Learning from Loss



It is difficult to address the topic of loss tonight without at the same time coming face to face and re-membering one’s own losses – and with the multitude of ways in which life and living has brought great gifts and great losses to my own life.

Tonight in trying to share with you some of my experiences – personal and professional – in this journey that is my life – I wish to consider, and include in my thinking, loss in its broadest terms in the many ways that it comes to us in life

  • Loss of those whom we have loved through death – sometimes in the particularly tragic circumstances of suicide
  • Loss of those whom we lose to illness – sometimes when “personality” as we have known  it has gone somewhere and we become carers to the body and heart as we honour the spirit of our loved one – often who manages to “show up” and lighten up our lives in letting us know they are still in there
  • Loss of relationships through separation and divorce
  • Loss of our children or our parents through emigration
  • Loss of employment, our businesses, our homes
  • Loss of independence through illness and ill health
  • Loss of status, respect or dignity [as has been my experience with many priests, religious and Bishops who have experienced what is often referred to as “the fall from Grace”]
  • Loss of freedom when we are trapped in mental illness or as John Lonergan pointed out on Monday through circumstances of imprisonment
  • Loss of hope, or dreams, or expectations of ourselves and of others we love

All of these losses and more are to be found in the stories of our lives – in different ways and to different degrees, and whilst our losses are unique and specific in how we experience them in every single case, loss also comes with a universal theme – loss very rarely comes without pain, sometimes with very deep emotional pain.

I want first to discuss the pain aspect of loss before going on to consider life beyond loss and if and what it might be possible to learn from it, if that is possible [sometimes I am not sure, so unbearable is the pain] and how we manage to go on.

My Mother

My mother died in 2008 at the age of 81 years – a wonderful woman who had treasured every moment of her life and who was gifted with a spirit that enabled her triumph over the most adverse of life circumstances. In a life that had many ups and downs one of her biggest sources of pain was having one of her daughters – my sister – born with the cord round her neck – resulting in lack of oxygen to the brain and a life of many challenges at every level of her life.

This indeed was a phenomenal loss at the time for my parents. To be sure they were eternally grateful that their child had survived and had life, but they also experienced at the same time a loss – loss of expectation of the child that they had been expecting and of the hopes and dreams that they had for their daughter, as they had envisioned her life in anticipation of her birth. However, that was not to be. Now they had to let go of those dreams and dream new dreams for their daughter as they set about the challenges of trying to find the right help and services that would help their daughter give expression to her full potential and to all that she was. In many ways the loss was gradual as the extent of Linda’s brain damage only became apparent over time, and each new milestone brought new learnings. My friend whose only daughter was born in similar circumstances was telling me how the debs season brings a little twinge of pain as her own 18 year old daughter will not be doing her debs – but it doesn’t stop my friend and her family from celebrating their daughters 18th birthday in ways that honour what that young woman has to give and can enjoy.

However, for my parents and for my friend having their children born and grow up in such circumstances is not all a story of pain and sadness [although there is often plenty of this definitely at the start, as I remember in my own particular case as the eldest child who watched  in silent witness my parents pain] but it is also a story of pain transformed, which can come with time and with love and support, as the pain in my parents case was transformed  into something that had new meaning and  in my friends case became a realisation that with the loss came gain.

My sister Linda’s life was to teach and continues to teach our family and those whose life she touches a very simple but important message: Love can be unconditional and love can show up very often in the most simple of humble circumstances – “the warmth of a smile” “a small embrace” “the touch of the hand” “a moment of sacred connection, when we are still enough to glimpse each others’ soul”. It doesn’t have to be all talk [especially when people do not have sophisticated language – or in some cases what we consider to be intelligible language] but the look, the holding with one’s eyes, the touching of one’s hand, can all be pathways to the soul.

The point here is that in our loss, sometimes, just sometimes, something unanticipated can come in its wake, and it can bring us a measure of peace and hope to go on. This is not to say that any of us – or my parents – would want to go looking for loss, or that it is something that we welcome – but when it comes and it is bigger than us in the sense that we cannot prevent some of the circumstances of our lives – then sometimes, just sometimes, our greatest tragedy can become a source of our greatest strength; transforming us into even greater human beings that we might otherwise have been.

To Stay With My Mother for just a few moments

Some years before she died my mother had an accident that took away her power to walk and for the final three years of her life she was mostly confined to a wheelchair. This loss of independence was a great loss for an active woman who loved to visit and roam through Meath Street and Thomas Street every week with her sister and life-long best friend, and who was intent on using her free bus and rail pass liberally as she and her sister travelled regularly to Kerry to breath the wonderful Kerry air. Hard as this was, both women adjusted mum’s sister providing the legs to do some of the running as mum’s sharpness of intellect provided the memory for her sister when memory began to fail. This pair became almost like one – complementing and supporting each other – as do many couples who grow old together – as they found new ways to experience and to be in life. And so they continued for several years, adjusting to the twists and turns that life surely brought.

