Like many people, I have a lot of experience with loss and sorrow. And the older one gets, the more likely one will experience many losses.
I’m writing this piece because a blogging friend is suffering from some deep sorrow due to losing many loved ones to cancer over the years. His dear brother is currently battling cancer too. I’m writing this for him as well as for myself. You are welcome to see if anything resonates with you.
I’ve kind of made it a personal mission to come to terms with loss – with people moving on, and with death and dying – and that’s by closely attending to it, examining its impact on me, my feelings about it, reading comforting words of others who deal with loss, and reaching out to other people in authentic, meaningful ways.
My first loss was with my father, not through death, but through a terrible divorce when I was 2, though he and my step-mother fought hard for visitations. After I turned 11, my mother moved us far away and my dad couldn’t follow us. My mother seldom permitted him phone contact with us. For 19 years, I had no idea if he was even alive but I was afraid to find out – that is, until I garnered the courage to obtain his number from my sister and made the call.
In all, I hadn’t seen him for 29 years, until on my 40th birthday, when my husband, our daughters and I took a train ride to Colorado to see him and my step-mother. Yes, it was an amazing journey.
I ‘lost’ my mother too, not to death, but through her neglect and abuse. She was an emotionally absent mother, an over-controlling and sometimes abusive mother. It sometimes would have been more compassionate if I had lost her to death, but instead, I lost her to narcissism. I was invisible, until I started separating and striking out on my own, and then it was a very difficult situation for a number of years. Only recently, I’ve been able to gain a little bit of a different relationship with her.
I learned to cope with these parental losses of love, affection and contact by detaching from the need for my parents and becoming close with my grandparents and making deep connections with teachers, friends and their mothers, and my colleagues. I had found others to help me counteract a difficult family situation and I was lucky in that regard. In return, I’ve always lent a compassionate ear to anyone who has come across my path who was hurting, in a kind of ‘pay it forward’ way. It’s just what I have done and it seems to bring comfort to others.
I was feeling really good about my life, until I started losing my close connections, in part to death and from the drifting apart that can happen as life’s responsibilities takes us in different directions.
Childhood friends moved away or got busy with their own families and work responsibilities.
I lost my dear friend and colleague, Barb, to cancer in 2002. A few years later, I lost my grandfather. And in 2010, I lost my grandmother.
I had to talk to and comfort my 8 year old daughter for a few weeks, to prepare her for the truth that her beloved former first grade teacher was dying of ovarian cancer. There was no way I was going to hide the truth from her. All her former students were welcome at the wake, and all of my daughters attended. We wanted to honor a very special, loving teacher, but first I needed to help them understand what happened.
Death, and grieving losses is an inevitable part of life…and it’s important that I help my children handle the truth, no matter how painful it can be. No one taught me how…and I really would have appreciated it if someone could have.
My dad too, has had stomach cancer and has chronic lymphocytic leukemia. A close friend and my sister were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and my friend and colleague with prostate cancer, but recovered after surgery.
Another friend just underwent his second round of a bone marrow transplant. He’s only 39.
No doubt about it, cancer is frightening because of it doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to anyone.
For a short period of time, before I was correctly diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, one of my doctors thought it might be a cancerous growth. Nothing like driving home the fear of own your mortality with your own cancer scare when you have very young children.
It gave me considerable death anxiety and I had already been quite aware of my own possible death since I was about 8 or so.
I have decided many years ago, I don’t want to live in fear of death, but wasn’t sure how to deal with it directly. I knew pretty much that I didn’t want to miss out on today or deep connections with others, for fear of what will come tomorrow. None of us are guaranteed our next breath, and part of my journey has been to choose to celebrate life’s experience, both good and bad, and to find sources of joy when I tend to be a melancholic personality.
Many times I laid awake at night with terrible anxiety while my husband peacefully slept. He had his own ways of avoiding his own fears of death.
