What is loss?
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
I googled the question 'what is loss?' and the first page of answers included a few results, including:
Many dictionary definitions - often, interestingly, using the word 'loss' or 'losing' to define loss itself (I wasn't even aware you were allowed to use a derivative of a word to define it)
A Wikipedia page for a comic called Loss
The definition of the term in the accountancy world
I then proceeded to send a message to friends and family asking them to answer the question; What is loss? Telling them to reply with whatever popped into their mind first. Responses were as follows:
Being without, or missing something that was once loved, needed or important
A deep sense inside of something gone forever
Missing something you once held dear
The physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual absence of something, some feeling or someone
Bearing the weight of disappointment and sorrow
Something was present, and now it’s gone in either a positive sense (I’ve lost 10 pounds) or a negative sense (I’ve lost my pet)
The irretrievable absence of something
Someone or a pet you loved passed away
Someone/something you held very dear or was very meaningful to you, is now gone from your life
And yet after all this initial research, I was still left feeling like something key was missing.
My experience with loss is ongoing, but I do know it's complicated, multi-faceted, confusing, frustrating and exhausting.
The Oxford Learners Dictionary, however, would tell me it's: "The state of no longer having something or as much of something,' or 'the process that leads to this.'"
To me this definition seems too simple, too straightforward. I had something once, I probably treasured it, and now it's gone. But when the same word can be used for the misplacement of a handbag, or genocide, you know you're not dealing with just any old word, or any old process.
And that's what fascinates me about loss.
Not only can it vary hugely in what was lost, but the individual facing it is impacted in a completely unique way. No two people experience the same loss journey. For example, if a mother, with two children, dies, the siblings will not endure the same loss, because the relationship will inevitably be different, even though they both lost the same thing - the same mother.
No two people feel the same way about losing their keys, because what the keys open and what was on the keyring is unique to the holder. Throw in sentimentality, emotions, and the complicated messiness of how us humans relate to each other, and you have a subject that will keep you talking for centuries.
So what better topic to start a podcast on?
If someone came up to me in the street now and asked me: What is loss? I'd probably reply with one word.
Physical, emotional, spiritual, mental anguish. Complicated, messy, confusing, frustrating, blindsiding torment on varying levels, to different degrees. And when you get a whole bunch of them build up at once - it has the potential to even become debilitating.
BUT, I'm not going to end on that depressing note, because I really believe on the other side of loss there is love, joy, purpose, meaning, peace, and connection, and strength. And that's why we started The Silent Why podcast, because more people need to know there is life after loss and it doesn't have to involve constant tears, anger, heartbreak and ultimately, probably, inevitably - obesity.
But I also had one more answer to my 'What is loss?' question. It popped into my inbox from someone who knows this topic well, and it made me stop for a second. It was from Trevor. Trevor is a rare mix. He's a man of science and a man of faith. And I believe that's why his answer left less gaps in my search than others. This is what he had typed:
"What is loss? Whenever you perceive, even pre-consciously, that any aspect or feature of life that you value, or is part of your identity, is at risk of being separated from you, broken or misunderstood, you will experience an emotional reaction that alerts and prepares you to respond in a way that disrupts your comfort. And that is loss." (Trevor Griffiths, Emotional Logic Centre)
I pondered this for a while. Because it's not just about the loss of something, there's also the 'perceived' risk of loss that makes you react. It's not always just something lost, but sometimes something broken or misunderstood. And while the reaction feels largely emotional, there's also a physical response where our fight or flight kicks in (or in my experience, the just-collapse-in-a-heap-on-the-nearest-soft-surface reaction kicks in).
Then there's those four little words he drops in at the end - 'that disrupts your comfort'.
Something which seems so simple to describe, and which we don't want to acknowledge, is actually the cause of most of our grief, and that's what grief does in a nutshell- it takes away our comfort.
The brutal separation from something we loved or cherished, shatters our comfort zone, tips us out of the boat, and leaves us splashing in the water, gasping for air, shocked by the sudden temperature change, and thrashing around trying not to drown. And we can't just ignore that and pretend it didn't happen, you have to face it, deal with it and find a way out.
So I've put together 5 things to help those of us who have been tipped out of our boat:
You don't ever forget being tipped out of your boat and falling in. So you need to deal with it. Speak it out. Name it. It's ok, even healthy, to admit, however big or small the loss, that it shook me and was scary. But, you're alive! So acknowledge the effect it had on you, take a moment to dry off, think about what you need to process, and build up your strength before you carry on again. It's an important part of the process to prevent the next bit...
If this happens over and over again, and we fail to acknowledge it or deal with it, we risk ending up being so terrified of falling in, we stop rowing, and we hold onto the sides, frozen, drifting aimlessly, afraid to go anywhere or try anything, for fear of it happening again. You end up living in fear that one day you won't have the strength to pull yourself back out of the water, and to use the Hamilton lyrics - '...when you're in so deep it feels easier to just swim down'.
Sometimes the knock-back is so hard, you need to let someone else drag you out of the water, let them tend your wounds until you're stronger. Whether this is hours, weeks or years. Don't be the guy thrashing around so violently that no one else can get near to help, or the woman that politely declines all help, for fear of being a burden and slowly sinks under the water.
Remember: there's always a boat to get back into, or a hand reaching down to help you out. It might not be the boat you want, or the help you hoped for, but it's better than the cold water. It takes effort to accept help, or to haul ourselves into a boat we don't want to join. But don't forget it's dry, and sometimes it's the only way back home.
Lastly, there comes a point when you need to be able to let the initial grief and pain of your situation go. This doesn't mean you forget it, or what was lost, or how it felt, but you choose to stop letting it hold you back from everything else life has to offer, and you pick up the oars, and one stroke at a time, you push them through the water and feel yourself move forwards.
All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. — Havelock Ellis
Most of all, don't ever let your loss stop you from loving. We've actually interviewed Trevor for our podcast (keep an eye out for Episode #006) and he said this:
You only grieve if you love, that makes you more of a human being, and not less. — Trevor Griffiths
Love and loss are not possible to separate. We will be parted from everything we love, one day, in some way. And sure, we'd like to control that timeline and the way it happens, but we can't, it's just part of life on this planet. For everyone. Being a human being means going through loss, but the key thing to remember is that you never have to endure it alone - sometimes you just have to reach out to others first (and us Brits aren't great at that), and that's why we started The Silent Why - to show people - to show you - you're not alone.