May 26, 2017

How We Can Heal from the Loss of Those We Love.

People make our lives rich.

They make the experience of existence palpable. We are a social species, built to communicate, congregate, and love. But people don’t always stay in our lives for the long haul, and losing loved ones forces us to cope with the the truth of absence.

There are many kinds of loss: people pass away or grow apart, someone tears a hole in our souls and departs abruptly, or people just move on. When a love that touched our hearts is gone from our lives, there is grief, anger, rumination, but there is also blissful, beautiful healing.

When the missing and longing momentarily relents to a dull ache instead of a pounding throb, there is a breath, a breeze of relief. Even if we can only catch it an ounce at a time, it’s glorious. The saying goes that with every loss comes an incredible gain, a lesson, a gratitude, a memory we want to relive in all of our senses, over and over. We realize that there is so much truth in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

Maybe the heart that broke ours took a last breath, maybe they took us for granted, maybe they changed into a person we don’t know anymore. But they are gone, and we are the pieces that need to be put back together.

After the moat of darkness, blame, guilt, denial, anger, and regret has surrounded us, we have a choice: stay locked within or swim.

Many people struggle with the myriad of emotions that force and flex during our grief. The healing comes in a million forms and is riddled with trial and error.

Do we sit with our pain and ruminate in its presence? Do we ignore it, push it away, and deny it until, hopefully, it fades? Do we do battle with ourselves and dramatize the contrast of dark and light within to find healing in violent triumph?

Our instincts for survival through loss are different for each of us, and the “stages” we have all heard so much about are not textbook like the progression of a recipe or assembly instructions. We dance through the levels of healing, falling, tripping, and stepping in time with a rhythmic beauty. We catch that breath of relief and reassert ourselves to the goal of having it be the visitor that stays, displacing our loss.

The only way I know how to heal is to dance.

When my grandfather—my namesake, and the most loving, loyal, genuine person I have ever known—passed away two weeks after my wedding, I blamed myself. He came from Florida to a cold New Jersey in November for me. I knew if he had stayed until spring, he wouldn’t have gotten sick, and he wouldn’t have died. I was riddled with guilt and depression. After his funeral, my mother told me something I never forgot. She said, “I’m not going to pretend to feel anything. When I want to laugh, I’m going to laugh. And when I want to cry, I’m going to cry.”

The authenticity of her emotions at that time was what she needed to survive. I realized that sometimes people feign grief when they actually catch relief because they think they aren’t supposed to look happy. I’ve been guilty of it myself, worrying about the onlookers. But I followed her advice and allowed myself to catch that breath when it was kind enough to show up, even if just for a moment.

The loss we suffer after a death is one we may not like or even want to understand, but we must accept it. Death is permanent and non-negotiable. What’s tougher to take is a loss that comes after being electively dismissed, when someone decides they simply don’t want to be with us anymore. The amount of healing required after this type of loss is astronomically more expensive and doesn’t come with any kind of guarantee.

When we are abandoned, our reactions are followed by a deep desire for numbness. We distract ourselves with hobbies or goals or anything that will take our minds off the pain, but they are still just distractions. When the quiet comes, we find ourselves alone again—with the loss.

True healing is acceptance and new direction. It comes after sitting with the pain, acknowledging its validity, and opening up to the idea that without it, we wouldn’t be where we are. We can practice this by repeating mantras like, “I feel my longing and I know it will pass,” or, “I see the pain within me, but I also see my gifts. I see the strength I’ve been asked to muster and the things for which I can be truly grateful.”

We can promise ourselves a moment with the pain and no more. We can bring ourselves to peace by knowing that despite the loss, grief can be temporary, if we can find a way to allow that.

Maybe part of acceptance is also knowing how we might have contributed to the loss. Did we nourish the other person? Give them too much power? Did we enter into a relationship that, in hindsight, was doomed from the start? Did we hold someone on such a pedestal that they could never have lived up to our expectations? Maybe accepting some personal responsibility for our own contributions can help us understand what not to do next time, or who better to hand our hearts to when we are ready to take the plunge again.

Healing is allowing ourselves the time to grieve and the time to remember, and practicing the gratitude for what comes after. When my heart wants to cry with sadness, I let it. And when it wants to sing with freedom, I let it. When I find myself in the familiar fog of drifting to darkness, I am able to sit momentarily with that sadness and then consciously pull myself to my mantras, my gratitude, my present moment.

It’s easy if I remind myself how far I’ve come. I can look at the energy it took to grieve and know that the same expenditure can be spent on looking at what is good in my life, and where I want to go next.

In loss, we can find healing in the truth that of past, present, and future, we can only control one thing: what we choose in the moment we’re in. We are given trials and pain, and beauty and growth, and healing; and, everything happens for a reason, right?


Author: Toni-Ann Yates 
Image: Christopher Campbell/Unsplash
Editor: Leah Sugerman


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