One such twist was to have a profound effect on me for the learning that occurred. One morning mum awoke not only unable to walk but also unable to move her arms or hands or even to have strength to hold a spoon. This meant that now she was no longer able to feed herself as life was taking more of her independence. In the fragility of the body that could only be matched by the magnanimity of the spirit – something kept this woman going – she had something to hold onto. Her Rock would ensure that she would not be washed away with a tide of pain or hopelessness or despair that I am sure must have been knocking on the door. When I could manage to get past my own pain to be able to swallow and breathe enough to give voice to some direct questions about her circumstance, I plucked up the courage to ask my mum how she was finding all of this and if she was ok.

To my dying day I will never forget what my mother replied. As her big blue eyes looked out at me from her failing body she said “Marie I can still see out, and I can see everything (she said with a glint in her eye). And sure isn’t it time that I am waited on hand and foot – about time I can be spoon fed – think I have earned the right”.

Afterwards, I thought that her Rock had given her the gift of wisdom to know that while she was now dependent on us her family and on the medics and carers to see if and how we might be able to help her, for the time being she knew that there was nothing she could do about the loss of her independence and so she looked to it as a kind of gift –she could see more clearly and people had to wait on her! For the moment both the loss and the gift (or what my friend sometimes calls the gain) could both co-exist and in acknowledging the phenomenal loss and grieving it the gift had space to be known. My mum never gave up wanting to walk till the day of her death and took all the physiotherapy sessions going, but Thank God the power in her hands and arms did return, and she could live with that. In truth what could she do?

But Loss is not always experienced in such a way

Loss of family or close friends through death in the many ways in which this can occur can rarely be experienced as having a silver lining or of bringing new learnings – certainly at the time of the loss and often for many years afterwards, sometimes never. So how can we go on when we experience such losses, how can we find a pathway towards hope? How can we hope or even smile again when many of our bereavements come with pain in abundance – pain that is physical, pain that is emotional, pain that is spiritual and pain that is often unlanguagable – so deeply does it penetrate our soul?

In such circumstances we often do well to put one foot in front of the other, to get out of the bed in the morning, to anything like engage in “normal” life – to find spirit enough to keep going.

In these circumstances I have learned important lessons of life – not only from my own life circumstances but from many of the people who have consulted me over the years, sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances – such as in circumstances of abuse, violence, addiction, ill -health, bereavement, imprisonment and with mental health difficulties. I would like to share some of these learnings with you now – but they do not represent an exhaustive list.

1. I have learned mainly from the people who consulted me that at times of difficulties in particular, we need to have something bigger than us that we can turn to and draw on; something that will sustain us during the difficult times.

For some of the people who have consulted me over the years what sustained them through the dark days, what helped them get out of bed in the morning, was their idea of their God – a source of strength and love that could be drawn upon and drawn from when their own strength to go on was weakening. Sometimes people told me that their God helped them find meaning in the circumstances of their lives. They told me that their God was bigger than they were when they felt small and vulnerable and found it hard to go on and that their relationship with their God helped them feel a little bit protected, a little bit minded and a little bit carried – particularly when they felt really challenged. Some people described this as a source of strength like an infusion when everything in their own power was seriously diminished, as they believed. I learned that for some people this relationship not only helped them to keep going; it also helped them to find meaning and a pathway to hope.

For other people I found that they drew strength from the seasons and from the fact of the seasonal rhythms of life. One man who was in recovery from addiction  used to often look out the large window of the room in which we were working to the garden outside and to the trees – in particular to a large oak tree that grew there – and he would tell me that the fact that spring always comes after winter and that summer comes after spring and that autumn comes again after summer with such rhythmic certainty provided the Rock that he held onto ,when at times he felt he might be swept away by despair and  hopelessness. His rock just gave him something to hold onto in those moments, minutes and days when the world and life looked bleak. That the flowers always bloom, that the grass still grown, that the sun still shines became his source of inspiration and light. Some might call this grace.

Other men and women have told me that the fact that day follows night and that light follows darkness which becomes light again – and that this happens every time without fail, gives them a sense of a greater power outside of themselves that they can call upon to help them  get through the darkest hour.

This “higher power” this source that sustains us can have many faces and shapes and many names, and it can also include people living or dead whose lives inspire and sustain us through our darkest times when we call upon it.

I have learned through these experiences that if we have a Rock it can help us to manage, a day at a time, sometimes even a minute at a time.

