What Loss Teaches You About Yourself

I think in order to truly appreciate all the good in our lives, it’s important to pay homage to the bad, the hurt, or at least to think about it in a meaningful way. Loss serves a purpose. Often it is not one we are able to initially — or sometimes, ever — reconcile or come to see as a purpose warranting our hurt. But it affects us and it is important to think about because its very existence can become an asset, especially when we have the presence of mind to acknowledge its existence from a distance. Then we can soak up our surroundings, free from its presence, and suddenly we are keenly aware of how bright and light the day is.

Not all loss is the same. There’s the severing of paths and there’s permanent loss and there’s tragedy. They all hurt, but to different extents and in different ways.

We’ve likely all had a “someone” who was a significant part of our lives for a long time — be it friend, significant other, family member, whatever — and then, often with an unanticipated abruptness, they are no longer a part of our lives. Their presence, once a daily regularity, becomes a foreign concept, a thing of the past, a dream from a distant land in a world you once lived in during a time long gone. It’s so strange how that can happen in one lifetime — how someone can go from stranger to significant to stranger again. It can be heartbreaking. But the thing about closing chapters and the splitting of paths is that while they’re sad at first, they’re often for a reason.

Like a spellbinding book that wraps its story around you, makes you fall in love with its characters and invest in its outcome, when the story comes to a close, it’s sad at first. We are so used to picking up the book and diving into its world, hanging out with the characters we’ve come to know so well and imagine so vividly. Once the story is done, it’s as if we have left that world. But then time passes, and we are left with a story — a meaningful, wonderful story. Maybe it was inspirational or uplifting; maybe it changed us or challenged us or helped us grow. Maybe it made us laugh or cry or taught us a lesson, and all of that is of tremendous value.

The same goes for chapters with people that close. The end of a story does not devalue its meaning; things can be immensely important without being for forever. So when a chapter with someone or someplace closes, let that story add a layer to who you are, and realize that is not so much an end as it is a gift.

Other loss is more permanent, even when it follows a life well lived. When people grow old and pass from our lives, it is a completely different experience because we feel as if we have no say in it. That type of loss is like walking into a room — a room you have known forever, and known in exactly the way it’s always existed. It’s walking into that room, and finding it empty, looted. Always it feels premature. The photo on the wall is gone; the chair is nowhere to be found; the floor is barren, free of a carpet. This loss aches at first. Because at first, your body instinctually wants to take its three strides across the room and melt into that comfortable old chair, the chair that knows you and molds to you as you fold into it. Your eyes flicker to the left wall for the familiar painting but encounter only off-white paint. The floor is particularly hard underneath your feet, which have grown accustomed to the worn softness of carpet.

At first, it’s agonizing. The empty room is a blatantly abrasive reminder of what is no longer there. But eventually, you learn to reinterpret the room; you grow familiar with its emptiness. A new relationship forms. You find that your thoughts have extra room to stretch out in the room’s space — they bound about and return to you rejuvenated, singing the praises of the room. And your memories: they dance around the space and imagine everything that used to be with such genuine vigor and appreciation, they paint a legacy. And so, with time, the room becomes a canvas of light and fondness and happiness and memories and a significant tribute to love.

You can recover from loss. You change, but you remain the same at your core — your foundation. You are still fundamentally you, in all ways that matter most.

Tragedy is when you lose something you can’t live without. That’s not to say you won’t continue to live. But the “you” you once were ceases to exist — you’re never the same. You never fully recover what is lost.

Imagine a boulder barreling through the side of a building, smashing through its infrastructure. That’s a tragedy. The building collapses, crumbles, unable to sustain itself. Everything shatters and splinters and breaks and turns to shit. Decor turns to debris. Concrete turns to dust. You are a heap of brokenness. You can be rebuilt, but it will be new materials, and it will take time. You can stand tall again, but it will be carved by new hands, with new steel, new scaffolding, slathered in new paint. You can live on but you will never be the same. Losing someone who is essential to the infrastructure of your soul — that’s heartbreak, that’s tragedy.

The difference matters. And so too does understanding the burden of each because not every moment is so burdened, and not a single unburdened moment is promised. The moments where neither thief nor desolation have struck are precious. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone — the phrase and the message it embodies have come to be considered cliché. But the thing is, not taking for granted what and who you have is never cliché, and if you’ve allowed it to become so, you have forgotten that some things are repeated for ages because they never cease to be true — because their truth is transcendent of time or location or generational evolution. And some things are remembered forever because they are impossible to forget — because they are not really remembered but rather ingrained in the fibers of our existence: flickers of a feeling, inextricably mixed in with intuition.

With this instinctual understanding comes a comfort, and with a comfort comes the casual attitude toward all that we are so lucky to have — the people we are so lucky to know. We never actually forget what we have, we simply become accustomed to it. Is it that reveling in our blessings every second of every day would be too intense? I’m inclined to think just the opposite. Happiness is when each day, you cannot believe how lucky you are. Happiness is growing comfortable with your joys, but never jaded -— it’s trusting your triumphs to last, but never doubting they could leave, so you cherish their presence that much more. It’s realizing that in the scheme of the vastness of everything beyond comprehension, the chances of you having what you have and knowing who you know are miniscule. When that revelation really settles into your skin — the revelation like the aftermath of a storm: quiet, but so undeniably present — you’ll realize that every moment is unbelievable.

I think about loss — my experiences with it, what it means, what it’s meant to people I know and love, and to people I may never encounter. I think about that because it is inevitable and because like the release of a slingshot it sends my thoughts ultimately sailing toward the other end of loss: the joy of what I have. I think about loss to pay tribute to every moment where its burden is not pressing on my shoulders, and squeezing my heart. I think about tragedy because it affects people constantly; I think about it to remind myself of perspective — to ensure I never slip into a casual attitude about all the love I am lucky enough to have in my life. Ultimately, if we choose to do so, we have the opportunity to recognize and revel in what matters most while we hold it close. There’s really not much that’s better than that. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

featured image – Leanne Surfleet

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