But, as I’ve recently experienced with one of my own posts, the internet connections I’ve been able to make is helping me expand my world a bit and bringing me into contact with some really nice people.
I’ve learned the hard way, coming to terms with death is one of those things you have to revisit as often as you need to. Usually, every time someone important to you passes from your life (due to death or just growing apart), you have to gather up a new resolve to heal from that loss, which often trigger memories of the old ones.
At some point in life, you have to make the conscious decision to not let life’s disappointments and losses make you bitter or simply rob you of your vitality. It can be challenging.
After accumulating so many losses, I was started to feel too much like Rodin’s Fallen Caryatid. I’ve been reading a lot of things and going to therapy to help me recover from my losses.
To help with my own mortality and death anxiety, I started studying a bit of Irvin Yalom’s work on existential therapy. I am currently reading Alex Pattkos’ Prisoner’s of Our Thoughts, which employ’s Viktor Frankl’s Principles of Logotherapy to help discover meaning in life and work, which helps to allay death anxiety and combat nihilistic thinking, too. You can actually download a free pdf of this book here.
But for my own accumulated losses of friends and loved ones that still felt unresolved, I found a wonderful book at the library called Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart. You can click on this link to Google Books to read some of it. Stephen Levine worked with death and dying and grieving people for 25 years. His writing is very poetical. His close friend was American spiritual seeker Ram Dass and his work has been influenced by him.
This book speaks to me on a very deep level. I have realized that while everyone experiences loss, eventually, few people in the American culture know how to attend to our losses and make sense of it all. So few of us really know how to cope with the inevitable pain that ensues.
From an excerpt found in this review:
Nothing is more natural than grief, no emotion more common to our daily experience. It’s an innate response to loss in a world where everything is impermanent. We don’t know what to do with our pain, and we never have. We have been told to bury our feelings, to keep a stiff upper lip to ‘get over it and get on with our lives’ as though loss were not an inevitable part of life. As a result, our sorrow goes unattended and manifests itself in many unexpected ways.
Levine…presents many practices that can help individuals cope with not only the sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one but also the losses that accumulate over the years through disappointments, setbacks, hurts and slights, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Many of these sorrows go unattended and then manifest in various ways — a weakening of the body, a diminishment of energy, sleep disturbances, a dimming of intuition, a narrowing of the path of our lives, and a decreasing appreciation of life. “Feelings of loss don’t go away; they go deeper. When we lose or never exercise what we need or love, we call the hard contraction in the mind and body ‘suffering,’
The problem I feel that Westerners have with the Buddhist concept of impermanence is that we have a lot of unlearning to do. For Buddhists, who are taught impermanence as part of their spiritual practice, the culture doesn’t contradict that teaching like Western culture does.
For me, some Buddhist teachings were a way of telling me, “everybody suffers, get over it and get over yourself” – a message I’ve heard most of my life but did NOTHING to ameliorate my pain, until I started digging deeper and consulting the writings of Western teachers who have an understanding of Eastern spirituality and could be compassionate about my residual attachments. I still will probably have some amount of attachment, but I’m learning how to relax my grip.
We aren’t taught about the impermanence inherent in life. Americans are in a culture which tells us we achieve success in terms of job titles and possessions, but when we lose them to something like economic downturns or natural disasters or even if a parent decides to give up their career to stay at home with the children, we can lose a large portion of our identity and that can be very disorienting (though eventually, it could be liberating as we adapt to these changes). And so begins (or continues as the case may be) the process of self-discovery and oftentimes, a spiritual journey. For me, I’ve not given up on my Christian background…but I’ve expanded my spirituality to include other teachings.
In America, and other countries that try to emulate our mainstream values, we are taught that we are only somebody in the context of what we do for a job and in the context of what we own or who we are in relation to other people. We are sometimes taught that (unrealistic, overly idealistic forms of) romantic love will solve many of our problems, including covering the pain of old losses. And, oftentimes we jealously guard these relationships, treating our significant others like possessions. When our spouses fail to make us happy, we often bail on the relationship, instead of learning to adapt to the changing marital environment and changing needs of each partner.
