When A Loved One Is Lost

Little did I know when I started writing this article in July, that the topic of loss and the profound tragedy of sudden loss would be so powerfully relevant after the events of September 11th. Loss is one of the often silent topics of our world and lives, hiding in the shadows until we are forced to look at it with greater degrees of clarity or obscurity.

When someone dies, how hard it is to know what to say. Too many feelings. Hard to find words. Loss is painful and overwhelming for the person who has lost a loved one, and awkward and overwhelming for those close to those who are left behind.

Deep and meaningful relationships are a gift from the divine. While we may feel varying degrees of closeness or estrangement with our blood relations, there is a primal connection that is broken when a family member dies. When relationships end, short of physical death, a deep psychic loss takes place, sometimes more painful than death.

Soul connections never die. Heart connections need conscious care and attention. What we do in the here and now, in our daily lives, with the connections we have is up to us. We can take care of our relationships, even if the forms need to change and evolve over time. We can kill relationships slowly or abruptly through neglect, sabotage, violence or fear. Sadly, few of us have been given models or language for the care and feeding of intimate connections over time. As a result, we suffer deaths of a sort within existing relationships as intimacy breaks down, and we suffer more complete deaths when important relationships are lost entirely.

In our culture we have few good models for working with all the emotions associated with losing an important relationship, through death or separation. The language and imagery of separation in the workplace portrays how we handle loss and separation in many other life arenas. It is riddled with violence and heartlessness. An employee gets "fired" or "terminated." When they are given the news that it is time to part ways, the bearer of the bad news "pulls the trigger."

And while some organizations are humane as the professional relationship between employer and employee comes to an end, many endings are abrupt. After being told they are "fired" the employee is escorted to his/her desk, asked to collect his/her personal belongings and is escorted out the building, never to return. Matter of fact. Over and done with. Security is called to be sure there is no angry outbreak, no violent episode, no theft. Endings are handled violently. The trigger is pulled, we walk out and away, forever. No room for a closure process. Emotional loose ends hang raw. While this is normal behavior in our culture, the heart does not process this way.

Loss Through Violence

Violence of all sorts — emotional, spiritual and physical, against self and against other — has its roots in having been violated. I remember seeing a video of a teenage girl who was in treatment for having broken the arm of a three year old boy. In the first part of the video, the girl provides a blow by blow, journalistic report of how she put her hands on the arm and twisted, with emotional detachment and no signs of remorse. Listening to the cold, heartless account sent chills through my body. Later we see that this girl was herself physically and emotionally abused, and her accounts of her own experience are conveyed with equal detachment to what we have first witnessed. And then we watch the girl go through a course of therapy over a number of years, where she starts to make the emotional connection regarding what has happened to her. As she begins to feel her own pain in her own heart and body, she bursts into tears, and suddenly realizes for the first time what she has actually done to the three year old boy. As she emotionally understands and integrates the violence done to her, she is capable of also grasping her own violence, its roots, its impact and feelings of remorse for what she has done.

Because loss is so often violent, abrupt, and unresolved at the emotional level, few of us have had spaces to feel our way through the deep and complex emotional territory of separation, and therefore lack models of how to approach separation in a non-violent way. Even in the painful anticipation of loss, people can separate or leave without killing each other or the relationship. And sometimes when tragedy strikes, as it did for so many people on September 11th, loss can occur in the spirit of love. The Sunday after the tragedy, the minister at my Unitarian church used as an anthem, the last words of a man, Stuart Meltzer, to his wife as he anticipated his forthcoming demise as the first building of the World Trade Center was being destroyed. The man’s last words to his wife were simply, "Honey, something terrible is happening. I don’t think I’m going to make it. I love you. Take good care of the children." The minister’s eyes were filled with tears as he spoke these words again and again and again. And so were mine. God only knows the pain this widowed woman and fatherless children feel today and tomorrow. However, at least the last contact from her husband, their father, was a message of connection and love.

Barbara’s Story

Facing death is raw and scary both for the person dying and for the loved ones close to the one who is passing on. Relating from the heart as separation nears is profoundly intimate and often terrifying. Some people ask to have no contact with their loved ones as they die because it is too painful to feel the emotional bond or the other person’s pain and loss. Likewise, the one(s) being left may also disconnect in order to escape heart or soul wrenching pain.

I experienced the intimacy and terror of death and separation in an inescapable way over a decade ago when a woman I was close to died of cancer. As she realized her fight for her life was being lost, she asked me to please watch over her husband and her two young daughters as I could and as they allowed. I was moved to tears and made a spiritual commitment to her. In her final days, I would visit her as she lay motionless in her hospital bed, just sitting with her, often silently, honoring her spirit as it began to pass on.

The last time I saw her was a haunting experience that forced me to look at my own fear of intimacy in a life changing way. I came into Barbara’s room and sat by her bed, as I always did. Her eyes were closed or drifting, her body was quiet, thin and only half inhabited. She seemed to have lost consciousness, palpably close to her death. I just sat there paying respect to her spirit. All of a sudden, her eyes sprung open, she looked me right in the eyes and used all of her life’s energy to try to craft words. I was petrified, frozen eye to eye with the unmasked fragility and tentativeness of life.

