The Transformation of Loss
Minnesota welcomed the month of May with warm temperatures, very little rain and lots of sunshine. The lake down the hill is being swallowed up by weeds already, but the birds and frogs are conversing, the wildflowers are holding up their brightly colored arms in triumph, Jack in the Pulpit has returned to the shady parts of the woods and the crab apple trees are flaunting their beauty as only a flowering apple tree can. And today brings the rains and the earth drinks up the nourishment like a tonic. Life is emerging and flowing and thriving in every direction, and it shows no sign of letting up.
But in the midst of all this growth and aliveness, there are abrupt endings and death, too. A river that flows in a nearby state claimed young life over a weekend, and a family in my community mourns a son. A few weeks ago, the river that flows a few miles from my house claimed someone’s daughter. A dear friend lost her brother a few days ago and may never know why. Cancer took a friend of a friend sooner than anyone thought it would. The sweet spring air is laced with a sense of loss, and it is jarring to try to find one’s balance as the beauty and vibrancy of a new season sits next to the sadness and grief of death.
Anne Lamott writes, in Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair:
One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are… It somehow has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos, and that seems a way to begin.
We try to help where we can, and try to survive our own trials and stresses, illnesses and elections. We work really hard at not being driven crazy by noise and speed and extremely annoying people, whose names we are too polite to mention. We try not to be tripped up by major global sadness, difficulties in our families or the death of [those dear to us]…
We work hard, we enjoy life as best we can, we endure. We try to help ourselves and one another. We try to be more present and less petty. Some days go better than others. We look for solace in nature and art and maybe, if we are lucky, the quiet satisfaction of our homes.
We work hard, we try to enjoy life, we endure. Life so many times is harder than we want it to be. “It’s just the human condition,” they say. Maybe they are right. Maybe we humans are inevitably drawn into chaos, turmoil and bleak moods just because it’s the human condition. We seem to invite destruction into our habitat and each other and ourselves more every day. We let systems keep us captive, we give in to convenience, and we let fatigue overshadow our values. We don’t know how to ask for help, or give of ourselves, much of the time. We have a hard time finding meaning in our day to day actions, and we are stuck in the past or worrying about the future. Sometimes the present feels too painful to greet head on. The world churns and we get lost in the global maladies of our time. We get lost in our own grief, and we get lost in the grief of others. We don’t know the answers and we forget to look at the sky.
This week I feel for the ones who lost those dear to them in unexpected ways. I wonder how to give my support, and many times I am unsure of what to say. I suspect that simply showing up and feeling the enormity of what has happened is what is important, but no one has a road map for navigating something that has never happened before. Every death, every tragedy, is new; never to be repeated. Like every birth, every blossoming, every newly unfurled leaf, death leaves us gasping in astonishment. It leaves us searching for meaning under what happened. It shows us the amazement of life, and it shows us the fragility. It offers these things to us as another’s life passes on into whatever comes next.
It can feel like we live in a system build on hopeless chaos, yet there is good news in our midst. Sometimes wildflowers fill the highway ditches and the scent of newly uncovered pine needles filters through the sweet air to remind us that we are here, now. We may be stuck in despair and searching for meaning in things that are swirling around us, never to be pinned down…but we will once again see the beauty in the churning energy that flows and glues together life and death on this earth. We will see beyond the broken tea cups and the crushed blossoms and the hopes that will never be fulfilled in a human lifetime because we have the capacity see the solace that exists in each moment as it unfolds — when we notice the grace of life that underlies everything.
It can be healthy to hate what life has given you, and to insist on being a big mess for a while. This takes great courage. But then, at some point, the better of two choices is to get back up on your feet and live again.
Just as there is unfathomable beauty in life, so too is there agony, pain and suffering. And just as there is unfathomable agony, pain and suffering tied to death, so too are there hints of life’s beauty. Not a beauty that those who are close to the ones who have passed can see in the moments, days or months of raw grief, but perhaps rather a beauty that emerges as a life, no matter how long, is celebrated. It comes out, perhaps, in a community that comes together to support each other in the midst of heartache. It comes out, perhaps, when we can remember that a human life is much bigger than a bodily human death.
Meghan O’Rourke writes,
It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad. It’s a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.
Perhaps the beauty comes out in the transformation that happens whether we want it to or not. Maybe the transformation is enough.