By Alexandra Kennedy
I am feeling a heavy heart today as I return home from my son's college campus, where I helped him move into his apartment for his second year. I know the time is coming when he will not return home from college for the summer. Last year when we left him I cried all the way back from Los Angeles. I sobbed for the ending of my relationship with my son as it had been, of our family as it had been, for the absence of his daily presence in my life.
At mid-life, I've lost my father and face the loss of my mother who at 86 grows increasingly frail and forgetful. She's been falling lately. The last fall left her hospitalized for weeks. In addition, four of my friends are struggling with life-threatening illnesses, once again forcing me to let go of the persistent illusion that we can control our lives. In an instant the course of our lives can change. This is terrifying. I feel vulnerable and at times frightened by the magnitude of daily loss at this stage of life. Ironically, I have never felt more alive.
Over a lifetime we will experience many losses. We live by losing, leaving and letting go. These are essential parts of the ever-changing world, as much a part of life as night, wind and rain. We cannot save ourselves, nor those we love, from the sorrow that is part of life. Parents die, friends drop away, cherished possessions are lost. Our children grow up and leave home. We lose spouses and partners to divorce or death; sometimes we lose them emotionally long before. As we age, we will confront all that we never were or never will be. We will be faced with the grief of unfulfilled dreams. With each major loss, we often encounter multiple losses. For example, the death of a parent can lead to many other losses—of our identity as their child, of our family history, and sometimes of friends as they retreat from the intensity of our grief. Losing a job can lead to the loss of self-confidence, identity, and power. A miscarriage or infertility can bring about the loss of the dream of having a family. A divorce can result in the loss of a lifestyle, home, friends, and identity.
Living as we do in a culture that is based on acquisition, most of us naturally shrink from loss. We are tempted to think that we can avoid the pain of loss if we keep busy, that we can close our hearts a little to protect ourselves. However it is the ungrieved losses that take their toll on our hearts and deaden us. We forget that even these, as difficult as they may be, are connected to our vitality and growth. Irish poet John O'Donohue calls loss the "sister of discovery". He explains that as it empties and clears away the old, loss makes room for something new. It allows us to grow and enjoy new things. Loss provides a "vital clearance of the soul". It prunes away the dead branches so that new shoots can break forth.
Many people don't recognize this deep undercurrent of loss until they lose a loved one. It wasn't until Bonnie lost her mother that she began to acknowledge how much loss was weighing on her heart. In her first session Bonnie shared that her accumulated losses over the past ten years felt like quicksand, pulling her into a deep depression. She listed for me loss after loss—of freedom when she became a mother, of friends and community when she moved, of her health after three pregnancies, of intimacy with her husband as they both juggled hectic schedules, of contact with her siblings, financial losses, the death of her father and, most recently of her mother. Her life had swept her along while the losses accumulated—unfelt, unacknowledged, unresolved. Now it was the profound grief over her mother that made her realize the grief that had always been there, just under the surface. Bonnie realized how all that accumulated ordinary grief had shut her down and compromised her aliveness. And she found that she was now weeping for her greatest loss of all—all the unlived moments of her life.
If we could recognize this ordinary grief sooner, we wouldn't feel so overwhelmed when a loved one dies. When we open to the little losses, we make room in our hearts for the greater losses. We gain strength to grieve when a major loss shakes our world. If we pay attention even to small losses, we will find that they tap into that reservoir of loss we hold inside. If we but, in the words of poet David Whyte, "slip beneath the still surface of the well of grief," we will find the "source from which we drink".