How to Survive Loss, Without Losing Yourself

“There is an art to missing,” said an old man in Nice as he took a sip of wine. Red droplets hung from his mustache while he told me about his lost wife, his amour de la vie.

The french translation of “I miss you” is “tu me manques” which literally is “you are missing from me.”

But I was too young then. I didn’t understand what missing meant. Since then I’ve lost so much. Others even more.

There are multiple types of missing that haunt the human existence: Lost love. Death. Nostalgia for a place that you cannot return to.

After speaking with different people, I’ve learned that the grief from loss isn’t necessarily negative but rather a thread in the fabric that makes us, us. Loss provides an opportunity to grow and to love deeper.

Let Go of the Initial Panic

New love is the heart’s cocaine. If you are like me, you did a lot in your 20s. It hurls you down the speedway of desire. When your lover leaves you, the withdrawal collapses your lungs and you struggle to breathe. You re-read old letters like tea leaves, searching for new hope, but finding only torment. You go through the 5 phases of grief every hour.

After a week you drop 10 pounds and consider remedies to your madness. A new tattooed lover to throw you up against the wall? A bottle of Cabernet to muddle your mind? Or Time?

Time saves us all.

The panic may seem deep, but this is life’s “Missing Starter Kit”, initiated by a chemical reaction in the brain. We have all gone through its dopamine melodrama, some multiple times. Like any withdrawal symptom you just have to wait it out, preferably in a white padded room.

This loss, this craziness, prepares you for greater loss to come. It teaches you survival.

Embrace Living in Two Worlds

There is another type of missing. It’s so deep you can’t cry. It’s an agony stitched into your muscle fibers. There is no “waiting it out.”

A man who lost his soul mate in a car crash told me, “It’s like you have an arm cut off. You will forever be aware that you are without it. And sometimes, in the dark times, you will still feel it tingle, the phantom arm of the love you once had.”

Marie, a mother who lost her 3 month old son said,

“It’s like you are living in a parallel universe. The other universe paints him into what he would have become and what he would have looked like. Charming? Playful? Inquisitive? This other universe seductively calls me to it, taking me away from earthly life so I can play with him. I have to peel myself away and be present with my other family that is alive and here.”

“I have only lost lovers,” I told her. “My friends tell me to forget. What should people tell you? How can you heal?”

“People are afraid of resurrecting memories. But if you bring up my baby by name — I won’t cry because you reminded me of my loss. My loss is there every day. I’ll cry in gratitude that you remembered. That you acknowledge him! And that you jumped into my parallel universe with me so I’m not lonely.”

Now that Marie knows this universe exists she reaches out to others in grief and jumps in their parallel universe too. She know the lingo, the hurdles, and the artful balance of separate worlds. She’s gotten warmer by helping others. Plus jumping into other universes helps her to be more present in her own.

Let the Taste Remain but Bring in Other Flavors Too

Oftentimes we miss a place that is forever us, and forever home. We wistfully recall a land and wish we could jump back in time to just to sit there and inhale.

Farid is a refugee from Syria. He cannot return home.

“Sometimes I can taste home,” he said. “I’ll be walking down the street and all of a sudden the taste of the earth gets in my teeth and I am transported back. Back before the gunfire. Back to the time my brother and I used to make kingdoms in the dirt behind our house. I can feel the sun, see his scrawny legs, hear our laughter. The only reason I believe in religion is so someday I may return.”

My Grandpa had to leave Montana, his homeland, when he was in his 70s so that he could live with my parents as they took care of him during his grueling battle with cancer. I’d visit and catch him staring out the window in his little room. “What are you looking at, Grandpa?” I’d ask.

“I’m imagining the Rims and the Beartooths and the Yellowstone. If I open up my eyes slowly, they stay longer.”

A place becomes part of your heart. Yet I think it’s important to expand your heart so that a new place can flourish there too. Every place has wonder if we choose to open up our eyes. So I’d tell Grandpa stories of my travels and new city life. He’d listen and imagine those places too, the places of his granddaughter.

When Grandpa died we sprinkled his ashes in Montana, yet he remains with us, no matter where we are.

I still talk to him as I trek across the globe, so that he can learn about new lands. He’s become my best travel companion.

Move Forward Through Connection

A broken heart can become hard or it can become tender. Instead of trying to flee pain, consider embracing its suffering to find acceptance and peace. Plus if you let your heart break open you’ll be much more understanding of the suffering of others. Pain creates universal compassion. A concern for others moves us from isolation to community.

Marie said,

“My loss is like wearing a heavy ugly coat to a dinner party. It’s cumbersome and some find it in poor taste. But I wrap myself in it because it’s woven from love and keeps me warm. Instead of people staring at me, telling me how ugly my coat is, I want them to acknowledge my coat. If they ask me about it, accept me, and show me warmth, I’m more likely to take it off for a while and relax.”

We should pay attention to others people’s coats and listen carefully to hear the fledgling murmurs of their hearts.

After all, there is never enough time to tell people how much they mean to us. My mother reminds me of this when she speaks about her father, my Grandpa, who died too soon. Perhaps if we can lean into our community, we can tell each other about these loves so nothing goes unsaid and we can better heal each other as humans. Just because a person has moved to another world, doesn’t mean our love for them has to.

I heard that my ex, a crazy love of my 20’s, recently had a major loss. His father passed away. We haven’t spoken in years and he’s remarried now. But based on Marie’s story and a new appreciation for the language of loss, I reached out to tell him that I knew his universe. I both remembered and loved his father very much. I hope it will be the encouragement he needs to be comfortable in his heavy coat, if just for a moment.