by Eric Bonetti
Loss seems an inevitable topic during the extended Christmas season. Whether it’s memories of those who are no longer with us, the melancholy lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne,” or simply the short, dark, often cold days, loss lurks right behind the scenes for many.
But what is loss? And how does it fit into the larger palette of our emotional lives? How do we deal with loss over time?
The answer, I have come to believe, depends on loss as an essential corollary of love; without one, there cannot be the other. And because love is a necessary part of our existence, loss too is an essential part of our lives.
So how do we deal with them? I think both love and loss are things that we don’t shrug off or lose with time. Instead, we incorporate both experiences within ourselves, forming layer upon layer of experience as we grow and mature, much as an onion forms layers under its skin.
My first real experience with loss was as a child in elementary school. A beloved family pet, once joyous and full of life, had suddenly quit eating and become quiet and still. That in itself was puzzling to me; I couldn’t understand why my pet was suddenly behaving that way, but I instinctively knew that something was very, very wrong.
A few days later, I found my pet, rigid, cold, and surprisingly frail in appearance. Running to my parents, I somehow hoped against hope that they could fix the situation. Realizing they couldn’t, I cried hard, and later that day we buried my beloved pet beneath the mulberry tree in the backyard.
Today, more than 40 years later, I remember the days that followed all too vividly. The grief was raw, dark, and suffocating, immensely painful, and all the more vivid because it was a new experience, a journey down a path that I had not previously traveled.
And yet, in retrospect, the experience was in some ways a good one. Far better to have one’s first experience with loss, I realize now, with a pet, versus an immediate family member. And while my first such experience was immensely painful, the short attention span of childhood led me to quickly move on to other things. Thus, without realizing it, I learned that there indeed is life after loss.
Later, when I was in high school, I unexpectedly lost a friend, Lisa, in a freak accident. The details were so improbable as to border on the absurd, and I remember thinking that it was difficult to believe that Lisa, just hours earlier so full of joy and life, was now dead. But her viewing, a grim experience marked by knots of sobbing mourners, all still in shock, quickly made me realize that her loss was all too real.
Still later, a few years out of graduate school, my brother unexpectedly died from a fall in his home. To this day, I well remember the juxtaposition of a gloriously beautiful, sunny morning with the startling news of Brian’s accident. The contrast between beauty and grief was difficult to comprehend. How, I asked, could creation be so beautiful and, at the same time, so harsh?
Looking back, now just a little over 20 years later, I realize that this is a question that answers itself. To fully appreciate the beauty of creation, we have to learn to love the people, experiences and things around us. Whether it’s the serenity of a quiet evening on the beach, time with a beloved pet, or the walking through the woods on a beautiful spring day, as we get older, we come to realize how fortunate we are. At the same time, that appreciation is founded on the recognition that none of these things is a given. Illness, loss of a job, an accident — there are myriad ways that we can lose that which is important to us, sometimes in just a split instant. And we remember that there are those who, through no fault of their own, cannot share these experiences with us.
From the loss of my brother, I also learned that we never truly get over the big losses in life. Rather, we get used to them. Experiences like that are simply incorporated into our psyches, nudged into the farther corners of our day-to-day thoughts by more immediate and transactional issues involving work, family, friends and home.
Another lesson from the loss of my brother was that the mind can be a tricky place when confronted with loss. This is particularly the case when there is no formal closure to the loss.
When I last saw my brother, he was on life support and had experienced a serious head injury. Other than some swelling, he looked fine, while we learned later he likely was already clinically dead.
Because we didn’t have a funeral or memorial service, and I never saw my brother after life support was disconnected, once in a great while in the years that followed I would catch myself, often late at night after a long day at work and very tired, thinking, “Well, maybe he’s just away. How do you know he’s dead? He certainly looked okay.”
My response to those ideas crawling, quite unwelcome out of my subconscious, was basically to say, sometimes out loud, “Who invited you to this party? What a stupid idea…go away!”
So, at the risk of sounding like an apologist for the funeral industry (which I am not at all), I would say that it is true that, for many losses, some formal closure is needed. The closure may be visual, liturgical, or it take some other form, but loss without closure can be tricky.
Of course, some who have experienced great loss fear opening themselves up to the possibility of future loss. In their efforts to avoid further pain, they say no to the possibility of a new job, a new pet, a new spouse. But all too often, those in this situation simply take their pain in a different form–the pain of loneliness, of being unable to share the joy of that which is good, beautiful and pure in all of us. And in so doing, their avoidance itself becomes loss, including the loss of possible new love and new beginnings.
Ironically, many churches fear loss. How often do we see churches that fear loss and try to protect against it by resisting all change. Sometimes, the resistance is so strong that churches will resist major repairs to their physical plant, or terminating employees whose very presence is detrimental to those served by the church. Yet, it is difficult to envision the coming of the kingdom of God without change as an essential element.
It is telling, too, that Jesus, facing the imminent loss of his life as he hung from the cross, focused not on his fear, his physical pain, or other aspects of loss. Rather, Luke tells us that he offered words of comfort to the criminal dying alongside him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Perhaps we can learn something from this example of true selflessness.
The inevitable juxtaposition and interplay of loss, joy, and love is further highlighted in scripture when one realizes how often the joyous phrase of Psalm 118:24, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,” is taken out of context; just a few sentences earlier, the psalmist says, “When I was hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; he brought me into a spacious place,” and “I was pushed back and about to fall.” Thus, what is arguably one of the happiest passages of the Psalms incorporates references to fear, great risk and the possibility of catastrophic, imminent loss.
In closing, loss is an inevitable part of life, for we cannot love without sooner or later facing its corollary, which is loss. But learning to make peace between these two seemingly opposite experiences, and learning to be at peace within ourselves as we face the joys and sorrows of life, is an essential part of our overall happiness and a key to a healthy, mature faith.
Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.ilana
image: Giuliana and the sunflowers by Jamie Wyeth, from WikiArt