It is late October. The recently arrived autumn chill means my heating is on for the first time in months. I awake in the dark, the hours of daylight are noticeably fewer. The clocks turned back last weekend. If turning them ahead an hour in summer is ‘daylight saving,’ what is the opposite? The green outside around me, around us all, is now yellow, orange, crimson. ‘The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let the dead things go,’ an online post reminds me.
A client this week confesses she is finding the time change difficult, unnerving. It may only be an hour, but she sees the darkness so early in the day as ominous. Her elderly mother’s health has been a topic of our work for the past several months. Death anxiety hovers heavily in the room.
A friend is facing the demise of his business. After 25 years of hard work – planning, building and financing his dream – he is now in engaged in bankruptcy proceedings.
October also always reminds me of my own experience with loss. It has been six years, almost to the day, since my world, as I then knew it, fell apart. My relationship with my son’s father ended, and with it the home we had created together, the dreams I had of our future family life. This loss was compounded by the eerie similarity it bore to one I had experienced decades before when my own father left our family under similar circumstances. A loss I hadn’t fully grieved at the time; a grief that resurfaced all these years later making it difficult to separate the two.
At any given time, many of us are facing some fairly large loss. As we get older, these chances increase. We typically associate loss with death. But loss is so much more than that. There is the loss of leaving, or of being left. The loss of changing, of letting go. The loss of dreams or illusions of safety, of power. Some say that all of these ‘other losses’ merely trigger fears about the ultimate loss, death. Perhaps this is so. But this view also undervalues, or at the very least minimises, the importance of these ‘in-life’ losses. They are deaths of something in their own right, not merely ‘stand ins’ for the eventual loss of life.
‘Change is the only constant,’ to paraphrase Heraclitus. And with change comes loss of the old. This process is usually fraught with emotion: anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, pain. Yet we live in a culture in denial about these simple truths. Of trying to ‘game the system’ with a false sense of control. The ego likes to think that, deep down, if it works hard enough, it can solve every problem. It wants to protect versus loss, avoid it, manipulate it, attack it and when none of these work, numb through it and hope it passes quickly. But life doesn’t work this way. We can’t pick and choose which experiences and emotions are desirable off some great conveyor belt of life, leaving the difficult or undesirable ones to rotate around for someone else. Denial and defenses only increase our suffering. We need to look at loss head-on, not shy away from the inevitable.
While losses are a universal, unavoidable, and inexorable part of life, this is not necessarily a bad thing. As Judith Viorst, psychoanalyst and author of many books including Necessary Losses, puts it ‘…losses are necessary because we grow by losing and leaving and letting go…the road to human development is paved with renunciation…’ We gain something in losing. We also gain something in being open to change and loss for we can’t fully love and be present today if we are tense and resisting what may be coming tomorrow.
As autumn turns to winter and we have a front row seat to witnessing death all around us in nature, perhaps now is an appropriate time to take that lesson from the trees and look for the beauty in loss, in all its guises. I will take my personal experience with loss, and learning from it, as but one example.
‘Life seems sometimes like nothing more than a series of losses, from beginning to end. That’s the given. How you respond to those losses, what you make of what’s left, that’s the part you have to make up as you go.’ Katharine Weber, The Music Lesson.
When I became an unexpectedly single mother, I experienced what is commonly referred to as a life crisis. But nothing about it felt ‘common’ to me. I was terrified. I felt utterly alone. I was filled with shame that I had ‘failed’ at the most important relationship in my life. I worried the outside world would judge me as failure as well. I was without a roadmap or a compass to tell me how I was going to go on living, let alone caring for my infant son on my own. All reference points, my ways of being in the world, no longer made sense. I felt like I had lost my life, and quite possibly my mind.
A starting point for me was giving words to my grief. It was so overwhelming, so constricting, that my initial inclination was to just curl up under the sheets, pull down the blinds and hide out from the world. So I did. But this didn’t last, because the emotional isolation only made things worse. I felt locked out of the possibility of connection at time when connection and support were most important. Until this point, I had prided myself on being a strong, independent woman. But now I needed help; I had no option but to call on others. I enlisted the support of a good therapist. I called on all the friends and family I could mobilise. I needed their support more than I feared their judgement. And the responses I got were overwhelming. I learned that vulnerability – showing my weakness – opened me up to others. People were so willing to come help me out when my vulnerability allowed an opening for them to do so.