As Barbara spoke, I shut down, protecting my own heart from the rawness of it all, quivering in my stomach, yet trying with whatever reserves I had to listen to what was very clearly her last words to me. "Thank you," she whispered in almost undecipherable syllables that chilled me to the bone. My mouth reacted before my heart or brain. "What did you say?" I uttered, awkward yet trying to be present. She could not answer me. She was gone. Unconscious. Back to that drifty place close to death’s door. In a heartbeat I had deciphered her words, and I had let them in. I was in tears. But the intimacy of that moment, Barbara’s last conscious contact with me, blew my emotional circuits. I felt split in two — the part of me that heard her struggled words and could be touched by her acknowledgement and caring, and the part of me that in the face of such raw reality freaked out and shut down.

As I left her room I felt remorse and guilt that I had not been able to fully presence her in her last contact with me, that I had split and only heard her from half of my soul. I have grown profoundly from that moment and all the moments from then ‘til now. I wish I could rewrite the script and go back to that final moment with Barbara, receiving her appreciation eye to eye, moved to tears, fully vulnerable and touched, able to say, "Thank you" back to her in real time. However, through Barbara’s lesson and gift, I do not split in the face of separation anymore. In fact, I made a commitment to Barbara’s spirit to learn how to bring my full heart to the process of separation and to learn how to live through such raw and trying moments with presence and love.

Sacred Separation: Leaving in the Spirit of Love

Just as the process of creating life takes place gradually and a new life grows and evolves slowly overt a period of time, those we love come to us and leave us in similar ways. The emotional and spiritual work involved in separation unfolds gradually over time, if we allow ourselves the internal space to be with our experience.

Much pain comes when fear of separation creates a protective shield within our bodies, hearts and minds that cuts us off prematurely both from the person who is leaving and from ourselves. We create the fear in hope of protecting ourselves from pain. Yet, ironically, as we tighten up our internal fortress, we often are more at emotional risk in the big picture of things. As Forrest Church notes in his book LifeLines (Beacon Press, 1996), "self-protection veils ours hearts. Even more sadly, it may armor them." Sometimes it is more comfortable to kill a relationship rather than to live through the change that is unfolding, to live through the loss.

Separation is a transformative passage, as powerful as the creative force that allows life in any form to begin. As we are able to get grounded within ourselves, in supportive relationships with others, and in our spiritual beliefs and practices, we are better able to flow with the inevitable, with the movement of life in its own rhythm and time.

At times, like on September 11, a loss is sudden and a separation happens without any preparation. At other times, when we are aware a separation is what needs to take place or is unavoidable we can take steps that allow us to participate consciously. Separation, like birth, can be a sacred journey, undertaken with full heart, honoring rituals and a spirit of love.

Make a commitment to love yourself and your loved ones as fully as you can, moment to moment, day to day, to the very best of your ability for the time that you have. We never know how much time we have on this Earth. Better we make the commitment to love fully while we have the gift of time.

Allow room for the wide range of feelings that will arise as you move through a loss. Grieving is a journey itself, emerging and disappearing, much like waves on a beach. Sadness, anger, denial, acceptance, fear and peace make appearances, sometimes taking center stage and sometimes appearing on the sidelines as you go about your daily life.

Seek support from those you trust and learn when you need to reach out and when you need to reach deep inside. There is a fine art in discerning when we need to be alone and when we simply cannot do it all alone. Take the risk of reaching out to those you already trust. Sometimes a time of loss is an opportunity to create more intimacy with a friend, loved one or counselor as you bring a new level of authenticity and vulnerability into your relationship with them.

Cultivate a rapport with your loved one where both you and they can feel safe in sharing your experience moment by moment as you move through the loss. While each of you will undoubtedly have your personal work, parts of the separation can be experienced together. Cry in each other’s arms. Sit or lie quietly together. Hold each other physically or without physical touch. Create the space within you to be fully present with your own experience while also honoring the sometimes different needs and experience of the other. Try to make space for both your experience and their experience to co-exist.

Choose a gift to exchange with the person who is leaving. A photograph, a song, a poem, a special object can represent the spirit of the relationship and/or the other when they are gone. And the person leaving can take your gift with them as a thread of connection as they move on in their life or out of this life.

Commit to points of contact or touching in after the separation as a way of grounding yourselves after the physical loss. When two people are parting ways while healthy, e-mail, phone calls or face to face meetings can be arranged at a pace that respects both people’s needs and feelings. This allows for a more gradual changing of form. If one person is dying, the points of contact can take place in meditation, in a memorial service, in painting or writing.

Find comfort in the people, structures and routines of your life. Communities you are part of — your workplace, your children’s school, your place of worship, any groups you are part of — can provide a sense of larger connection when intimate personal connection is lost. Regular rhythms can rock us and soothe us as we move through grief and disorientation as part of the foundation of our identity and daily activities is lost.

Each loss is a unique experience, with its own meaning, lessons, missing pieces and gains. The more gracefully and heartfully we can live through this experience, the more powerfully and fully we can engage in all the moments and passages of our lives.

Linda Marks, MSM, is a body-centered psychotherapist and the single mother of a five-year-old son. She is author of Living with Vision: Reclaiming the Power of the Heart and offers coaching on creating the life you want from the inside out and making peace with money. Her book Embodying the Soul: Dancing into Life continues to evolve and one of these days will be done. You can reach her at (617)965-7846 or LSMHEART@aol.com.