2. I have also learned something else from the people who have consulted me over many years of sitting in witness to the stories of their lives. I have learned that relationships don’t have to die with the body – that they just change.

Many people have taught me that they continue in conversation with their loved ones who have moved on from this life and they hold and honour their memory and presence in a new way.

I know I regularly “talk to” or consult with my mum and my dad and I ask them to help me in my life and to help my children. My children now often refer to the fact that they must ask “Nana Jue” to work on this or that. The belief is that she has gone to a better place in which she knows everything – much, much, more than any of we here could ever know.

John Lonergan on Monday told a story of a man who had fallen out with his family over a will and only on his brother’s death at his funeral did turn up to make some contact . John was encouraging us not to hold grievances and not to leave it too late. This is an important message – but the people with whom I have worked have taught me that it is never too late to make amends and we can do this even when people have passed from this life – better that we do when they are here but it is never too late. We can always be in conversation with our loved ones in our mind. We can always enter into the sacred space of telling them we are sorry for how we have failed them if we did. We can always ask for their help or their forgiveness. We can still heal and be healed in relationship with our people who have passed on. Where it is more about the pain of losing them we can continue in our imagination, we can always hold open a space in our heart for their memory, for their wisdom, for their inspiration and strength.

Many people with whom I have worked turn their loss of children or family members through death or illness into campaigns for healing others, through their loved one or their memory. You don’t need me to spell out the various wonderful charities and organizations that are set up and doing amazing work in the memory of loved ones. The Marie Keating Foundation which was founded by Ronan Keating following the death of his mother, Marie, is just one that comes to mind for the work in trying to combat breast cancer that it undertakes. We all need to be generative and to create new life and new hope.

3. A third thing I have learned from the people who have consulted me over the years is how easy it is to judge each other and I have also learned about the negative power of some of our judgements – particularly when we are judging someone’s loss and assessing that he “ought” feel this now, or he “should” do this now, or he” must” do something else in the name of “moving on”.

We move at our own pace through our losses and our pain and that must be respected. In some senses we can have an idea of what “normal” grief looks like and how it “should” be done. And whilst this might be important at some level I am often concerned at how we prescribe or proscribe what is “normal”. I am often concerned about the “tyranny of the norm” in such circumstances.

My experience has taught me that grieving is as individual as each one of us – and must be done our way. The search for the right or perfect way to feel or to do it is as futile as it is absurd. This is a process that requires love and time.

Hope and Despair

I now want to move to Hope and to what if anything we can learn from our losses – although in saying this I am eminently sensitive to the fact that often we feel and experience the loss so intently that we do not think we will ever learn anything from it or be even able to smile again.

Western ideas of hope view it as a feeling, usually as an achievement of the individual alone. This premise underpins much empirical work on the psychology of hope. From this perspective responsibility for the achievement of hope rests with the individual. However, such a perspective does not always bring the desired effect. Expecting people to achieve hope when they are feeling low of spirit seems not only foolish but may also be downright irresponsible. Despair is a likely outcome.

An alternative perspective of hope is predicated on the idea that hope is something we “do” together with other people, and far from being the responsibility of individuals, “doing” hope is the responsibility of the community. An American psychotherapist KatheWeingarten has argued from this perspective there are “hope tasks” for people who feel hopeless and “hope tasks” for those who witness their despair. These tasks are both simple, yet they are challenging.

Those who feel hopeless must avoid isolation – that is the main and most important thing; and those who witness their pain must refuse indifference or apathy or lack of concern or sympathy. We must reach out to one another.

By working together in this way, whether we feel hopeless or witness pain and despair, as a community we work together to make the world a little better and a little brighter place for us all to live – and to walk in the steps of human life that is by definition difficult. We might even share laughter and love as we walk a little of the road together, changing roles and hope-tasks from time to time, as life surely will bring losses and gifts to us all.

A Hospitable Welcome

I like to think of what we can do together is that we can offer each other a hospitable welcome. We can offer and express our unqualified gratitude to each other, for walking a little of the road of life with us. We are often at our most generous as human beings when we feel grateful. Gratitude can help us be generous in our desire to pass on some measure of what we have been given.

In coping with loss it is my belief that storytelling is important and having our story heard can be immensely healing. But telling our story and asking for support often does not come easy, and neither does listening. So maybe the best we can do is to become “wounded storytellers” and “wounded healers”. The wounded healer and the wounded storyteller are not separate individuals, although it might appear like this at first. No, the wounded storyteller and the wounded healer are merely different aspects of the same figure.

What we are doing in sharing our story and in listening to each other, particularly in our grief, are merely trying to survive and help each other survive in a world that at times, and certainly at the time of our loss, does not immediately make sense.