Loss is tough and an inevitable part of life.
Loss can take many forms. Loss of a loved one. Loss of a relationship. Loss of some part of your identity. Loss of function or ability. Loss of freedom. Loss of opportunities.
Loss brings with it many powerful emotions: sadness, guilt, regret, denial, anger, mourning, grief.
Dealing with loss is a deeply personal and individual process. Despite the desire of others to tell you or predict how you will respond, you will have your own reactions and time-frames for dealing with loss.
As you search for ways to cope with loss, it is common to get stuck on particular feelings, thoughts, memories, and beliefs. Emotional stuckness is intense, exhausting and distressing. It can feel like a heavy weight, an impediment to moving on. It can feel like it is suffering, for suffering sake. Suffering without purpose.
But there are messages in suffering and learning how to listen for them can help you move forwards. Here are 3 messages I think can be found in the emotional pain associated with loss.
1. A chance to update your world view
We all have a world view. It is the sum total of our experiences, what we’ve learned, who we’ve met, what we’ve seen. It is our blueprint for being in the world; our understanding of how everything works.
The experience of loss can be a painful update to our world view. We have to come to terms with the fact that fragility, impermanence, lack of control, danger, and pain are parts of being human.
On the surface it may seem that learning such lessons is cruel, but a world view that accurately encapsulates loss, can also encapsulate more hopeful concepts.
When we understand fragility, we better understand the preciousness of things.
When we understand impermanence, we are more grateful for the things we have.
When we realise not everything is under our control, we are more compassionate to others and ourselves when we fail.
When we understand risk, we become more attuned to rewards, big and small.
The forced re-evaluation of life that comes with loss puts us in touch with some of our long-held core beliefs. Core beliefs are so strong and influential that any shift in them is painful and difficult to endure. But when those core beliefs become more flexible or adaptable and are better able to describe the complexity of the world, then your mind has undergone a powerful and positive transformation.
Loss is a merciless teacher, but what it teaches can be fundamentally transformative.
2. A chance to ensure what was lost leaves a legacy
Humans have a unique capacity for a type of immortality. It is not that our bodies or minds can last forever, but our words, our contributions, our impact on others can last well beyond our lifetime. We don’t achieve immortality by living forever. Instead we leave a legacy that lives in the hearts and minds of those who are still alive.
When we lose someone important in our lives, it is important to honour the impact they had on us, but also consider and honour the impact they had on others. If the person was kind, this process is a little easier, because their legacy is one of having changed others’ lives for the better. But this is not always the case. Sometimes people leave behind very mixed legacies. Sometimes they leave behind cruelty and pain.
Regardless of who they were in life, reflecting on the legacy they leave is only partially about revisiting the past. It is actually more about framing the future. When we consider someone’s legacy, it guides who we want to be moving forward. Perhaps we want to carry forward that person’s work or message. Perhaps we want to try to be more or less like them. Perhaps we take inspiration from some part of who they were, and this becomes a central force in our own lives. Maybe we just celebrate or condemn their role in our lives, and commit to either having more (or less) people like that in our lives.
If the person we lose was suffering at the time of their death, we need to think about how that suffering is honoured. If there are lessons we can take from their suffering that means we might be able to reduce the suffering of others, this is an important legacy. We also need to remember that the person was not defined solely by their suffering. There was more to them than that. They had a personality, experiences, friends, family that knew them as more than the suffering. It is important we don’t lose the rest of them in how we carry their memory forward.
When what is lost is part of yourself (e.g. physical functioning, aspect of your identity), a similar process of respecting the legacy of what was lost is important. What is it that losing part of yourself has taught you? How can you frame your life moving forward, now that part of you is gone? How can you carry forward the memory of what was lost, in a way that makes you better and makes the world better?
3. A reminder about love and attachment
Loss illuminates the importance but also the frailty of love and attachment.
The things we love and are connected to most, will be the things that are most painful to lose.
At first loss can seem like a reminder to never love or be attached to anything again. ‘Loss can’t hurt me if I have nothing to lose’.
But love and attachment only make sense when you realise it can all be lost.
Loss is a reminder of how lucky and sacred it is to love and be loved. It reminds us to pay more attention to the people and things that are in our lives currently, to treasure what we have.
You may not be ready right now to want to reach out again for fear of losing more. But remember that loss isn’t there to ridicule you for caring. It is there to remind you that truly valuable people and things are in your life. It tells you that what you had was special, and that it will be there again for you in the future.
If reading this blog post has brought up some difficult memories or feelings, remember that support services are only a phone call or email away. If in crisis, consider Lifeline. If just wanting to have a chat with someone, consider 7 cups. If you need more specific mental health or medical advice, consider Health, Counselling and Disability Services here at the uni.