For nearly eight years on this blog we’ve often discussed issues of grief, loss and death.
Today I’d like to talk about what we’ve learned over the years about loss.
Death Is Real
For a writer, death is very real. We are in a constant state of desperation to eek out our creative work before that final bell strikes, and all that is left are the drafts of what stories we could have written.
That scenario, having died not having published a single story, is a writers worst nightmare.
Death is sometimes, darkly so, a great motivator in that sense.
But the spectre of death is also a thing that beguiles us with its many doubts: we think that perhaps we are missing out, missing the lives of others, missing on our own lives by toiling on our stories.
Perhaps death is giving a warning to us writers: “see? your life is passing you by,” the grim reaper hisses, “stop your daydreaming and come out and play!!!”
The death of someone in our life is not just a tragedy, it’s an urgent reminder:
Life is sacred, it is fleeting, it’s of great value.
It reminds us to stop complaining, stop delaying, and get to it. Get to making those dreams come true.
But there is a fear that it won’t be enough. That the clock will run out.
And what will we have to show for it? What art will we have made? How will we have helped?
How will we be remembered?
How to Cope With Loss
There is no way to deal with loss but to feel what it is doing to you.
Cry, breakdown, and lie in bed depressed. Let the emotions run their course.
There is wisdom in the grieving process that cannot be written down, cannot be explained, and cannot be taught.
You will get over it, but in the way a man who loses a leg gets over it: he may move on, but the sting of his new reality occasionally catches up to him and the pain comes back, if only briefly, as a terrible reminder of what he once had.
The spiritual poet and teacher John O’ Donohue once said that at the heart of every difficulty there is the light of a great jewel. In other words, there is something that we gain through our grief, but the paradox is that it can only be gained through experiencing the grief itself.
As I like to say: sometimes the lesson is in the leaving.
By which I mean, losing something is sometimes required for our profound growth. Fortunately, all tragedy is temporary, and dark days must always give way to light, thank god for this.
So, in coping with our losses, it does help to remind ourselves that all this will one day be yesterday and the sun does shine brighter tomorrow.
But dare I say, at the risk of undercutting my own offering of hope, you are never the same again after the loss happens.
You won’t always be able to make sense of it, and it won’t always sit perfectly with you, and I have learned that the best thing to do is to honor that, too.
Honor that in you and in others.
We get over the people and the things we have lost, but they are still a part of us: our heart holds a memorial for what used to be. There is a statue of grief erected somewhere deep inside us that we don’t so much as visit, as it visits us, to remind us.
Remind us of the loss.
And… that’s…. okay.
I suppose it serves some purpose. It certainly deepens my empathy and makes me push aside the trivial fights that bare no meaning in the midst of the shadow of death and loss.
Grief is a mountain. You can climb it, but it seems, you can never quite get rid of it. No human has the power to do so.
We are all walking underneath the shadow of death, this is an uncomfortable truth but it’s the truth of being mortal.
It’s a fundamental part of what makes us human: the ultimate limitation.
We are all here briefly.
Certainly, we will go on as spirit, but still, whoever says they won’t miss this life on earth is lying.
Even the most painful, downright awful life experiences have tucked within them a “Donohue Jewel of Light.” A jewel that–try as you might to want to wipe your memory of it–forces you to keep it, if only to keep the laughter, the smiles and the tears you once felt during your darkest hour.
And isn’t that the crux of it?
Even the things we lost, we want to remember, even though it gives us grave pain to recall them, because of the utter joy those things gave us when they were still with us.
It’s insanity really, a form of sadomasochistic torture. And yet we can’t help it, not all of it is bad, this grief.
This grief can grow us, it can change us, it can go away once we’ve dealt with it, but what we grieve still exists on some level, within us, never truly leaving.
But it has changed, too. It’s made of stone now… it’s stationary, it’s still. Silent. Watching. Reminding, recalling, pointing the way to who we once where, what we once were, and what once made us happy.
If forgiveness is a journey, perhaps grief is a memorial.
The end of grief is not the utter dissapearance of those we once loved, it’s the recognition that those humans who we lost along the way shaped our heart in such a fundamental way that neither they, nor us, nor anyone, can refashion our heart to its previous form.
The loved ones we have lost have had a part in shaping the heart we now carry, so how can they truly leave us?
And how angry that makes us for those who do not recognize the fundamental influence our lost loved ones had on us when they were still with us? They, our lost loved ones, left their mark, and heart marks can be healed but they cannot be removed.
They are memorialized, and our cavernous hearts hold them underneath a humble warm light, like a statue.
Still, despite the ones we lost all along the way, we must move on, if, at least, to honor them.
This heart of ours is still wet with clay in some parts, and it’s ready to be shaped by brand new loved ones.
We need to open ourselves once more.
It’s scary and risky, and lord knows I have skirted away from such a challenge more often than I have taken it up, but I still try.
They would want us to. Our loved ones, the ones we lost, would want us to.