We can end up gripping so tightly that when things change, people leave, disappoint us, or die we can become ungrounded and we suffer deeply, sometimes even striking out or striking inward to cope.
We need to find ways to help ourselves and each other with our pain. We can seek out and create meaning to help overcome loss, and yet, at the same time, realize that this meaning-making itself is impermanent. Even THAT will change as our circumstances and interests change.
It all requires fluidity and adaptation.
I want to learn how to go along with this experience, making the necessary adjustments so that losses don’t continue to kick me on my butt when they happen. My journey is far from over on this regard.
This book is a start. It’s helping me to understand my grief and where it comes from.
To oversimplify, there are at least two kinds of chronic grief. The first is the unresolved grief from earlier loss, the incomplete or interrupted process of finishing business by which we might sense our loved one more as a presence in the heart than one dislocated in thought. The second kind of chronic grief is our inherent, ordinary grief that results from unsatisfied desire, from the frequently unfulfilled ambitions and lost loves, and from the battering flow of impermanence in the world within and around us, which puts what we want at our fingertips, then pulls it away. It’s a subtle nausea that undulates just beneath our ordinary, well-composed exterior.
My own task…the thing I find it most hard to do…is make meaning and be aware it can be altered at any time and learn how to accept that reality and flow with it, not fight against it.
My own take? Don’t be afraid to love deeply now, even if it’s gone tomorrow. Love deeply KNOWING IT COULD BE GONE tomorrow. It’s the key to not taking anyone or anything in your life for granted.
Tim McGraw sings something so beautiful in this regard.
That is also the liberation from the suffering that we impose upon ourselves when we expect that the blessings we have to today with remain with us tomorrow.
On the flip side, though, whatever suffering we may have today may be gone tomorrow, too.
Isn’t that a beautiful thought?
It’s my task to realize and internalize that life is a river, with the only constant is its constantly flowing nature, and accept that sometimes there will be floods and sometimes there will be drier seasons, but ultimately, the river will do as it will and I can’t expect it to do otherwise. To do so is sheer folly and a recipe for suffering.
It has been my way to fully embrace life and people…KNOWING it will hurt and hurt deeply when it changes or goes away. And then doing it anyway. But I hadn’t a clue how to deal with the pain of loss. Until now.
I either have to embrace life less completely (which I don’t want to do)…OR learn how to compassionately cradle my heart when circumstances changes, when people leave, through no fault of my own. To open fully and courageously to all of life’s offerings and feel all of the joy and all of the pain, and take care of myself during some of the trials life hands me. The miracle that happens is that, in time, the heart enlarges, eventually accommodating and integrating the new losses.
We sometimes want so much for someone else to take away our grief…or we push away grief by substituting our favorite vice. Certainly other people can help alleviate some of it and we can avoid our pain by any number of mind-numbing addictive substances or activities, but true healing only comes when we deal with our suffering head on with courage and compassion for ourselves. When we work through our grief and allow ourselves the time and space to grieve. We also need to engage with healthy outlets to cope with some of the more overwhelming aspects of grief.
In trauma therapy, sometimes the best we can do is merely touch on our grief a little bit, then back off, and then find something happier to focus on (for me, this is art journaling, and listening to music, and getting closer to my husband or my children while they play).
There is never any time-table for healing from losses. Though, I need to remind myself of this often, because so often I’m impatient and I want to rush the process along, which often actually has the opposite effect.
I have learned, through my own experience, that though the bulk of immediate grief is resolved in the first few months after a loss, it’s important to remember we will be asked to review the old losses when we experience new ones. It’s inevitable that from time to time we are called to remember and further process an old loss.
But at each subsequent loss we can revisit our grief with compassion, attend to our feelings, and recover our hope again.
And, there are some beautiful writings out there to help us when we need it.
Have a beautiful day, my friends.