Six Things I Learned From A Year of Loss
I jokingly say that “election years aren’t good for the Simonians”. In 2008, my brother and I lost our last remaining grandparent, my brother’s best friend Sean died suddenly, I was robbed, almost killed in a car accident, left with PTSD, months of physical therapy and then my father died one day after his 59th birthday December 12th. This year, my mother’s battle with breast cancer ended, we said goodbye to her, to the house my brother and I were raised in, a relationship fell apart and other tragic things too TMI for the general public occurred. Ergo, bad year.
One of my favorite phrases is, “stick with the solution.” I don’t believe in defining myself by grief or co-opting it as an excuse. I don’t believe “everything happens for a reason.” I think some times really bad things happen to really good people and your power lies in your ability to accept it and respond the best you can with grace and dignity.
This quotation by Eckhart Tolle sums up how I approach grief:
“Whenever tragic loss occurs, you either resist or you yield. Some people become bitter or deeply resentful; others become compassionate, wise and loving. Yielding means inner acceptance of what is. You are open to life. When you yield internally, when you surrender, a new dimension opens up. If action is possible or necessary, your action will be in alignment with [God]. Circumstances and people then become helpful, cooperative. Coincidences happen. [And] if no action is possible, you rest in the peace and inner stillness that come with surrender. You rest in God.”
This post is about six things I learned in particular this year. Disclosure: I am not a grief counselor nor a therapist, I am just a human struggling like all humans. I’m a simple person who hopes that my experience might somehow, in some small way, help another if they ever find themselves at the end of a dark tunnel.
1. Cultivate and Rely On Your Community
Whether you expect it to or not, life happens. Although here in America, we value the benefits of an individualistic society, I find that in grief - isolation can be a killer. Cultivating a community, be it a church group, recovery program, a closer relationship with family members or a tight knit circle of friends, is integral to the healing process. Surround yourself with people who love you, whom you trust and most importantly, who can gently call you on your BS. Some days you will need to be told, “Hey, let’s open the curtains! Hmm, ever consider changing out of those sweatpants?” Other times, you will just need to be listened to and held. Occasionally, you will need to be reminded that you are not terminally unique and that others have trudged this road before. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to your community. Most of all, be willing to accept their care and love.
2. People Will Say and Do The Wrong Things
Be patient with them. Loss and grief are a weird thing. There will be times that close friends, coworkers and acquaintances will say and do unbelievably stupid and insensitive things. Your mind will be blown. There will be times that people will bail in grand fashion knocking the wind out of your sails. You don’t need to understand it nor rationalize their behavior, but you will have to accept it and find a way to make peace. I realized after one such incident, that the continuous anger I was feeling toward another for their inability to show up was eating my insides like battery acid. Taking a step back, I could see that my anger would only ultimately hurt me. I could not change what was said or done by that person, I could only accept it and change myself. I let it go and I went where the love was.
Forgive stupid people. Go where the love is. As the old adage goes, “Don’t go to the hardware store for milk.” Don’t allow yourself to become hung up on the misguided actions or bizarre consolation prizes of others. There will be people who show up for you the way you need it, focus on that love.
3. Take Care of Yourself
Only you know how much time off of work you need or when it’s time to change certain behaviors, listen to your inner guide. I find that when I get out of balance, my body develops myriad health problems. It is second nature for me now to stop once these anomalies crop up and take stock. Self care is not a luxury, it’s a survival tool. I often think that my father’s death (due to a heart attack) was in some part related to the fact that he always cared for others but never stopped to take care of himself.
4. Things and People Can Not Replace Things and People
Nature may abhor a vacuum but it does not mean that we have to be the ones to fill the hole left in its wake. Work, relationships, alcohol, shopping, sugar, prescription meds, [fill in the vice] will never fill a grief-shaped hole. The appropriate response to loss is often sadness - whether you want to feel it or not. And whether you choose to face it directly or not, it will stay there… lingering like background radiation… until you choose to face it. In the past, I have tried the vice route. This year, not so much.
It is hard, fucking hard, to sit and experience the deep end of grief but I am convinced it is the shortest path to recovery. I’m a big proponent of meditation and I found that my regular practice helped me so much this year. There were times when the grief was so heavy it seemed like apocalyptic clouds. However, when I would sit in silence and just let the waves roll over me, I was able to find glimmers of hope and peace. There were some days that were horrendous and yet, I was sustained by a small sense of pride that at least I was no longer ignoring my reality by trying to force recovery through artifice.
5. Be of Service
Boy, did I dislike the person who said to me, “OK, I will give you five more minutes to feel sorry for yourself and then go try and help someone worse off than you.” Unfortunate for me, the person who said this was someone who had been in my shoes so I had to recognize their expertise. See, it’s that community thing again.
Being of service while suffering seems so counter-intuitive and yet, I found that it worked. It wasn’t the same as employing a vice - it was a spiritual salve. If I could use my experience to help another then my experience transformed into a beautiful thing. I can choose to take my sob story and force you to see me as a perennial victim or I can choose to take my superhuman powers honed through tragic loss and help another human being.
My father died two weeks before Christmas in 2008 and I have volunteered every Christmas day since 2008. I knew if I stayed home that year I would just feel sorry for myself, so ever since then, I go help the homeless or hang out with elderly people. It’s not some big altruistic move on my part, if anything it’s a bit selfish, helping you makes me feel better.
6. Everything Will Be Okay
Being a native Angeleno, I’ve lived through my fair share of earthquakes. One of the things I’ve noticed about these big upheavals is that it’s usually the time when you finally meet your neighbors. Everyone bands together heroically and summons that bizarre inner strength that kicks in as your world falls apart. I think we all have that thing inside of us as well, sometimes we just can’t see it.
On my left thumb, I have a tattoo that is simply four letters: TTSP. It stands for: This. Too. Shall. Pass. If I am still and present, I am usually aware of the fact that I am okay. The worst part of my mother’s death was the profound fear I felt long before she ever died.
“How is it going to be when she’s bed sick? How can I change my own mother’s diaper? What if her hair falls out again? How will we pay for more meds or the funeral? How can I stand watching her in pain?
Those fears in the months leading up to her death were paralyzing. In the weeks before her death however, a strange peace came over me as I realized that everything was unfolding exactly as it should. It didn’t mean I had to like it, it just meant, it was okay. I was in acceptance.
The night my mother died, I was out of the house getting food with a friend. I remember thinking on the drive back home, “How do I see my mother’s dead body?” Then a thought, “There is grace. You will be okay.” I came home, I kissed her forehead, I put some makeup on her (if you knew her, this makes sense) and I told her I loved her. I was okay. I was sad, but I was okay.
I have a metaphysics blog called Savatra that I’ve kept for six years. It is the name of my grandfather Artavas spelled backwards. He was a survivor of the Armenian genocide as well as Dachau death camp during the Holocaust. I simply knew him as the old guy who liked to shoot pool at Montebello lanes and give me popsicles. He was quirky and happy. I often think that if someone like my grandfather could survive so much loss and come out a smiling pool shark who set up shop in downtown LA and found his version of the American dream, then I can survive anything. I don’t have to always like what’s happening, but I strive to accept it and live in the solution. That’s what I’ve learned this year… that and delivery food and Netflix are pretty awesome.