fear system doesn’t reset to normal, as it should. They remain hyper-vigilant to anything they perceive as danger, which could be just about everything.

Different though from the beast in the forest that kept cave dwellers hyper-vigilant to their surrounding dangers, the danger threatening people traumatized by loss is the fear they feel about whatever may be lurking in every hidden corner to threaten them with pain worse than what they have already experienced. For those who have lost a child, it’s scary to think about pain that could get even worse, though I wouldn’t limit the extent of this fear only to bereaved parents. There are millions of people coping with trauma who are frightened by life and stuck in survival mode. They too remain hyper-vigilant all of the time to any real or perceived danger around them in every environment they find themselves. Surviving can be debilitating and restricts many areas of the survivor’s life.

While the times and circumstances presenting dangers are different from millennia ago, the survival instinct to fight, freeze or flee is not. For the griever, this is experienced in 3 ways:

The 3 Instincts:

Fight instinct: Grievers immerse themselves in the many problems that arise in grief (their own and other’s), often in conflicting ways as they try to fix what they don’t understand. They often react with combative behaviours as a way of coping with their pain. They may want to “get back” at whomever they believe was responsible for their child’s (or other loved one’s) death. In a less negatively demonstrative way, they may immerse themselves “fighting for a cause” in their deceased loved one’s memory and push themselves to the point of collapse.

Freeze instinct (or collapse): Grievers will do whatever it takes to avoid anything that reminds them of their loss or deceased loved one. Pictures come down. Rooms are emptied out or left as is, but avoided. Memories are “erased”. They force themselves to return to their former routine as if nothing has happened or become frozen in their pain. They may withdraw from others or become seriously ill. They may even die.

Flight instinct: Grievers sell homes, leave jobs or move away to try for a new start. They may replace the child they have lost. They cut themselves off emotionally from loved ones. They may end their relationship. In short, they try to leave their former life behind or quickly replace what’s been lost. Similar to freezing, this is avoidance.

Surviving takes a lot of energy. The stress of it can cause debilitating illness. It can ruin relationships, end careers and lives. I’ve met bereaved parents who in their effort to survive their loss have manifested some type of the fight, flee or freeze instinct in various ways through legal battles, relationship breakups, going away and leaving everything behind, wasting away from illness or despair. It’s not fun to exist like this.

Different from surviving, conscious living is far more desirable and a pre-requisite for all-around good health. In survival mode, everything is based on instinct and reaction. Conscious living is based on well-thought out choice. Knowing the difference can help you avoid many of the problems, ill-health and relationship breakups that are otherwise inevitable if you are only surviving difficult loss that is really avoidance of pain.

No matter how you choose to deal or not deal with the pain of loss, survival will only get you so far. Something will eventually happen to force you to face the truth about your loss and life as it is. While for sure it can take a long time to start making positive changes after loss, being aware of the difference between only reacting (surviving) to your life circumstances in grief versus making well thought out choices (living) based on a fundamental change in thinking about how you want to live and what you want to experience after loss, will guide you more positively through your grief.

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Credits: Feature Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash;