Navigating Layers of Loss

Apr 20, 2020

There’s a saying when you’ve lost someone very close to you that the second year is worst that the first. After we lost our son, that sounded like a cruel joke. How could anything be worse than the devastating pain we were living during that year of “firsts” without Ben - the first birthday, holiday, plane ride, school pick up, hockey game, etc.?

I’m not sure that “worse” captures what I experienced, but the pain of year two (and the years since then) definitely shifted. I was in a constant state of disbelief in the first year. Even months after his death I’d be going about my day and in an instant it would hit me, as if for the first time, that he was gone. It felt like a cosmic punch in the stomach. I would actually feel dizzy over an inability to compute what had happened. I now know how common, and even necessary, that disbelieving shock is. At some level we simply cannot bear the new reality, so our minds shut down to give our hearts and souls time to catch up.

While during the first year you can’t believe it happened, the second year you DO…and must start making daily adjustments to accommodate your life as it is, not how you wish it could be. The initial shock has worn off and a “new normal” is starting to emerge - one without the physical presence of the person you loved. You realize that there will be a year three, a year ten, a year twenty…and that realization brings a deeper ache. It may be less acute and debilitating than the grief of year one, but it is its own kind of beast with which to wrestle.

I’m sharing this very extreme example - the devastating loss of a child - to offer you a glimpse into the layers of grieving that unfold in the aftermath of loss. This doesn’t just apply to tragedies. The loss may be the result of a very positive, desired change in your life - for example, moving into a dorm for your first year of college. As exciting as that time is, it also includes letting go of the past. You may miss your siblings more than you thought you would (okay, maybe), Dad’s cooking (in our house, this is true), your mom’s gentle way of asking about your day at school. These are necessary losses - not bad or tragic - but they evoke emotions worth noticing (without the need to DO anything about them).

Over time though, that sense of loss changes. Staying with the “off to college” example: Your “grieving” may range from missing an easy way to get laundry done to intense homesickness after a failed test. As you emerge into young adulthood you may feel very distant from your family of origin, even relishing your new found autonomy (this is very healthy, by the way - but can also feel like a loss of innocence and security). 

Flash forward, when you live many states away, or you have your first child and your parents aren't close by to participate, or you realize for the first time that their health is declining, or you feel overwhelmed with adult responsibilities and just want someone else to care for you (and you are 52…just saying for a friend). That’s a completely different kind of grief, part of the natural cycle of life. Whether it's the unexpected loss of a child, or the very normal and necessary separation from your parents as you become an adult - it is healthy and helpful to notice the range of emotions and responses that bubble up for you at each stage.

I’ve shared insights from my grief journey these past few days not because I assume you are in dire crisis - but simply because there are nuggets of wisdom that apply to any difficult part of life we must navigate. In today’s video I warn you to not compare, or certainly compete over, different levels of loss. The magnitude of a loss may differ (a death, versus a lost job, versus a lost possession). But pain is universal

I encourage you to gently identify both large and small losses you have faced - or most likely will face in the Covid-19 crisis. Grieving the simple pleasures and daily routines of your “before Covid-19” life is healthy. Part of thriving through crisis is not wallowing in loss - but that is only possible when we acknowledge and show compassion for the losses that have occurred.

Keep showing up…and stay connected.


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