By Paula Lau
This July has been a very bittersweet time for me and my family. Last year at this time we were, as a family, battling together in prayer for the life of my mother-in-law, Fran. She had been diagnosed nine months earlier with stage 4 colon cancer. Though she stood in faith and was naturally optimistic about overcoming her disease, in the end, it claimed her life on July 12, 2008. So this year, to honor her memory, we all gathered together in Windom, Maine to fulfill one of her wishes. She wanted to have a big family get together on the water and so that is what we did.
It was an interesting week in that it rained and rained and rained. Our stay was wet, damp and not at all what we had all envisioned. However, in a surprising way, the downpour kept us all close, huddled in our sweaters, and drinking coffee as we gazed out at the vista of rain and lake and fog. We comforted and encouraged one another while the kids had a blast daring the rain to rain some more as they swam and kayaked despite it all.
Overcoming loss is the most difficult part of life. Whether it’s the loss of a job, a relationship or someone or something precious, the pain is always new, always surprising. On a certain level there is really not too much that you can do to prepare for it even when you see it coming. You can brace yourself and shore up your resources, sort of like the folks along the coast who anticipate a hurricane coming in. But in the end, I think we tend to look at the devastation and say, “I didn’t know it could be this bad.”
Recovering from loss is a gradual process and experienced so differently from person to person. As a therapist I’ve found that some of the residual effects of trauma and loss can go on for years. This is because grief changes us. We learn something about ourselves that we didn’t know before. We certainly look at life differently. For many of us, living through a crisis makes us more compassionate and understanding. Others find that holding on loosely to the things they love is the best way they know how to manage the anxiety of losing again. For some, bitterness and rage give a strange fire to their lives that they can use to the good or, ultimately, to their own demise.
“To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.” These words, penned by Erich Fromm, author of The Art of Loving succinctly tell us what we all must know. When we choose to love, when we risk ourselves, there is always the potential for sudden loss. But the ability to experience happiness is all tied up in that risk. For those of you who have lost someone precious — would you forego having known them and experienced them? Would you take back the happiness just to avoid the pain?
As I looked around the table this past week at the ones I love, a deep inner knowledge filled me. The reality, most likely, that at some point I will experience the loss of one or more of them. However, would I trade the experience of loving them just to avoid the pain? Never.
The giving of ourselves and the acceptance of others at their best and their worst makes life worth living. It helps to remind ourselves to quit sorting out our life’s experiences into good and bad and to instead just accept it all as just life.