It is shocking to realize how much loss we experience in a lifetime. During the second half of life, the tempo of loss accelerates. As people we know begin to disappear from our lives, we find ourselves adjusting to a world that feels less familiar than it once was. The phenomenon of loss transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar; in the wake of a significant loss, our own life feels strange and less certain than it once was.
Loss is a fierce truth from which there is no retreat; the experience of a significant loss is an apprenticeship in the essence of our own insecurity, uncertainty, and anxiety. Although we cannot know exactly how it will impact our course of life, we do know that the experience of aging will requires each one of us to journey into the shadows of loss. In an important sense, to embrace the natural flow of life is to willingly open ourselves to outrageous and sometimes brutally harsh forms of loss.
Of course, no one wants to suffer through trauma and tragedy. We know that loss of life is inevitable, but we cannot predict how it will emerge. In this sense, loss originates in mystery and the unknown. The discipline of loss is to find acceptance, rather than recoil in avoidance. That is to say, loss is a fearsome yet trusted teacher, advisor, and mentor. The excruciating grief that accompanies profound loss is ultimately a source of personal growth and deep learning in the art of life.
Loss refers to a constellation of painful feelings that emerge when someone or something of deep significance in our lives has vanished. In the aftermath of a significant loss, we are required to endure painful feelings of emptiness, absence, and grief. The most excruciating form of loss is permanent, that is to say, a loss in which is no possibility of retrieving what used to be.
Our lives are governed by the law of impermanence; everything is in constant motion for an indefinite amount of time. The experience of loss, however, can be brutally permanent. A feeling of emptiness moves into our hearts and surrounds that which used to be familiar. Life now feels strange and completely unfamiliar.
A permanent loss crushes all hope for a return to what once was; it demands a reconsideration of our life course. The stark contrast between the comfort and warmth of our past and the frightening bleakness of our present condition incites a raw sense of suffering in our hearts and minds.
In this sense, loss ushers in a point of no return, a critical moment infused with confusion. It is as if we have forgotten to how to tell our own story. What was once familiar and comfortable has perished and we suddenly find ourselves immersed in a painful tempest of absence. We feel completely lost, alone, and isolated.
We can also feel as though we are “at a loss.” When we find ourselves in unfamiliar circumstances we may not know what the right way to proceed is. Being at a loss generates feelings of confusion, doubt, uncertainty, and regret. In a more profound sense, it may also mean that we have lost our sense of identity and purpose in life. To be lost is to become fragile and uncertain about our own identity and purpose.
Death is the most painful, harsh, and brutal form of loss. Death is a form of loss inseparable from grief. After someone dies, we hear people say, “I am sorry for your loss.” This common phrase is emblematic of experiences in life that words simply cannot penetrate. It is the most outrageous experience of change that we are required to endure. In this realm, loss, tragedy, and trauma are completely inseparable.
Loss is a child of impermanence; to feel loss is to feel our own fragility and transience. Every life form on our planet is on a pilgrimage of impermanence. This means that the experience of profound loss is inevitable, normal, and natural. That is not to say that the experience of loss is easy, desirable, or without consequence; it is, after all, a form of destruction essential to the larger creative flow of life.
How we choose to navigate the experience of a permanent loss is life-changing. In an important sense, a loss can open and broaden our experience of being alive by moving us, as wounded and outcast as we might feel, toward new potential and a new sense of purpose in life. In the midst of our pain and suffering, new possibilities for living gradually begin to emerge.
We cause harm to ourselves when we treat loss as an enemy. Our task is not to “get over” our losses and magically leave our pain behind us. The sensible approach to loss is to absorb it, to move into it, and to treat it as a mentor and trusted adviser. We offer ourselves a sanctuary in this forbidding space, and we begin to find out who we really are. To learn from our losses is to embrace the primal truth of existence.
The Fear of Loss
The fear of loss originates in the realization that we cannot control life. In the end, we are not the masters of our own destiny; ultimately nature is the final authority. Fear is created when we place ourselves into contradiction with our basic nature. However, death is not the opposite of life; it is a consequence of life and a universal imperative of existence.
Fear creates the possibility of courage. Throughout our lives, it is perfectly natural and normal to experience fear. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the ability to move directly into it. In this sense, real courage is a journey into the very heart of our most intimate fears.
To live life as though we will never die is one of our more stubborn delusions. To dismiss consideration of difficult truths is to live a buried life, a life that is in opposition to itself and remains closed. However, the things we fear the most are the precisely the same things that have the most potential to enliven us.
In the end, we will lose everything. This is a fierce truth and a frightening statement that aggravates our deepest fears. Some people may retreat behind the frail defense that loss is too morbid and sad to consider. This is fear being met with avoidance, and all avoidance is in itself a loss of control and a denial of reality.
To feel the full presence of loss, free from the vagaries of sentimentality and nostalgia, is an act of gratitude and kindness. Yet, we sometimes exhaust ourselves in futile attempts to avoid difficult truths; we sometimes try to hide from our losses in order to “get on” with life and pretend as if nothing has happened. To “get on with life” through avoidance is to live in contradiction with our own experience.
