"Life can be seen as a graph that begins and ends at zero. Between these two points there are many ups and downs."
I promised to write about spirituality, and that is what I am doing. You may however find my point of entry – loss – a bit strange. Loss comes in many forms, and as I’ll explain, to live a maximum life, it is essential to deal with loss well. I was recently asked by a friend how to get over the loss of a loved one. My answer was that she probably didn’t really want to. You see, the reason for her sadness at the loss was that she loved the person, shared many good memories with that person and in order to get over the loss, she would have to give up the good memories she had and make them meaningless. So, it isn’t so much that we want to get over the loss as it is that we want to cope with the feelings and operate “normally”. We don’t want to be perpetual basket-cases subjected to the ridicule and whispers of others who might say that we had “lost it”. We want to be included in normal life while being allowed to remember and experience the loss.
You might have heard me say that life can be seen as a graph that begins and ends at zero. Between these two points there are many ups and downs, and it is inevitable that, if the graph is to return to zero, every “up” must inevitably have a corresponding “down”. You can avoid most of the losses (failure at learning or various activities, injuries, marital breakup, death of loved ones, having possessions stolen or broken, your own death) by never venturing out of your own little personal cocoon to experience the pleasure and exhilaration of living. But life was given to us as a gift so that we could experience all these wonderful things.
What a waste it would be if we never dared or risked anything in pursuit of the pure joy of knowing that we have lived. The idea is to have as many “ups” as possible and stay up as long as possible. Knowing that life will have its share of “downs” is however also the first step in dealing well with loss.
Part of the problem is that people are not very good at recognizing loss or its effects either in themselves or in others. Employers generally allow 3 days of compassionate leave per annum – are three days to mourn the loss of a loved one reasonable? And, only if it is direct family – are direct family members the only people for whom we care enough to experience loss? And, in most cases, only at their death – is death the only event by which we experience loss? What if there is a second event within a year, is the loss diminished at the second event so that no compassion is necessary (the opposite is true, a second event would compound the distress). Apart from the death of life partner/spouse (which is first on the list), the death of a close family member comes fifth on the list of stressful events. It is superseded by Divorce, Marital separation and Jail term and closely followed by Major personal injury or illness, Marriage and Dismissal from work.
While we are mourning the loss of our friend, others are rejoicing to meet him behind the veil. ~John Taylor
Remember that this is just a guideline and can differ from situation to situation and person to person. I have for instance been told by someone who lost both his wife and son in a relatively short period of time; “Daryl, I could deal with the death of my wife, but I cannot deal with the death of my son.” He did of course, but the point is that the level of loss he experienced did not agree with the model. Also, should people not be allowed the space and time to mourn each of these events to the extent that they experience them? I know that I needed at least a year to recover from marriage while a quick celebration was all I needed after the divorce was finalised.
Ritual is an important tool helping us to deal with loss. One quote I remember from a really bad movie (so bad in fact that I cannot remember the name, if you do, please enlighten me) is; “graveyards are not for the dead, but for the living.” Think of it, the dead do not care if you bury them or not, but we do, we need the ritual. Even though our rituals are shallow, they help us to come to terms with the reality of the loss, allow us time to mourn openly without shame and find closure. We can apply this to other losses as well. Create a ritual, bury a broken vase that had sentimental value, write the good and bad things about the job you were dismissed from on a piece of paper and burn it, then write all the problems and possibilities on a new piece of paper and let this be the start of your journey towards facing the challenge of finding another job. Whatever ritual works best for you, find closure and move on.
The most disruptive factor about loss is the inner conflict that accompanies the mourning. On the one hand you might be torn apart and feel like sitting in a corner and sobbing your heart out, but you may not allow yourself this luxury. After all, the three days compassionate leave is over, and you should be able to continue “normally”. And, what about the children? You should be strong for their sake (the truth is, that they also feel that they should be strong for your sake, experience confusion because you seem unaffected – did you really love their mother? - and need the release of a good cry as much as you do!) On the other hand, when you hear a joke, see a relative you hadn’t seen for ages, feel like going to see a movie, you feel guilty that you can feel so good and normal so soon after the event. Well, how long should you mourn? If you have something to laugh about directly after the tragedy, laugh with abandon.
Give yourself a cosmic permission slip to feel all your feelings and you will notice more peace and calm.
Don’t feel guilty about your feelings, cry when you need to, but do not cry all day. Allow the blessings of normal life to lift your spirits as soon and as often as circumstances allow. This does not mean that you are disrespecting the memory of the deceased. It simply means that you are alive and is a promise that life will go on. In summary, my advice to anyone experiencing loss is:
- Don’t attempt to “get over it” or forget about it. Hold on to your memories – it is your emotional property to which you have an inalienable right. No-one can expect you to let go or prescribe feelings or the length of time it will take you.
- Don’t feel guilty when heartbroken over the loss. Only you know the intensity of your feeling of loss. Cry your heart out if and when you need to, but…
- Don’t cry all day, every day. Allow circumstances to lift your spirits, laugh and enjoy life, go out, dress up, show up and be yourself. These are the things that will allow you to heal and carry on.
- Remember that you are not out of control. Remember that there are others who love and need you. Remember that you will love again – regardless of how impossible that seems right now.
If you are ever in a situation to counsel another person after bereavement, do not say that you understand how they feel. Unless you are God, how can you possibly understand? Even if you have been through the exact same trauma, you cannot possibly experience it in the same way as the other person. Try to remember the simple advice above as well as possible and share it once the other person is ready to listen. Simple as it is, it is the most effective counseling I have yet found.
All the new thinking is about loss, In this it resembles all the old thinking.
Mostly though, remember this story – After a neighbour’s wife died, Timmy saw the old man sitting on the verandah crying. He quietly walked up and got on the old man’s lap and just sat there. When he came back home, his mother asked him, “What did you tell Uncle John?” He answered, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.” (Loosely how I remember the story, my apologies if you heard the original elsewhere.) This is the best you can do for anyone experiencing loss, just be available to them, and don’t forget to return. Don’t tell them, “If there is anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to call.” You know they won’t. Go there, see what they need, bring food, clean house, hold them, invite them out, take them shopping, this is real help from a real and compassionate person.
How does this relate to spirituality? Well, isn’t loss and the potential of our existence ending at any time often the reason we seek meaning and continuance beyond the ephemeral? If we are honest with ourselves, we would hardly need greater cause if life had no loss or end. But since it does, we seek to know what happens after and we need to know that our loved ones are safe and not lost forever. But that is another story.