The future is full of wonders, we must enjoy them, we must see them through our eyes, and, yes, feel them through our heart.
A heart that was shaped by those we lost. So, in feeling the miracles we have left to experience in this life, perhaps a bit of it is being felt by them, too, through us.
Our hearts are part ours and part the loved ones we lost, and so, through us, they can still learn, still grow, still love.
They are immortal in more ways than just in spirit.
There is, I am discovering, a type of immortality that can be gotten through the heart.
Perhaps that might quell a desperate writers greatest fear: the fear that his greatness will not be known before he dies; because, perhaps, through the shaping of the hearts of his many readers while he is still alive, he can live on through them even after his death, immortalized through a indescribable feeling within them, that’s just as eternal as his immortal soul.
Exercises To Cope With Loss and Death
1. Connect with your immortal soul. Pick up a book by John O’ Donohue – I personally like his book Anam Cara. John shares with us the wisdom of the Celtic spiritual tradition and I believe he’s a good teacher to show us just how great our souls really are and the bigness of that truth. You can’t help but find yourself fall into awe and wonder of The Soul after reading one of his books. John really has a key to our soul that unlocks its eternal essence.
2. Read books on the afterlife. I recommend Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander and Dying To Be Me by Anita Moorjani. These authors are messengers from god who visited heaven, and made it back to earth, and are here to remind us that there is no hell after we die, only a glorious heaven, and that heaven is real and truly peaceful, miraculous and loving.
3. Study the Tibetan Book of The Dead
In the Tibetan spiritual tradition, there is a practice of facing death long before you die so that when death comes to you, you allow yourself to go and don’t resist the natural process. Far from being a morbid ritual, I have found facing the reality of death on a constant basis to be an incredibly liberating practice that I recommend to those who constantly fear death. Really it’s not death that is affecting us, it is the fear of death, face that fear, and you’ll be liberated.
4. Don’t Take It So Seriously
In the Mexican tradition of Dia De Los Muertos, or Day of a The Dead, Mexicans dress up as skeletons and dance and drink and laugh and sing. Sounds very dark, I know, but it’s a very positive experience, its just a festive way to confront the reality of death. During Dia De Los Muertos, we honor the dead, we celebrate their lives, and we also poke fun at the idea of death itself. It’s all just a play anyway, our body is just a temporary costume, on the other side we will be reminded of this.
5. If we lost something, mourn the loss. Sounds simple enough, but in our modern culture we often aren’t taught to trust and honor the grieving process. Elizabeth Lesser in her book, The Seekers Guide, talks about a musician who lost a brother and mourned that loss for five years before returning to public life as a music artist. This is an extreme example, I know, but it’s a lesson in honoring the time it takes for us to truly grieve and heal from a loss. We cannot move back into joy and accepting the new if we haven’t grieved those we have lost. I have come to trust the grieving process: when it’s over, trust me, you’ll know and you’ll be able to move on.
6. Perform a ritual. Sometimes it’s hard to move on unless we engage in a ritual of release. For instance, if you have just left a toxic relationship, engage in a ritual of clearing out all things related to this person, you might want to even move to a new apartment, or get a new wardrobe. Ritualizing the grieving process helps you get through the process quicker because you’re physicalizing it with an action, and that’s truly powerful.
7. Counseling. If you’re having a real hard time with grief, I recommend going to regular counseling. I, myself, saw a therapist for over five years and found it very helpful and comforting. It took me a while to find the right therapist though, so make sure you find the right therapist to suit your needs. Trust me, he or she is out there!
8. Phone a friend. For some it’s easy to phone a friend and let yourself cry on their shoulder, but for me it wasn’t at first. During my own periods of great loss and grief, I had to get the courage to break down in tears in front of a friend or a family member, and although it was super hard for me to do that, because it made me incredibly vulnerable, I don’t regret it. Sometimes a hug and a shoulder to cry on is all you need. Have the courage to ask for it–you will not regret it.
9. Let the grieving process conclude. Like all spiritual lessons, the lesson of loss and death are temporary. Grief doesn’t last forever, so, when the time has come to move on with your life, welcome it with open arms by starting to engage with things that make you laugh, take a trip somewhere, start a new hobby, redecorate your apartment, start wearing brighter clothes, get yourself moving again. In this way, you signal to the universe that you accept that the lesson of loss and death is over and you are ready to move on.
10. Cherish life. The greatest lesson death and loss teaches us is to cherish life, because nothing lasts forever. The spiritual lesson of impermanence is a harsh lesson to learn at first, but then it opens you up to detachment and simply honoring the time you have with your loved ones who are still here. Every moment is precious and every life is precious, this should teach us to be more kind to one another, more present, more loving, more gentle with ourselves and more forgiving because nobody knows how much time we have left on this earth.
Cherish life every moment you live it, and cherish others, all while accepting the truth of your eventual death and you will have mastered the lesson loss is trying to teach you.