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Loss and Grief

“Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.”  -Anne Roiphe

Many people, all around us, are grieving losses that they feel they don't have the space to share or that they do not recognize as losses. Partly responsible is the often narrow understanding that we have of loss, often limited to the losses of loved ones who have died. But we are constantly experiencing different kinds of losses that impact our lives in small and big ways. Expanding our understanding of loss then allows us to look at some of our life experiences in a new light. Expanding our understanding of loss would invite us to be more compassionate with ourselves and with others around us. 

Loss and grief are constants in my work as a chaplain and these are some of the things I have learned:

Loss can be cumulative

More often than not, the loss people are experiencing brings up the many similar losses they had experienced before. The pain and grief is then exponentially greater than they think it should be. They not only experience the pain of the current loss, but the cumulative pain of all related previous losses. In my encounter with people, as they struggle with their current crisis, in conversation, they start listing, unconsciously, all the previous losses they had: the many people in their family who died before, or the loss of their jobs, homes, relationships. And it all feels too much, because it is too much. Understanding that they are indeed experiencing cumulative grief and not just the crushing weight of the current loss can be helpful. It gives them an opportunity to pause and to look at their pain in ways they had not considered before. 

Loss and grief is personal and can only be measured by the individual

What can be seen as a small loss for one person can be experienced as a big loss to another person and vice versa. The only person that can measure the impact of the loss is the individual. If you ever meet someone who is grieving, holding space to allow them to express and explore their relationship and response to the loss is important. When a person shares with us, we listen and bear witness to their struggles, and to their pain but we do not get to decide if their grieving is too much or too little. Instead, we learn to hold space for exactly what they bring. 

There are many types of losses

Most people don’t have a problem empathizing with the suffering of someone who lost a loved one or with catastrophic losses, But other losses like friendships, community, sense of meaning, and identity, losing a home, having to move to another country, deportation, etc, may not evoke the same type of sympathy but they can still deeply impact the individual or a community. These smaller, and often unrecognized losses, can also accumulate and, since people don't tend to think of them as losses, they are often trivialized. However, they may still manifest as dread, anger, sadness, longing, in the person who experienced them. 

Francis Weller’s Five Gates of Grief offers some insight into an expanded understanding of loss:

1st Gate: Everything  you love you will lose

2nd Gate: The places that have not known love

3rd Gate: The sorrows of the world

4th Gate: What was expected and never received

5th Gate: Ancestral grief

These five gates of grief are the foundation for a workshop I will be offering this summer. You can read more about it in his book “The Wild Edge of Sorrow”. And the 3rd gate, the sorrows of the world, has been opened for many of us as we witness the war in Gaza, the effects of climate change, and the ongoing suffering caused by humans. We are in desperate need of spaces where we can grieve collectively and, in our grieving, encourage one another to speak up against all the wrongs we see. 

Loss can be gradual

Loss sometimes happens over time. It is gradual, slow, and it extends over a period of time. The grieving in this loss then can also be gradual and confusing. The person may feel that they should not be grieving what has not been lost yet, but there are small losses happening in their lives every day. Those smaller losses need to be honored, too. 

Loss can leave us in a space of confusion and uncertainty. 

Francis Weller describes loss as an uprooting. We are taken from one place or reality into another one, many times, unexpectedly. There is a fogginess to the experience that often leaves the individual wondering how to go on, how to face the new reality, and how to understand themselves after that loss. There may also be resistance to accept the new ground on which we have been planted. 

Grief after loss

The grief that accompanies loss, is the longing for what used to be here, for the certainty of presence or reality, whether that was real or the expectation of an envisioned future that will no longer materialize. Whether it was experienced or the hope placed in a dream of a future different to what is being experienced. 

When we lose something or someone, we do not only lose the person or the thing, but also the future life we had imagined for ourselves and the life that was comforting, familiar, known. We have been uprooted and planted in a new reality. 

Our culture lacks spaces where we can come together as a community to grieve. I want us to remember that we are each other’s keepers; that we are connected in both visible and invisible ways and that, as a community, we can all play a role in the healing and comfort we can bring to one another. 

We are each other’s keepers. Our own losses can help us connect with others, to understand their losses and to offer them empathy and compassion. To remake a life we do not need to have the right words, nor all the answers. We don’t even need to know where the path will lead, but it might be enough to pause and to acknowledge what is missing. To begin, it might be enough to remind ourselves, and each other, that we are still sustained by the mystery of life, by a love beyond our understanding, that so often manifests in the faces, and presence of those around us who gently and quietly hold space for us as we grieve; to pay attention to the ways in which life is still calling us.

Dear friend, how is your grief today?

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