Is it possible to understand another person’s loss? Loss is one of those words with many definitions, perhaps as many as there are endings. While there are many ways to share compassion and to commiserate with or relate to other survivors, can we really “walk a mile in their shoes”? Maybe that is why suicide and its aftermath are so confusing, why people sometimes say things that make the pain greater, even if their words are meant to encourage. They don’t understand. I can relate to much of what others who have lost a loved one to suicide say, but each loss is unique. And I would not want anyone to experience what I have just to understand what I went through.
Can I understand the experience of someone who has felt suicidal? Not really. Can you grasp what it is like to lose a soul mate of 33 years even before he ends his life? That was my experience, because my husband was severely ill for several years before his death. And yet, I don’t really know what it is like to see a dear spouse forget me day by day after dementia has robbed him of that most precious of memories, the face and name of his truest love.
We don’t say someone was “closer than the man I work for.” We say he was “closer than a brother.” Can you put yourself in the place of a man or woman who has lost someone who has always been there for them, throughout their whole lives? I can’t. Do we know what a mother thinks who lost – by suicide or other means – the only child or children she will ever have? Can we say, “I understand”?
Despite these differences, I believe loss is the single common denominator that unites us. Loss tears us apart at basic levels. We humans fight wars because we feel we have lost something that must be returned or avenged. We band together based on shared loyalties to different things as we try to fill some void inside us, yet we often feel lonely and empty. How much more desolate are we when life comes undone after great personal and significant loss?
How are we to move forward? When our very existence is challenged, our vulnerabilities exposed, how can we be expected to face such forfeiture – and our own mortality? During the darkest season of my life, I stumbled on ten words that had the ring of truth: loss tears us apart; God can put us back together.
We live in a broken world. There may be no perfect understanding this side of eternity, but what draws us close to each other doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective. Thank goodness for that. God gave us each other. A sense of community and connection with others is perhaps the most important tool for healing that survivors can find. Getting advice from experts in related fields is something we all long for from the very beginning, but becoming a part of a community in which we can interact and share both pain and healing is something that is priceless, especially when it comes to “celebrating life.”
Celebrating life, whether I realized it or not, was something I did naturally, even at the beginning of my mourning for my husband. Reaching out to connect with others was another instinctive healing urge that guided me back toward life and hope. I had always heard this was possible, but I also realized – in 2007 – that I had never encountered this kind of darkness before.
If you think about it, we all learn from others. We start at the beginning of life, and this is one task that never ends. Learning and sharing are as old as mankind, yet we have not learned everything yet. Some things cannot be passed on by information alone. Some things have to be experienced. I believe each person who enters this world leaves a special and unique message that no one else can deliver. I think each person who loses a dearly loved child, partner, sibling, other family member or friend can provide comfort to others that is uniquely his or her own. In this way we are all adding to the body of knowledge in the universe.
It may be that when we have completed our time on earth – no matter at what age that time comes – we are ready to move forward. Our message has been delivered; our impact on the world has been made. For people who love us, however, there is never a good time to lose us. I cannot ask for more time with my husband in exchange for a date when I must let him go – again. That is something I cannot give. I would never willingly let him go.
Or would I? We two used to talk about things like that in deep conversations that ran long into the night. I suppose everyone has that kind of conversation at some point. How do we want to face the end of life? What are the best decisions regarding the care of our children? Should the one who is left remarry? Are there certain people we should consult for advice if the unthinkable happens?
We had it all planned … except that nothing happened the way we thought it would. As a television commercial advertising a popular health product shows, we don’t get advance notice of when our heart attacks are coming.
Personally, I was sure my husband and I would take our lasts breaths together in our sleep one night, passing from one peaceful existence to another wrapped in the arms of each other. We would be well into our ninety’s, and our children would say, “This is how they would have wanted to go because they loved each other so. This is the way it was supposed to be.”
I did not plan for my daughter to walk alone toward her handsome bridegroom. I did not realize my husband’s recounting of his dream in which I wore a yellow dress would be his last. I did not think of holding his grandsons in my arms for the first time without his arms around me.
Yet, I celebrate his life every day. I understand the path he took had more to do with saving me than saving him. I look forward to holding those children, who are so much a part of him every chance I get. My husband was so much more than the way he died.
When my daughters smile or my grandsons laugh, when I see in a beautiful spring day all the echoes of days my husband and I shared that were good, I know I can never return to those innocent moments in which I could just read about loss without knowing something else deep in my heart. But I also know, I will share the joy he brought to my life and the way he made the world around him better.
I will tell the stories he used to tell and share stories about the things he did and said. I will sit in a sandbox or push a swing and pass the love he gave me on to someone else who, in turn, will one day talk about the grandfather he never met as if he knew him.
Children have an innate spirit of connection and healing. They will watch others with no embarrassment. They are open and obsessed with learning about the people and things around them. Somehow, adults have lost part of that ability along the way, often all of it.
I write about hope, but I also write about the horror in life and that moment of realization when we see just how bad something is, when we see we have lost something important and it is too late to get it back again. That is the moment, the parting of ways, when we go down inside ourselves and decide what kind of person we want to be.