September 21, 2018

A Ritual for when our Dreams Die.

I’ve begun to understand how we all experience deaths in our lives.

We put ourselves out there on a consistent basis—whether in love, going after our dreams, or revealing our true selves—and if we’re lucky, we strike the match at the right place and alakazam! We have fire.

However, sometimes life sees fit to deal us a hard one and we are disappointed, or completely decimated, when the fire goes out. Most of the time we start with the feeling of not knowing what the hell happened. Maybe the person wasn’t who we thought they were? Maybe it wasn’t meant to be? The confusion is terrible, but in time this gives way to hurt and underneath it all, rage.

Being pleasant humans, we usually put on our brave face for the rest of the world and resist the urge to murder the tenth person who tells us what happens when one door closes. It feels like the world wants us to move on as quickly as possible, and we usually oblige, thinking we can plug the pain with whatever comes next.

Except what we don’t realize is that all these emotions, dark and sore, are the sign of a profound ending.

When people die, we go to their funeral and hold them deeply in our hearts and minds. We wear black and cry and make space for the grief that we and others carry. Later, we gather for their forty day and yearly memorials, returning to that person once more and honouring them. We allow ourselves to mourn and feel the pangs of loss.

But we have nothing for when a dream dies.

Our dreams are living parts of us, making us feel everything deeply and pushing us into all sorts of scary and amazing situations in the hope that we can call something ours. We meet someone and we dream of the possibility of love and partnership. We search for our life’s calling and when we think we’ve found it, if we’re brave, we take the leap and hope the net will appear.

Through all of this, we put pieces of ourselves—our innocence and hope, our yearnings and creativity, our soft parts—out into the open. We do our best to be strong, yet there is nothing quite like the hurt of somebody politely rejecting the fundamental nature of our being. There is nothing quite like being told an indifferent “no” to an opportunity we were absolutely sure about.

There are so many people who make it seem like rejection should be like water off a duck’s back. We’re supposed to shout, “Next!” as we’re handed the pink slip. We’re supposed to be complete badasses and not care what anybody thinks of us or does to us. We’re not supposed to care when things we’ve put our entire being into just don’t work out.

This is not to say that we can’t build up our tolerance for disappointment in certain contexts, but goddamnit, we are human beings. Our dreams and hopes are some of our most tender parts, and when betrayed in some way by a person, organization, or the freaking universe itself, a piece of us dies.

We feel decored, our sense of self thrown off-kilter. In the beginning, we’re likely to receive sympathy from our loved ones who shared our hopes. They help us to talk it all over, and yet there is no ritual that takes place for the death that has just occurred. We speak of time healing all wounds, but in this case we rarely take time to let the wound be a wound. We don’t call these things deaths, and yet in some ways they are just as real and painful as when a person dies.

And what of the millions of small deaths we experience? Like the death of our trust in a particular friend? Or the death of our openness when someone ridicules us for something we’ve shared? Or the death of our innocence after our first just-not-right relationship?

Compounded, these deaths shut down our life force and, at times, it can even feel like they immobilize the nerves in our chest, back, and shoulders. We become stiff and disconnected, though we still insist that we’re fine.

The thing about pieces of us that have died is that they don’t leave our body. Unlike for people, there are no “dead pieces of me” cemeteries where these parts can go. So they live inside of us, first needing a period of mourning and then a place of compassion to live once more.

Even if the possibility of love has ended, the piece of us that dared and hoped has to be held and reconnected to again. There is a kind of resurrection that happens when we look at this younger self and soften to the beauty of their dreams. We can’t turn back time and undo the hurt we’ve experienced, but there is enough space inside of us to hold these parts with love.

If we avoid reconnecting, these dead parts of us pull us into a kind of underworld. Our thoughts can turn dark and twisted and our bodies can become unstable with unprocessed emotion. We develop habits and obsessions that steal away our attention from our raw parts, causing a level of emotional torment that can leave us feeling mildly insane.

Although we’re all going to die someday, we are not meant to carry death. These dead parts of us need to be acknowledged and grieved, but when the time comes they must be reintegrated. Otherwise, we lose all the energy that these parts carried in them. We lose our alignment to who we are, which includes our dreams of the people we could’ve loved and the specific joys in life that we hoped to experience. Life changes us constantly and yet we have to attend to the parts of ourselves that are halted in time within our bodies.

We have to look at a timeline of our lives and mark the deaths. “I see you,” we say to these younger selves as we breathe deeply.

“I love you and everything you felt and wished for during that time. I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I know how confusing and upsetting it all was. But I see you.”

We hold these parts as we would a trembling child, soothing them and saying that everything is going to be alright. These parts of us are filled with a deep sadness which flows into us like an icy sea. We don’t want to allow it in, and yet as we do we feel more alive than we have in a very long time. The light of spring is still far off, but we’ve begun to leave the underworld, feeling the spasms of life pouring into us again.

Some of us may be so used to the dark that we find ourselves turning back at times. We can’t know this new, whole person we’re becoming as our dead parts begin to wake up. This person scares us. And even if we’re unhappy now, somehow, the vast mystery of the future seems worse. But we must remember to breathe.

Death is one of those wobbly, bewildering parts of life that confounds our sense of what is “enough”—enough time to grieve, let go, and reenliven. It is nobody’s place to say how long we should tend to our deaths, but we may reach a point when the deaths themselves begin to whisper: “It’s time. It’s time.”


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Anthea van den Bergh

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