On the Shoulders of Giants: The Cobweb of Loss and Grief
Grief. It’s something that I’ve come to know all too well, but this latest loss is something I’m not prepared for.
Yesterday was my 44th birthday, and in the afternoon in the middle of school pick up I received a voicemail message telling me that someone who I’d been very close to for the past two years and had got me through all kinds of hell in that time, and quite literally kept me alive in the darkest hours, had died suddenly at the weekend.
I managed to collect my boys, pick up a party tea, and get through presents, cake and bedtime routine with a barely contained explosion going on inside me, only leaking in the moments I was out of sight and earshot.
For those that know loss you will know the gut wrenching grief, the tears, the uncontrollably contorted face as they stream over your cheeks, the body almost retching itself doubled over, purging you of the sorrow, in the hope you can expel it all from your body so once gone you can be free of the pain. But you also know you’ll go through the grief cycle. Denial. A consuming one in the first few days. It can’t possibly be true. Re-listen to the voicemail, remember what was said, what you heard, did it really happen, was it someone else they were talking about. Like reliving, remembering a dream that’s slipping away, trying to grasp what was real and what was made up. And then the grief returns, retching out more pain.
You start to question, to rationalise a little; what does it all mean; practically, emotionally, spiritually. What’s next in this new unexpected and unprepared for world? Do we rush to replace to feel stabilised again, do we stop to re-evaluate and choose a different direction, or are we paralysed into doing nothing, maybe that’s best? Selfishly why me, again? What's this new test I'm being given, I hadn't finished the last one had I? And why them? Why now? What happened? So many questions with no immediate answers.
For me I was in shock, staring into a void I’ve become all to familiar with since childhood. I can’t take any more loss of those I care about and rely on, and who care about and support me.
I just lost Maria who suddenly passed away without warning last weekend. Almost two years ago I lost a close friend, not dead but gone without sense or reason, before that there was the miscarriage of our second child, then Mike early in my career, a dear friend who died tragically having left the corporate world to follow his dreams, and then back into my youth my uncle in my teens (malaria), my grandad at age 9 (heart attack), my dad at age 5 (brain haemorrhage following kidney transplant rejection), and within weeks of this I lost my mum to a breakdown and hospitalisation for several years as a result of the loss of my dad.
Something critical to loss for me is in our identity. We attach so strongly to things that give us our identity and through which our sense of safety; friends, family, pets, our jobs, our employers, our clubs, our hobbies, that when we lose them the readjustment needed can be immense. Imagine a cobweb, imagine a large, beautiful silver cobweb on a crisp winter morning, held taught on many threads between several twigs and branches, then imagine one of these attachment threads breaks and the web springs into a new shape with tensions being pulled in other ways to compensate. Then imagine another goes, and so on. How long can the web remain viable without reattaching itself. Is it ever the same? How much work does it’s owner need to do to repair it and under what conditions and with what help? An identity grounded internally in self is stronger and less shaken that one grounded in the external but so much harder to achieve and maintain; we are social animals and define ourselves by our connections.
Imagine also the damage done to the muscles, tendons and ligaments in your ankle when you sprain it on uneven ground and the scar tissue that forms if untreated. Now consider this not as an ankle sprain but the injury of loss and grief on the heart muscle; the centre controlling love, compassion, and our values is known to be our neurally connected heart brain. How much scar tissue can the heart survive from how much loss, before it is irreparable, or worse, gives up completely?
At this loss I feel my personal web becoming harder to maintain in its integrity as support structures collapse, and the resultant loss of beauty and function in its form. I feel my heart aching more nowadays under the burden of so much loss and grief over the years.
All these amazing people have taught me so much and my memories are happy ones, that’s what heals. Scars do bring pain, a slowing down, less elasticity and resilience, and a reticence to put myself in harms way again. The scars though are also reminders that I can look upon and use to remember the good times. They also give me courage to try again, to make new bonds, because relationships heal as well and are critical to our health and long term survival.
Maria had been my therapist for two years. The first and only person I’d trusted with every corner of who I believed myself to be and we’d explored that world together. She helped me understand my past; the trauma of childhood loss, the extreme PTSD episode that was triggered on a flight back from the US and ended my close friendship, and almost ended my relationship with my family and my life; the challenges of forgiveness towards my family for the choices they made when I was only a child; my core identity and what it means to me and others; whether or not to take antidepressant medication, and a whole series of tools and techniques I still use today and pass onto others in my professional life. She was also an unofficial supervisor for my coaching practice and a strong advocate and advisor for what I’m doing in the mental health space. We were just about to start a new chapter in our work together as we hit our two year anniversary. We drew pictures, played games, referred each other to books and conferences. We met every week, for a while twice weekly, throughout our two years, and I got better and became a better person under her overwatch.
Maria I will miss you, I can feel my heart and gut crying out again as I write this. In the same way I miss my friend, Mike, Uncle Alfonse, Grandad, Dad, Mum and countless other losses that have taken their toll on me. I am better for it, or I’m told I am at times when I have self doubt. I’m certainly changed for the better from having known these people. I pass this knowledge, hope and faith all on to my children, to those who need me and rely on me, as I did them, and I continue to go forth into the unknown, taking each day as it comes, on the shoulders of giants.