We all suffer multiple losses in the course of a lifetime – it seems ridiculous to state this as it is so obvious. And yet we act as if loss is something to be feared.
I guess it starts with the loss of a favourite teddy or toy or that blankie that just had to be put in the wash. For some children the losses are much greater – a parent or sibling. Or a much-loved grandparent or uncle.
In England we don’t talk much about death, and so we are unprepared for it when it comes. Nick, an old friend (actually a Friend, a Quaker), ran a death cafe in Bedford for several years, where people could come together and talk about the experience and the actualities of death. Because really there was nowhere else you could do this. Hopefully the Death Cafe will be back in business after the pandemic, under the stewardship of Suzanne who ran it after Nick left town.
But loss can take so many forms, and each one seems to reflect back our previous experiences of loss. For me it was the experience of being sent away to boarding school at the age of 11 – which felt like an abandonment, even though I knew I would return to the love and care of my parents during the holidays (and the cheekiness of my younger sisters). At the age of 20 I lost my first boyfriend, which seemed to colour my life for decades. 11 years later my mother died, and two or three years after that, my favourite aunt. When my marriage ended I grieved the loss of the relationship we used to have, the loss of the house I had lived in for 14 years, and much more besides. With each bereavement it seemed that the previous losses returned to haunt me. It seemed as if each one added to the earlier losses. It was in the last two years of my life when I was in Clarity Coach training that I started to see things differently.
Grieving can involve a variety of emotions: denial, anger, guilt, depression, sadness, acceptance and resilience. It used to be widely believed that grief passes through a series of stages but this theory is not supported by any evidence. However we can most of us expect for some kind of resolution in the end. We just don’t know how long this may take. I have heard people criticised for not grieving long enough or for not being sad enough. But as there is no fixed process, we can never know how grief may change and develop over time.
It may seem that the emotions we feel about a loss are actually caused by that loss. “The death of my mother made me really depressed for months and months” – yes that was me. But our feelings are only ever the result of our own thinking – the thoughts our minds generate. Sad feelings accompany sad thoughts, guilty feelings come with guilty thoughts, feeling angry tells us we are having angry thoughts. I can see this quite clearly in the responses of my two sisters and I to the death of our father. It was the same death, obviously, but we all experienced different feelings.
The death of our father was my most recent loss. He died in 2018 after a five month illness following a fracture. I only felt a little sad because in the end when all of the family had visited to say their goodbyes, he wanted to get on with dying, and when he finally passed it seemed right. Besides there was little time to grieve as I was busy supporting my stepmother, organising the funeral, etc. But recently I found myself suddenly extremely sad and tearful, as if the grief had suddenly emerged when I finally gave it time to do so.
Hopefully we learn something new from each loss, but sometimes it seems that they get overlaid as each new loss is compounded by the previous losses. For me it seemed like the process of grieving had become a pattern that had repeated itself so much it had become almost hard-wired into my brain. And that was what made it so difficult to let go.
The guilt was a big one for me. It is not helpful to spend decades of your life feeling guilty about a death. And then there’s the common understanding that if you still feel guilty years or even decades later, you have been carrying around a burden of guilt all those years. This was certainly how I saw it. Even though I knew that it couldn’t be true. Until one day this year, during the lockdown, when I saw quite clearly that each time I experienced the guilt I was recreating it anew. Of course I was using an old programme that my brain had been practising for years and years. But I had not been carrying around a “burden of guilt” or any baggage of any kind. And once I realised this I stopped experiencing the guilt and have not done so since (as I write it’s been about four or five months since I had that realisation).
Learning to drive gives us a good analogy here. When you learn to drive you move from faltering to fluency over a period of months, until you achieve what is known as unconscious competence – the ability to drive without thinking about what you are doing. The skills we need to drive get laid down as programmes in our unconscious minds, so that they can run in the background while we talk to a passenger, sing along to the radio or check the signs on the motorway. We certainly don’t think of those programmes as baggage! But also we don’t run them when we’re doing other things such as walking or cooking. They get called up when we’re driving.
So it seems to me that there are programmes we call up when we experience guilt or anger or even sadness about a loss. These are natural responses to loss, but after a while we start to tell a story about the feelings we have been experiencing, such as “I can’t let go of the guilt,” or “It makes me so angry – how could he do that to us,” or even “I will be betraying her if I stop feeling so desperately sad.” These are all just thoughts. None of them are true. And they may end up creating a cage in which we have become trapped making it difficult or impossible to move forward emotionally. The more we practise these programmes, the more likely they are to come up when we think about the loss. And sometimes it seems they’re there in the background, almost out of conscious awareness.
When we remain open to our experience and take it for what it is, we encounter the full richness of life – even in the face of death.
To quote what I wrote in February 2019:
I had wondered over the last few years how I would feel when Dad died. But of course we cannot know what the future holds, and I had no idea what to expect. As it turned out I only felt a little bit sad. Then I caught myself thinking that I was having to be strong for my step-mum and that maybe it would hit me later.
But it hasn’t hit me yet, and maybe it won’t. And why should it? I was very blessed to have Dad and my step-mum living close to me for the last three and a half years. I spent a lot of time with him. My sisters and cousins came to visit and so I saw more of them too. Dad was delighted to move to Bedford – he loved the river and the parks and all our beautiful trees. He only wished he’d come sooner.
And I have found so many reasons to celebrate his life. I have learned things in the last few months that I either never knew or had forgotten. My sister has posted lots of old family photos on Facebook and has started investigating our family tree (what a lot of surprises there are there!). There are so many funny stories about things Dad did when we were younger. He was very inventive and quite a maverick, with a zany sense of humour. So we have been mining a rich seam.
Then perhaps most important of all was that in the last year, Dad seemed to have decided that he wanted to really enjoy life, and that meant putting his anxiety to one side in order to get the most of every day. He was no longer able to walk more than a few steps, but he was happy to suffer the discomfort of being wheeled along Bedford’s bumpy paths and pavements in order to indulge his passion for coffee and watching the ducks and swans.
When he finally found himself in hospital with a broken leg he remained resolutely cheerful, enjoying the attention of the nurses and the stream of visitors. His only complaint was that lying in bed all day wasn’t really his kind of lifestyle.
The funeral was perhaps the best funeral I have ever attended. There were children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews and family friends. There was such a strong sense of love and connection with Dad’s presence at the centre of it.
So what I have learned from all this is that I haven’t truly “lost” my father – he lives on in all of those whose lives he touched. That it is possible to change even at the great age of 94. That each of us exists within a network of connection which supports and nurtures us – we just need to learn to tap into that network and enjoy what it brings. And perhaps most of all that I am living the reality that I create from the inside-out. And my reality is that this time grief can be gentle and restorative.