The spirituality of loss embraces ways of transforming our heartache into gratitude and belonging. All forms of significant loss in life compel us undertake a mindful journey of self-directed learning into the midst of our trauma and suffering. But we are not meant to dwell in this space for too long. The purpose of spirituality is to transform our pain into wisdom.
The On the Loss of My Parents series is a tribute to my parents, Bruce Alger (1918-2011) and Vi Alger (1919-2010). It is the origin and foundation for my project, “Aging in the Second Half of Life.” On the Loss of My Parents is also an example of how transformative writing can cultivate healing, self-renewal, and understanding that is good for self and others at the same time.
We can never hide from it
A spiritual practice is intimate with our emotional life. The death of a loved one is a profoundly difficult experience. It creates a crisis within our own sense of identity.
I heard people say to me, “Life goes on.” Although well intended, it’s a remarkably inept thing to say. Life goes on how? To where and for what purpose? And how do you know anyway?
I also heard other well-intentioned people say, “They lived a long life.” It’s another statement that is virtually meaningless. We struggle to find language for the inevitables in life.
Aging, death, dying, disease, suffering. We struggle to find words for the inevitables of life. We wrongly dismiss the discussion as too morbid or negative. And like the ostrich, we stick our minds in the ground so they don’t have to see what is really around them. We create a false sense of urgent to get back to business.
Even with our mind stuck in the ground, we can never hide from it.
One purpose of spirituality is to turn directly into the midst of our troubles in order to learn from them. This capacity for learning is called contemplation.
Learning How to Walk Again
The spirituality of loss is a passionate search for wisdom across a stark and inhospitable landscape of bereavement, mourning, anguish, and grief. It is a journey of transformation that changes our sense of identity and purpose.
When someone close to us dies, we are reminded about how incredibly fragile our existence is. Death retrieves our humility and crushes our pretentiousness. And we find ourselves standing on spiritual crossroads not knowing which way to turn.
Sometimes I will just sit with my feelings of loss. It doesn’t make the discomfort go away, and I wouldn’t want it to. In contemplating the loss of my parents I invite a spiritual conversation with them. I retrieve their presence into the here and now.
No parent would want their child to suffer because of their death. Indeed, my parents would only want me to thrive in their absence. My dad was often heard saying, “Why worry about the things you can’t control.” It was an adage he lived by.
Spirituality always involves some form of courageous leap into an unfamiliar terrain. Soon after my parents died, I walked on a terrain imbued with fear, anxiety, insecurity, guilt, regret, and anguish. It was painful ground to be on, and some days were better than others.
The spirituality of loss encourages us to make a firm resolve to walk on this ground, to know it, and to learn from it. And as we slowly and sometimes painfully place one foot in front of the other, we eventually see something different emerging on a distant horizon.
This is a very difficult terrain to negotiate, but if we walk into it with a firm resolve to enter into our pain and suffering in order to find the wisdom hidden there, we can gradually move forward and begin to renegotiate our place in the world.
We are learning to walk again.
Finding Nature in Loss
I believe that spirituality and the earth are inseparable. To be spiritual is to literally invite the presence of nature in our lives. There is a very real and powerful ecopsychology of the mind.
In nature we witness the full force of life. There is a primal sense of wildness about it. Without it, we cannot survive. It is our true home. It is where we discover our true source of belonging.
As we get older, I believe we naturally become closer to the earth. In their later years, my parents loved just sitting outside and observing life around them. They literally aged into a more contemplative existence.
There is a constant interplay of life and death in nature. It a dance of creation and destruction. And we learn that destruction and death are natural and normal dynamics of living and life. In this sense, death is not the opposite of life.
The quality of our spiritual journey is completely dependent upon our skills of observation, awareness, mindfulness, and contemplation. In other words, spirituality involves learning specific kinds of capabilities and capacities. This kind of learning is not about acquiring information and knowledge. It is about mindfulness.
My wife and I planted two bushes beside each other in our front yard in honour of my mother and father. They are totems that symbolize the legacy and continuing presence of their spirits.
When I go outside, I am greeted by my parents and I hold a silent conversation with them.
Toward a Spirituality Loss
Loss is traumatic because us of how little control we actually have.
My parents have, in some unknown way, returned to nature. The energy that sustained their lives has moved back into hidden realms with the earth. If there is an afterlife, I don’t know what it is.
Death cloaks an impenetrable mystery. It teaches us to cherish the present moment. There is little more we can be assured of than that.
Regret is a child of loss. When death ushers a loved one away, regret invites the poignant remembrance of things left unsaid or undone. Regret makes even our best efforts seem woefully inadequate. It plagues us with the feeling that we could have done more. Regret solidifies our apparent failure to contribute.
Watching my parents gradually deteriorate until death came for them challenged my resilience. I gave as much of my presence at my parents as I could, while repressing my own feelings. Giving full attention to my parents was the right thing to do when I was with them. Repressing my own emotions was definitely not a good idea in the end.
The intensity of loss seemed to increase daily. When death came, my parents were finally released. When I looked out into the world again, everything was strangely different. And though I proceeded through the daily tasks as usual, it seemed as though I didn’t recognize it anymore.
We must learn to sit with our losses in life. By this I mean that it is important to contemplate and be mindful of our pain and suffering, so that we can transform it into something helpful. There is no other choice but this. And for me, it was easier said than done.
The spirituality of loss encourages us to discover the wisdom already waiting for us deep within our suffering.
Journey of the Heart
All spiritual journeys originate in the heart; it is the nucleus of wisdom. The heart is naturally courageous, while the mind can often be weak and undependable.
I held my mother’s hand and looked directly into her eyes the moment she took her last breath. My father died alone in his sleep during the night. We were not able to say goodbye to one another. My heart ached in ways I have never known.
And then they were both gone.
Mom and Dad…
Though you have left me
Your presence echoes within the landscape of my soul
Tears caress the beauty of your memory
And I know you have been released from darkness and suffering
Your absence leans into my heart,
And touches my spirit so completely
Grief has become my trusted advisor
For in loss we are re-created
And in the solitude of my despair I discover you
Embracing my fragile sensibilities
We can sit with each other no longer
Your absence is deafening
But the essence of your love remains
Deep within that eternal space
Where you whisper
Your home is now in my heart
Your legacy is in my spirit
In the beauty and resilience of nature
I will discover you all over again
You have become
A source, an essence, an inspiration
For me in the here and now
Where I reside until I must also leave this world
May your memory remind me of purpose
May your words remind me of meaning
And may your lives remind me of the gratitude
That is the origin of love
I love you
- This is the final article in the On the Loss of My Parents series. Since completing these articles, I have undertaken a deeper exploration aging and the influence it has on our lives, which I invite you to explore.