Loss shows us some basic truth about who we are: we are tied to others and to place. Those bonds form us … When I lose you, I lose me too. Grief challenges the very notion that we are separate selves. We do not always succeed at being whole. The faces of others, the touch and smell of them, our memories of places we have lived and loved—all of this undoes us. It should. Falling down is necessary for waking up to our shared humanity.
Loss is one of the biggest challenges that life throws us, and one that most of us are ill-equipped to deal with. Aside from the big losses—of livelihood, a loved one, health, friendships—that shake us up, there are also seemingly minor losses, like the loss of a cherished object, the steady loss of youth, moving location, which can surprise us by the intense emotion they bring up. We flounder in trying to make ourselves whole again and we also flounder at helping others with their losses. The oft-used phrase ‘time will heal’ may prove to be of little consolation.
What is loss all about? How can we understand it and develop the capacity to work with it? The first question we can ask is: what makes us cherish some things and people so dearly? It is mostly because they make up our world, literally. My world consists of my work, my family and friends, my house, my preferences. These define me as a certain type of person—married with two school-going children, teaching at university, living in a certain type of house with certain types of friends etc. The sum total of all these is my identity, the “I” that I define myself to be. My identity is my comfort zone, a seemingly constant existence in a changing world, and the axis I use to orient myself when on unfamiliar ground.
When one of these factors changes or is suddenly not there, I lose a large part of how I define myself—there is literally a hole in my world. And there is no way to mend it, as what I have lost was unique and cannot be replaced by anything else. I can buy another vase to replace the one that broke, but it will never be the same, because the one that broke was my grandmother’s and had so many memories associated with it. When that vase broke, it took away part of my world with it.
We do not so much grieve the loss of a person or object as the loss of the whole world of things that existed for us when they were in it. It is our frame of reference, our illusion that has been ruptured.
And thus, ‘when I lose you, I lose me too‘.
The task, then, is not to repair the hole, because it cannot be repaired—not by us, not by others, not by time. We never ‘get over it’. We carry these holes with us all our lives. Some of them may be as painful now as they were when the fabric was first torn; others are more like twinges that show up now and again, when we are having a particularly rough time. Our work is therefore to develop the capacity to feel whole and supported, no matter what or whom we lose or gain in life. We sorrow at our losses, but underneath the pain of our grief, we can retain a sense of well-being that is not diminished.
More on how to develop this capacity in next month’s post.