Transforming the Trauma of Loss
Some things cannot be fixed, they can only be accepted.
Here is my simple math equation of all life: Life = gain + loss
Or you might prefer this one: Life = joys + sorrows
We all know this. And yet we do our very best to ignore the second part of this inescapable equation. It tells that:
We win. We lose.
We receive. We give away.
We gain control. We lose control.
We are young. We are old.
We are rich. We are poor.
Happy, then sad.
Victorious, then defeated.
Empires rise, then fall.
We are born, and then we die.
What obvious lesson is there here?
That all we gain in living we lose.
This is not bad, or good: it is just is.
Yet, we accept the good and reject the “bad”.
The result is often trauma. This trauma is not as inevitable as many people think.
For trauma is not the event, it is our response to the event that causes trauma.
The problem is that we are trained all our life long in how to get more stuff, more money, more fame, more status, to become healthier, a better person, a kinder person. That is all well and good, but it is only ½ the equation of life. The training we receive is incomplete. So incomplete that when we are confronted with the ½ of life that is loss and defeat we crack. We are depressed or anxious. We become bitter or lose hope. We see ourselves as useless or insignificant. We fear losing control. What is strange in all these responses is that our behaviours seem to say that we think that it is normal to always win, to always become stronger and more attractive.
Of course, we all know this is not true. Yet our maladaptive negative responses to all forms loss demonstrate that we see ourselves as “losers” in the face of forces over which we cannot possibly “win”. Clearly, this unconscious view of this issue are not helpful and if we want to, as the Romans believed, strive to “die as well as we lived” we need a change in attitude.
This was brought to mind clearly in a communication by a friend who has Parkinson’s. He is filled with despair, a sense that he has nothing to contribute, that he does not matter anymore; saying this:
”I ask myself constantly whether I am kidding myself about the efficacy of all that I hold most dear to my heart. Most of all I am hounded by the thought of dying without having fulfilled my mission in life.”
This sense of regret is understandable. The challenge for my friend and all of us, is to equip ourselves for the loss that is sure to come our way. I had my own loss several years ago when a virus inflicted cardiomyopathy on me. I told that 1/3 chance of death in a short period of time. I was depressed and shocked, mostly because there was nothing I could have done to avoid the virus and there was nothing iI could do about getting better, except take my drugs and hope that they would work. I saw a grief counsellor, this helped. She helped me a lot. Her intervention prevented me from remaining in the well of despair. I don’t remember much, but this is the gist of what she said:
“Our society only trains us to acquire, to become more, better, smarter, stronger, etc. but life goes up AND down, life has as much loss as gain and we need to be trained in this reality and accept that loss is as inevitable as gain. In fact, there is only gain because there is loss. This does not make loss any nicer; it is NOT nice. But seeing the unpleasant events of life this way helps accepting it, a bit. We need to release some control, which is so against our nature. Only then can we move on to something new.”
Since then I have become a bit better at just accepting life, in all its forms. Yes, I do less than I did before, yes, I more tired than before, but now I am OK with that. I lost, but that is not a comment on me, it is the equation of life.
Now this loss can be of a personal nature, as demonstrated above, but it can also be at the level of our Nation, our civilization, our environment, our World. These losses are, I believe, even more challenging and an even greater challenge to our ability to accept the highs and lows of life without falling into despair or destructive self-criticism.
We have experienced over one year of the pandemic.
The southwest USA is in the midst of a historic drought and heat wave that may be a harbinger of a new normal.
The prices of houses in Canada are now unaffordable to a large portion of the population.
Our relationship with China continues to be unhealthy in the extreme.
Opioid deaths, addictions, divorces and mental health damage among youth continue to rise.
The rate of extinction is accelerating.
Our “actions” to reduce carbon emissions appear to be too little, too late.
If we are honest enough to face we are bombarded by loss. And yet, this is actually not abnormal. Life is gain, life is loss. This is as inevitable as the sunrise being followed by the sunset. You may get the impression that I am fatalist. Far from it. But as we fight the good fight, we stand a better chance of “winning” when we know that losing is as much part of the game as winning. We need to know when our actions can have an effect, and when we must just accept “defeat” with equanimity. It’s about developing a view of life that is simultaneously active and passive. It is to work with the paradox that to live the good life means we must always fight to good fight, but never know if whatever we did had any real impact.
I leave you now with this image that is near to my heart from my many years as a beekeeper. In the end we are like a honey bee. If a honey bee is lucky, she collects enough nectar to make 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. After an average summer life span of 3 weeks she has worked herself to death. Did her efforts matter? Did her life matter? Did she fulfill her life’s purpose?
Our lives are no different than the honeybees. We all make a small impact. And yet, like a bee, our little bit can matter. After bees from a colony visits 2 million flower blossoms, they have made 1 pound of honey. They have pollinated so many flowers that they have most certainly made the world not only a more beautiful place but a place filled with more life. May you be like our friend the honeybee. Go out into the world and pollinate it with your best thoughts, your best actions. Then you too, like the honeybee, can say of your life:
“I won. I lost. I accept. I matter.”