Learning Loss

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my aunt’s death.

She occupied my thoughts for much of the day, and I missed her, intensely and with a bittersweet feeling that sort of mimicked the guilt/mourning I felt in the weeks that followed her passing last year, yet I am in a very, very different space emotionally and mentally these days. Thus, it was mostly a sweet remembrance of her coupled with regret that she has missed so much this year in the lives of those who loved her.

I also listened to David Bowie most of the day, and felt a bit of grief at his passing, and felt warmth about how well he was loved by so many.

In the midst of this, I started doing some prep for the semester and organizing and things. I went through my writing and updated my submissions. And, as though it were fate, I reread the essay I wrote in the weeks after my aunt’s death, an intense, very personal piece that has been out for submission for many, many months. I reread it as I listened to “Space Oddity.” I reread it as I listened to “Space Oddity” and it dawned on me that the second to last line in that piece is, “Ground control to Major Tom.”

Over the next several minutes, I realized how symbolic this all was, and I convinced myself that obviously I would receive an email that very day accepting that piece to the journal I really, really want it published in. It was fate, it was destiny. I waited the rest of the day for the familiar notification sound from my phone indicating I have an email.

It never came, of course.

And, funnily enough, much of that essay I wrote deals with looking for symbols and messages in the aftermath of loss, searching for meaning in the highway and signs in birds, finding messages from my aunt in the way the sunset made the world appear to be on fire.

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The searching I’m describing is something that all of the best writings about loss that I can think of do. I’m thinking of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and essays like Gerald Callahan’s “Chimera” off the top of my head. It’s an ingrained, fundamental feature of love and loss, I suppose, to search for something to explain or to indicate something sublime, to bring us close to a being we will never, ever touch again.

It’s impossible for me to talk about the overarching idea of loss without also tacking on loss that does not stem from death. The loss of friendships, the loss of old selves, the loss of other abstractions and emotions and ideas that defined me or mattered to me at some point. At this point in my life, my losses are many. It’s not often these days that I am weighed down by the pain of loss, but that pain can be conjured easily.

And the searching we do for meaning, messages, or signs doesn’t ever go away, just as the scents and feelings and memories remain – even if they blur a little bit or diminish in intensity.

I’m nearly finished with a lovely book, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, also about loss. She speaks eloquently on the isolating nature of grief:

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

 

Loss and grief are singular yet universal experiences. The process of grieving looks different for everyone, and its temporality also varies. For me, the grief of losing my beloved aunt was compounded by – perhaps partially overshadowed by – my own struggles at the time. And so my grief and subsequent healing, or, at least, acceptance, also included other kinds of healing. My reaction to the event was different than it would have been at another time in my life – even six months earlier or later. Doesn’t that mean something?

Then there was the day in the middle of summer when “Gypsy” erupted from my car’s speakers, and I tried to regain composure as grief crushed my chest. Was she nearby then?


But as isolating and personal as these experiences are, as much as we search quietly, privately for meaning and messages and signs, loss and grief also unite us. I can read a book about loss and it can give me comfort. I can talk to others who have lost and we can take discreet comfort in the undercurrent of sorrow that connects us.

This, I suppose, is why I’m writing this now. I am not alone in this loss, though I feel somewhat isolated because I have gathered up my sorrow and clutched it close, rather than talking about it and lightening the load. I feel this loss magnified by, as I mentioned, other losses, but also because of an acute and recurrent understanding of the frailty of life.

As I write this, I can feel a part myself searching again for meaning, messages, signs…anything. I don’t actually know what I’m writing for, other than searching for connection, and sharing this part of myself because I have to. That part that searches: she’s wistful, and hopeful, and curious, but also very alive. And so I guess I’ll leave it at that: a small rejoicing in being alive, even if I’m not sure of the meaning of any of it, and even if loss is hard, and inevitable, and makes the “being alive” part difficult sometimes.