Much like the various stages of grief, loss itself is multi-dimensional. Some loss leaves scars deeper than others, but if I’m being honest, a scar is a scar and most remain with you always. Even if it’s faded, you always know it’s still there. I, like most of you, have experienced my fair share of loss; each one like a picture movie where all I have to do is recall the scene and the emotions flood back in black and white stills.
I’ve experienced the heart-wrenching loss of a pet. I’ve been blessed with many over the years – from fish to hamsters, birds to cats. I recall at a young age losing my chunkiest hamster while away on vacation and the emptiness it left until one day we found her stowed away in the hallway closest. I remember accidentally not putting the appropriate chemicals in the fish bowl after cleaning it and subsequently losing my beta fish moments after. Those losses happened when I was probably too young to understand fully what loss meant. But the loss of my cat, Cali, came at a time that I knew exactly what happened the moment that she took her last breath. Words cannot describe what I felt knowing it was the last time I would hold her, the cat that pieced me together during a time I needed some figurative glue in my life. As her heart stopped, and a piece of mine did too.
The loss of a job is a new loss I’m learning to deal with. It is one thing to choose a new path in life, and it’s another to be propelled to figure it out on your own. If anyone denies the dream of retiring young, well they are downright lying. And yet, when a company-wide layoff recently touched my life, I didn’t feel the rush of relaxation I had hoped for. Instead, in that spot where excitement was supposed to lie, I found fear, anxiety, and lack of purpose. After giving over a decade of my life to an organization that has meant so much, I feel lost in my loss. And while I know the next chapter of my life is destined for great things, closing the previous chapter hasn’t been as easy as I had hoped.
The loss that has left some of the deepest of scars for me has been the loss of a loved one. I’ve seen many around me leave this world promised to enter the next. Beginning in college, I recall experiencing what a funeral home felt like… depressing, emotional, final. The loss of a friend from high school; the loss of a peer in college. Their lives taken too soon. And yet, even when a life is fulfilled to its fullest, that loss is still tough to swallow. The loss of my grandpa prepped me for the loss of my grandma. While our bodies are mere vessels that we borrow for just a short time, when it’s time to hand them over, it’s hard on those left behind. While each of my loved ones who have left this world are in a place far better than where we are, each loss for me has left a gaping hole in my life that I am left trying to sew back together.
Some loss is very visible, which helps those around you a bit more in understanding what you are coping with. But others are far less tangible. I have struggled the most with the loss of one I have yet to meet. That old adage – “It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” – is completely spot on in most instances, unless you’re the one who has lost, and your love was one you never got to fully express. I experienced this deep loss years ago when I lost my first baby. Even trying to guard myself from getting my hopes up in the first trimester, as I laid on the floor experiencing the pain from the miscarriage, I realized that the pain I felt from the loss cut deeper than anything I was physically experiencing. No, in this instance, I wanted to hold her. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to tell her how much I loved her. But I didn’t get that chance. I lost her that day, and while I know that she is waiting to welcome me home when I take my last breath here, I still feel empty without her in my life now.
Each loss I have experienced has been different, and yet, I can identify one thread connects them all. When you experience loss, you grieve in whatever way you know how. Some in alligator tears. Others in silence. And while many may say that they just need some space and time alone to think through it, I am going to let the world in on a little secret. That’s the complete polar opposite of what the person grieving truly needs.
Having experienced loss myself, I have realized that the one thing I need to get through it many people aren’t prepared to give. The one thing that will help me piece together my broken spirit is something others are terrified to be. And with my recent loss I realize how critical it is that those who yearn to support their loved ones who have been touched with loss know exactly what they need to do to help.
From first experience I can share that during a time of loss, you need to feel that the loss wasn’t for nothing, but rather for something meaningful, something purposeful. You need someone by your side. During this time when you are ripped from what you know and feel raw and confused, you need someone to hold your hand. During this time when you are stripped of that which you thought you were, you need someone to believe in the person you are destined to be. During this time when you feel like the world is caving in, you need someone to help you make it right again.
You can’t manage loss alone. You can try, but success won’t be in your favor. While the chicken soup recipe for loss comes with a healthy dose of love, support, and understanding, I’ve learned that the unfortunate reality is most people who want to be this for you don’t have a clue how to.
When I lost my cat, most people asked how I was doing, and after my one word response, the conversation moved on. When I lost my job, some people asked how I was coping, followed by some “you will be fine” motivation, and then moved on. When I lost my grandma, several friends sent flowers and cards, but after the funeral, life was expected to go back to normal. When I lost my baby, very few people checked in on me, hoping the world would move faster than my dwelling on the experience.
I know that I am not alone. In fact, I have been reminded time and time again that loss not only is uncomfortable for the person experiencing it, but it is equally if not greater for the person who wants to provide comfort. People don’t know what to say. They don’t know how to act. They don’t want to downplay the loss or dwell on it either. And because of this predicament, many do nothing. Silence.
Good can come from silence for the person who has experienced loss, but those around them need to do everything possible to avert it. You see, while loss has left a gaping hole, the person experiencing it is silently finding ways to rebuild. They unconsciously strategize silently how to make sense of it all and how to identify a new way to live. Internally, they are trying to navigate a painful experience, but never should they feel like they are doing it alone. Others may not be able to break the internal silence, but they can be a part of that which forms from it.
The phrase “If you have nothing good to say, it’s better to say nothing at all.” can’t be farther from the truth here. As someone who has recently experienced loss, I can tell you that what I need isn’t much; I just need to be heard, I need to feel valued, and I need to be reminded that I’m worth it. Just because you may be uncomfortable around loss, realize that the person experiencing it is learning their new normal. Hold their hand. Smile at them. Bake a cake or invite them over for dinner. Send a card or a meaningful text. Listen to them. Love them. And if you don’t know how to do any of that, just be there. Don’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from saying anything. I promise something is better than nothing.