What is loss?

I’m not sure I have much comprehension or real understanding of loss. I’m healthy and happy, as are my kids, as is my wife. I’ve lived a life that has so far been full of joy, love, opportunity, laughs and I have been surrounded by family and friends. I live in an amazing community – I work in an amazing place with good people. My parents are still alive. In short, I’ve not suffered any tremendous personal loss.

But loss can be small and I have surely felt it at times. Loss can be a kind of disappointment or inconvenience. Loss can be in sports, a broken leg or dislocated shoulder; it can be an inability to get that paper published, or a graduate student deciding to leave the laboratory, or some form of rejection. Small losses can sting for a little while. They are not insignificant when viewed at small scales, but they are small.

Loss can be significant. Life throws curve balls, gives some pretty sharp kicks and pays no attention to ‘good timing’. There are big losses that take up larger chunks of emotion, and affect us physically and mentally.  Kids get sick (…how many of us have stayed awake all night, laying next to our child who may have laboured breathing and suffering high fever?).  I’ve lost grandparents, I’ve had friends who have passed away, and I’ve had pets who have died. I’ve also been near to people who have suffered tremendous loss, especially recently. If it stings and hurts for me, it must be unbearable for them. I think I’m dreadfully scared of large-scale loss and I don’t know how people get through it.

From a broader perspective, this has me reflecting on what is constant about our lives. Are there any constants? Perhaps only that life is both fragile and unpredictable – that’s a difficult combination.  When things are good, at their most basic level (health, food, roof), things are really, really good. That is an important thing to remember. When things go south, life makes little sense, it seems unfair and we despair.  This is a confirmation of the fragile and the unpredictable.

When facing significant loss, why should we not despair and call it unfair?

Here’s why: the people I have seen go through significant loss, and who have been in dark places, do emerge from those places. The continue, they fight, they move on. They don’t forget, they don’t get over grief, they don’t get over the loss, but they do carry on. These are my heroes.  Of course, this is my view, from the outside, and I certainly don’t pretend to understand. But I do take inspiration from people who move on and eventually laugh and smile again, after what must be the unbearable context of tremendous loss.

I’ve talked and written before about the importance of ‘slowing down‘. I believe this more strongly now than ever before. Be mindful, be caring. Curve balls are coming. None of us will be be spared those sharp kicks.

To end, a few lyrics from Tom Petty – I heard these while driving in to work, after just learning of a friend who suffered tremendous loss.

Well I know what’s right, I got just one life

In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around

But I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down



4 thoughts on “What is loss?

  1. A very understanding post. Our eldest son died totally unexpectedly in his sleep three days before Christmas 2011. As you point out ” they don’t forget, they don’t get over grief, they don’t get over the loss, but they do carry on” Describes it exactly. We were in some ways lucky. Sam was married, had done lots of travelling, had lots of different jobs and was enjoying life as a successful molecular biologist at the Sanger Institute, with more Nature papers than me (not hard I must admit). So we had lots of memories and we and his many friends, celebrated his life at a fanatstic humanist funeral. Lots of small things continue to bring him to mind and I well up every time I hear Tom Paxton’s Ramblin’ Boy. Last year two friends of mine lost their only child in a tragic holiday accident – he was only 10 years old. So few memories for them to have and so many ‘might have beens’ for them to mourn.

  2. It may be pessimistic or realistic, but I often tell myself “nothing lasts”. It applies to the good, the bad and the ugly, from the smallest things to the biggest. The reminder that “nothing lasts” helps me to keep life in perspective. Enjoy the good when it happens, for however long it happens, and endure the bad for however long it lingers.

    • Thanks Wayne – good point. I agree with you – nothing lasts – it is all fleeting. Hence the need, as much as possible, to live in the moment. (not as easy as it sounds!!).

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