Post written December 2015
Loss: the suffering that unites us all
We can probably all connect with a sense of loss, because we’ve all experienced it.
Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, by death or by separation;
The loss of an identity or purpose when a role or job is lost or changed;
The loss of a future hope or dream that’s no longer possible;
The loss of our freedom or choice when people or circumstances dictate things that are beyond our control;
Even if it’s just wondering where all those odd socks went, we probably all know something about loss. I lost my scarf in town today. It’s exciting that I was able to be out and about but I was gutted to have lost my scarf and I didn’t realise until I got home, so I had to get back on the bus and head back to town to retrace my steps.
I don’t know why but on the bus back in to town I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss.
This illness has meant many losses; some big, some small and some so huge I’m only just starting to process them. Whether I like it or not, loss is very much at the front of my mind at the moment.
And so I got to thinking of all the ways the scarf represented my loss, all the ways I was trying to brush off the sense of loss when actually it hurt, and all the things that we sometimes say when people are experiencing loss that might not be as helpful as we think.
So here are the things I said to myself on the bus to try and tell myself it didn’t matter and I should pull myself together, and why it didn’t really help at all.
It’s helped me to understand loss in a different way and to know a bit more about what to say (or what not to say) to people who are hurting because of loss. I’ve shared it in case it helps other people too. (I know the analogy is trivial but it made more sense to me that day thinking about a scarf than it does reading formal books on grief etc so I hope you will forgive me).
“It’s only a scarf” – what looks like ‘only a scarf’ to the outside world means something to me, it makes me think of freedom and flying high and going to new places. It also represents all the other hurts and losses underneath. If I just lost a scarf and everything else in my life was hunky dory I doubt it would bother me so much. Things that bother us are rarely ‘only a scarf’.
“You have other scarves” – yes I do have other scarves, lovely scarves, but I don’t have any other scarves like that one. Nothing else in my life makes the loss ok, no matter how good or beautiful or great those things are.
“You can get a new scarf” – yes, I could get a new scarf, but I will never get another scarf exactly like that one. I’ll never get something with that exact same blue or that exact same green, with those exact same birds on. Nothing will ever replace the thing that I’ve lost.
“It could be worse” – yes, it could always be worse, I could get trampled by a raging baboon and then have to sit through an out of tune opera. But it could also be a whole lot better, I could find a winning lottery ticket and jet off to sip cocktails in the sun. Having somebody else point out the positives just makes me feel like a failure for feeling sad about something that I actually have every right to feel sad about. When things are going tough we want someone to listen, really listen. We will find the positives ourselves, when we are ready, and not because somebody else has tried to point them out to us with some annoying cliche.
“You can learn from this” – clearly I did learn from it, I’m even writing a blog post about it, but what we learn from an event doesn’t justify the event itself, it’s not the reason for the event happening. Bad stuff happens in life. Sometimes really bad stuff happens in life. Even if good stuff comes from bad stuff, it doesn’t make the bad stuff ok. It’s not the reason for the bad stuff happening in the first place, and trying to justify it in that way will just tie us up in unhelpful knots. We might choose to bring good out of a terrible situation or event but no outcome, however good, will ever justify the thing we had to go through to get to that place.
“It’ll be ok” – Will it? How do you know? Can you promise me that? Really? The experience of loss and grief shatters our very senses of being and knowing, the foundations and assumptions we’ve built our lives on are gone and we’re left wondering which way is up. The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know anything for sure any more. All I want is to know that people will walk alongside me through this new uncertainty. I don’t need answers because I know there aren’t any, I just need people to be willing to come on the journey with me.
By that time I’d reached town and had to get off the bus, but there are probably plenty of other things I could add to the list, and probably plenty more you could add too if you were making a list of your own.
Fortunately I was lucky: after lots of trailing round town I eventually did find my blue bird scarf, thanks to some kind ladies in Boots.
Sitting on the bus, on my way home for the second time, I wondered what we’re left with if we want to support people going through loss and grief.
So many of the things that feel ok to say at first sound empty and hollow once we’ve actually experienced grief and loss for ourselves.
As I sat on the bus with my favourite scarf wrapped snuggly around my shoulders I realised that it’s really quite simple – all we need to do is be there for people, ask how they’re doing and listen to their answer; be a comfort and walk alongside them.
We don’t need posh words and fancy answers, we don’t need to worry about saying the right thing, it’s about how we listen not what we say (we often don’t need to say anything at all).
It’s just one human being connecting with another human being and allowing them to express their loss, whatever that loss might be.