In the midst of loss, we are required to move inside our pain and seek equilibrium. We must seek to build a relationship and find personal meaning in the very heart of the loss that has inflicted deep wounds on our spirit. We choose to “move into and through” the wounds of loss as an act of self-kindness and self-healing. Crying is an act of strength, courage, and deep gratitude.
As courageous as we might be, the fear of loss never leaves us. There is no completely “fear-less” state we can aspire to, nor should we try to. To be fearless is not an absence of fear, but a sense of courage and a willingness to move into our difficulties in order to change and grow.
Rhythms of Loss
In the second half of life, the rhythm of loss seems to intensify and become more agitated. As time presses us forward, we see the familiar begin to vanish into an impenetrable mystery with increasing frequency. For example, the loss of our parents is one of the most profoundly transformative journeys in life, and one that often becomes a defining feature of middle age.
Loss can violently emerge as tragedy. We know that normal aging eventually leads to death and in this sense the loss of life is not unexpected. However, the loss of life can suddenly and unexpectedly occur at any age. In other words, there is simply no way of knowing when loss will alter our course in life. The rhythm of our life can be altered in the space of a single breath.
There is also the loss that occurs before birth before life has been given a chance emerge from the sanctuary of the mother’s womb. The womb is the home of an emergent life that already occupies a place of beauty and wonder in the heart of a family yet tragically perishes before the baby takes its first breath. Indeed, there are times when it is hard not to think of loss as being nothing more than a cruel and evil tyrant.
It is easy to hate loss, to be disgusted by it, and to vilify it. After all, it is source of pain, trauma, stress, and darkness. Loss forces us to face the truth of precisely how uncertain and fragile our life really is.
Grief is fundamentally a life-long process of finding acceptance and seeking gratitude in the aftermath of a profound loss. Though soul-wrenching sadness is unavoidable, we do not help ourselves by becoming mired in self-pity and hopelessness. I say this out of personal experience, as someone who has attempted to avoid learning from my losses in life only to later realize that I had all the while been cultivating much larger obstacles I would be forced to move into later in life. In other words, in making a futile attempt to avoid, by-pass, or disrespect the experience of loss we do ourselves tremendous harm.
Our task is to move directly into the midst of our loss, not to languish inside of it, but with a firm intention to journey directly through it. This means that a core discipline in life is finding ways to work with our emotional pain. Times heals absolutely nothing at all, it is our use of time that matters. Although the intensity of our suffering will gradually dissipate, it never really leaves us.
There is no “healing” in the sense of things returning to “normal.” In other words, one of the lessons of loss is that there is no going back; our only meaningful choice is to move directly into its path so that we give ourselves a chance of finding out what lies on the other side.
We are not the same person after the experience of loss. We can never hope to be that person again, nor should we want to. In the midst of our loss, our task is to find out what we can now become. Our sense of identity, meaning, and purpose begins to move into the embrace of an unfamiliar frontier.
None of this is to say that by consciously moving into our loss we will magically find acceptance or peace. Perhaps the only sense of “resolution” to loss is found in learning to live with its continuing presence for the rest of our life. I know that, from time to time, the loss of my parents can still inflict a wound in my heart some three years after their deaths. The feelings of loss surrounding their disappearance are now a constant and familiar companion.
The pain of loss always remains within, and that is precisely the way it should be.
Accepting Our Losses
One of the core disciplines of aging is to become fluent and skillful with the nature of loss.
Loss closes one part of our life while opening us out and into the midst of new possibilities. When we experience a loss one part of our life is permanently closed, but that very act of closure also opens new potential. It may be hard to look at new potential while we are mired in the dense fog of our own suffering, and so we must learn to be still and patiently wait to see what the fog will eventually reveal.
Sometimes we attempt to find relief from our experience of loss through distraction. Some people try to “bury” themselves in their work in a futile attempt to return life to normal. We know that “normal” doesn’t exist; there is no such thing as a normal life. The desire to change that which cannot be changed is a futile delusion that only serves to intensify our experience of pain and suffering.
Our task is to embark on the difficult journey of acceptance with the conscious intention of fully absorbing the meaning of our loss. In this sense, healing is never about a return to the way things once were; true healing is about finding the courage to accept loss and to creatively embrace life as it must now be.
Life is the most powerful creative force we know. All forms of creativity require destruction as much as new growth. Destruction is not the opposite of creation; destruction is an essential function of the creative process. When something has been destroyed, a space for new potential will always emerge if we are willing to look for it.
In this sense, aging originates in the creative force and primal imperatives of life. Aging is not a cultural phenomenon as much as it is a natural phenomenon. To experience aging is to be part of the natural flow of life everywhere all at once.
One of the most powerful yet poignant expressions of life is loss. Through the experience of loss, we are apprenticed in the wisdom of uncertainty. It is in our nature to not want to let go of the people we value the most. But it is unwise to avoid serious contemplation of the unique rhythms of loss that characterize our own unique journey in life.
Life is not merely about loss, but simply to be alive is to be exposed to the uncertainty of loss. How we embrace our losses when they do occur will become a defining feature of our own unique journey.
All forms of loss are a uniquely personal quest for acceptance.