When you face inevitable loss, remember these three things.
When dealing with impending death or loss, it can be challenging to stay fully engaged while preparing your heart at the same time. Does allowing ourselves to fully feel open us to even more hurt and suffering, or is feeling the experience the very thing that moves it through without getting stuck in our bodies, only to have to grapple with it later?
When I work with couples, I point out that if you are constantly bracing for a possible divorce, you are constantly disconnecting, protecting and withdrawing. None of these behaviors are likely to save or support a healthy relationship (or your personal well-being). And when we are preparing for death, something we cannot avoid, we also need to be mindful that those protective behaviors don’t distance us from the love we feel for the one dying—or the love they feel from us.
There is an amazing Ted Talk by a Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher who suffered a stroke. Because of her education and expertise, she managed to observe her experience of having a stroke from a very different perspective than the rest of us might. She was able to analyze the stroke while experiencing it at the same time. So, with my dad in the final phase of life and my precious dog-child just diagnosed with cancer, I find myself grappling with these philosophical concepts. In a very personal way, I’m observing my process of grief, attachment, compassion, strength, vulnerability, heartbreak and perseverance, while going through it at the same time.
My observation reveals my own unconscious reaction to impending loss is to brace and to detach. However, I don’t like the cold, disconnected (to myself and the other) feeling. My mindful choice is just the opposite, to become fully present and soak up every second of the opportunity to love, to feel, to hurt, to celebrate, and to accept.
I am also observing my inner child. My five-year-old self is so in love with my dog. He is her happy place and constant companion. I observe myself bouncing back and forth between my adult self that can rationalize his life expectancy, that death is part of life, that he will find me again in another form, that at least he won’t be suffering anymore along with the sheer terror of a child over the loss of her best friend. (I haven’t yet allowed myself to feel what she is going through over Dad.)
So what have I concluded? Here are the three practices that I am working with that I have found truly help when facing loss.
Practice of acceptance. As with every difficult situation, acceptance is an imperative first step to making our way healthfully. When we resist what is, we create more suffering and angst. We often become frantic, obsessive and unreasonable. Acceptance isn’t a matter of giving in or giving up. It is a matter of acknowledging the truth of the circumstance so that better, wiser choices can be emerge. Acceptance allows us to be more reasonable. And sometimes the reasonable thing to do is to simply feel all the feelings that come with loss as feeling is the pathway to healing.
Practice of being present. When we start projecting out in time to what might happen, we create anxiety and stress over something that is not, actually, happening yet. When I am most upset about my dog’s diagnosis is when I start imagining coming home and he isn’t here happily waiting for me, or when I visualize the day I have to put him to rest. When I bring myself back into the present moment, I feel the love here and now. I truly prefer that his last experiences of me are loving and not frantic; the same is true with my dad.
Much of the turmoil in relationships is also caused when we are worrying about what might happen in the future or holding on to what happened in the past. Both of these behaviors contaminate the present moment, making it much more difficult to address and resolve current issues.
Practice of gratitude. The obvious part of this practice is being in gratitude for what is going well and what you like. It is easy to feel grateful for the good things. The harder and potentially more powerful practice is being grateful for the hard stuff. This requires turning your attention to what this experience is strengthening, growing or revealing within you. Shifting to gratitude requires stepping deeper into trust and faith that Spirit will you through the experience.
While grief seems to be the price of love, I invite you to still choose to love fully and deeply.