THE GIFT OF LOSS
“Love and death are the greatest gifts that are given to us. Mostly they are passed on unopened…” - Rilke
One of the most significant events in the human experience is loss. It comes in all sizes throughout our lifetime. From the moment we are born we are faced with the task of growing, developing, becoming. In the deepest sense, this task is accomplished through accepting change and embracing the loss and grief that comes along with change.
The ultimate transition for each of us is the transformation from an embodied spirit into pure spirit. The transition we call death. Depending on one’s spiritual beliefs, what this transition will be varies. But for most of us, regardless of our belief system, accepting death, our own and our loved ones, is an intense emotional challenge.
Just as important, and just as challenging are the multitudes of “deaths” we experience while we are living. They can be external losses such as ending a relationship, moving away from home, changing or losing a job, completing school, changes in health, loss of parts of one’s body, or they can be internal losses such as loss of hopes, dreams, expected outcomes, long held beliefs, or cherished ideas. On an even more subtle level, we continually face everyday losses such as misunderstandings, miscommunication, and loss of self-image (not being seen the way we want to be seen). Whenever things “don’t go the way we want,” we feel a degree of loss.
Grief is the natural response to loss. Grief-work is the active process of reinventing oneself in response to this loss. It too is both an external re-creation and an internal re-creation. It is a physically and emotionally demanding experience. It is painful, yet when done consciously and conscientiously it provides us with the opportunity to become more of who we authentically are in the world. Imagine an exquisitely carved piece of jasper. The stone itself is lovely, but once it is carved it offers a unique beauty
deepened with meaning. Similarly, grief-work is the carving of the soul. Our unique beauty emerges as in-authenticity is stripped away from us.
This “carving of the soul” feels like deep sadness, anger, guilt, confusion, blame, uncertainty, and separation. It feels like isolation, alienation, self-judgment, and loneliness. It feels like jealousy and regret. It is, in the words of John James and Russell Friedman, “the conflicting group of human emotions caused by an end to or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.” What is important is to acknowledge that these feelings come one on top of the other. They come so quickly that they are, for a while, undifferentiated from one another. In this accelerated emotional state it is easy to feel overwhelmed and fatigued.
It is no wonder then why we may seek to escape from this experience.
Sometimes it is only through an undeniable loss that we allow ourselves to grieve at all. Even then we may want to avoid our grief, shorten it, medicate it, or push through it with our eyes closed. “As a culture, we have forgotten the value of the grief state. We have allowed the intensity of the experience to overshadow the benefit we as human beings receive through the experience.”
As a culture, we have forgotten the value of the grief state. We have allowed the intensity of the experience to overshadow the benefit we as human beings receive through the experience. We sacrifice our personal evolution because we have been taught so many fallacies about loss and the process of grieving.
Some of the messages we are given about loss are, “don’t feel bad, replace what has been lost, grieving should be done alone, time will take away the pain, be strong for others, keep busy.” This advice is not only mistaken, but also contrary to what is natural and needed to successfully complete the task of re-creation.
Sobanfu Some is an African healer and lecturer. She speaks about the way grief is regarded in her culture. In her village, at any given time there is a grief ritual-taking place. Anyone who is grieving is welcome to come, to cry, and to feel together in a community of others as a simple matter of course. The notion of avoiding this process and these feelings is as illogical to them as avoiding a meal when feeling hungry. Holding onto grief is likened to holding onto a toxic substance. It is only through the acknowledgement and expression of the grief that the health of the organism is restored.
What is it that keeps us from entering into this state with confidence and calmness? Sometimes it is the fear that it will never end. Sometimes it is a fear that we will be utterly overwhelmed and annihilated by our feelings. Sometimes we are embarrassed to admit we are in as much pain as we are. Sometimes it is the mistaken belief that other people are pain free and that we too should be pain free. However, when we don’t allow ourselves to fully open to our grief, we risk the consequence of depression, chronic anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, dysfunctional relationships, and a general loss of meaning in our lives. Conversely, grief-work offers us the opportunity to become lighter, more fully engaged in life and more authentically ourselves. It provides us the chance to deepen ourselves, to define who we are, and to live out a meaningful and purposeful life.