Importantly, no one tried to ‘fix’ my situation. Sure, some help came in practical ways (meals, logistics, childcare assistance) but more significantly in just letting me give a voice to my turmoil. ‘I want my life back’ I would wail, repeatedly. It wasn’t pretty, not refined or restrained. Nor was it quick. ‘How long is this gonna last?’ was my other refrain. Not a one tried to answer that impossible question, or rush it along. However, a seasoned traveller on the road of love and loss did pass on the calming words ‘this too, shall pass.’ I clung to these in the early days. Looking back, I can see how important this type of support was, how essential it is for anyone going through loss or life crisis: companionship along the way without any pretense of finding answers. Equally, an outsider holding the confidence that ‘this too shall pass’ can be the needed support for the individual who can’t yet see it.
‘It doesn’t matter whether we are ready for an emotional adventure – hurt happens. And it happens to every single one of us. Without exception. The only decision we get to make is what role we’ll play in our own lives: Do we want to write the story or do we want to hand that power over to someone else?’ – Brene Brown, Rising Strong
A second season for my loss was that of finding meaning in it. Periods of loss, including life crises, can be seen as gateways for spiritual growth. While it would be insensitive (to ourselves or to clients or loved ones who are grieving loss) to catapult to this stage prematurely, ultimately this perspective shifts the energy from letting go to opening to transformation. I had done grief in spades; for a while after I was tired and depleted. I had arranged my affairs – new home, new working arrangements, additional childcare – so that I felt at least somewhat secure I could function in my ‘new normal.’ I was ready to open to something else, something bigger than mere ‘functioning.’
For me, this second stage required a change in perspective. I was tired of living in the story of victimhood I had created for myself. Did I want to be so powerless for the rest of my life? As Victor Frankl put it, ‘When we are not able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.’ I started asking myself some pretty tough questions: ‘What was my role in this happening?’ ‘How can I behave in a way that might lead to a better outcome?’ When I stopped blaming others, I could see my own part more clearly. There is power in this. I no longer viewed my life as ‘something that happens to me’ (both the good and the bad), but instead as something I create for myself. I had endured the grieving process, survived it even. It was time, in the words of author Cheryl Strayed, to ‘run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.’ That desire propelled me forward.
One of the lesser-known benefits of loss is that it gives you courage to affect more of it, where necessary. Once I had already faced one of my biggest fears, most painful losses, and survived, I started looking around for what else needed to change for me to go in that direction of my dreams. So many of us (myself included) are scared to make these changes, usher in these losses. We stay in bad relationships, jobs, habits or patterns that hold us back. Fear of the unknown keeps us locked in place; we prefer the ‘known bad’ to the groundless uncertainty of change. But I had already been pushed into the unknown and had found my feet. This encouraged me to take further leaps of my own. I started asking myself the question ‘ What else needs to end or die here to make way for a new beginning?’ I found this to be true in the case of my former career. I had known, or at least felt, that I was well past my due-date operating in the corporate world, even though my job had all but defined me for the vast majority of my adult life. For years, I had feared that loss of identity but now I was ready to tackle my next necessary loss.
This loss created space for me to retrain in psychotherapy, a vocation much more aligned with my interests and values. Most importantly, the loss of my professional life allowed me to engage actively in my new role as a mother in a way I would have been unable to do so previously. Gradually, very gradually, I began to view that first major loss in my life (my partner) as something put on my path to teach me some pretty important lessons. That initial loss was merely the catalyst to put another whole series of changes in front of me. I actually started to feel grateful to my ex for leaving, for forcing me to wake up to who I want to be in this world.
‘I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.’ Gail Caldwell, Let’s Take the Long Way Home
I don’t share this experience of mine with loss because I think it is special or unique, but because I know it is so common. I choose to openly acknowledge that we all experience loss and the deluge of emotions that come with it in the hopes we are less paralysed by it when it hits. We may even find there to be some pretty big benefits to loss. One of my favourite American authors and speakers, Brene Brown, says ‘only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.’ There is a lot to this. The knowledge that we can emerge stronger and wiser and yes, kinder, from loss is powerful stuff. Because I have grappled with the difficulty of loss, I find I have more compassion, patience and even optimism for friends and clients struggling with the same. We are all engaged in ongoing cycles of death and rebirth, none of us exempt.
Six years on, loss still isn’t easy for me. And yet a kind of ‘pruning process’ has been set in motion so that I am continually looking for things that need to change because they aren’t working for me. I am currently sitting with something big that needs to go. Even though I’ve developed a much more accepting stance towards loss by now, I’m not immune to the defense tactics we all employ against it. I guess I’m just more aware of these now, no longer fooling myself in a way I might have done previously. I can catch myself, if not immediately, then at least much earlier on. I feel the loss looming, notice how it makes me tense up and want to move away from it. Instead I sit. Take my hands off the controls. Stop trying to hijack what is yet another necessary loss. Breathe. Sometimes even put my hand on my heart for comfort. I look at the window and see the leaves falling: beautifully, gracefully, making way for new life when the seasons change. As they will, as they always do. Nature is my cheerleader whispering ‘this too shall pass.’