There is no such thing as quantifying loss. Loss is beyond measure, inherently both heavy and weightless, its true burden to be measured only by those who are carrying it. In that way my dead parents equals your failed business venture or your sister’s cheating spouse. We cannot assign it a hierarchy.
Loss takes, and takes, and takes. This price is what equalizes. We only need know it takes.
I had the hubris to write a book about walking through a season of loss in my life. I called it Falling Apart In One Piece, a bit of wordplay that pleased me, because with it, I could announce my failures and overcome them, too, in a single breath — even though the truth is, it took me almost three years to walk that distance.
The night of the book’s official publication, I was feted at a party. It was a poignant kind of triumphant: I stood on the stairs in the entry hall of a friend’s beautiful suburban home, surrounded by dozens of people listening to my reading, my voice strong and sure despite the pain I was detailing. I watched people put their hands to their hearts as I told the story of how my husband ended our 13-year relationship when our son was just six months old; and how right after, the house we owned started to leak and flood, a kind of cruel commentary, our foundations literally crumbling. Next, my son and I were caught in a house fire while we lay sleeping at the beach. I felt haunted, but worse was that everything I ever believed about life — that it was good, that I was safe — was pulled away from me.
This total detachment from meaning was … a surprise.
But that night on the stairs, I was proud. For three heady hours. I felt full of meaning, and grace and wisdom.
When I left the book party and climbed into my black sedan to whisk me from New Jersey back to Brooklyn, I saw that I had 27 missed phone calls, from my brothers, and from my parents’ house. I was terrified to listen to the messages. My mother had recently come home from the hospital after an unsuccessful and nearly fatal surgery for her pancreatic cancer. She wasn’t even yet fully conscious. But the calls weren’t about mother. My father had just gone into the hospital, out of the blue, sick, seriously sick, then as the messages piled up so too did the details: “infected spinal fluid”, “loss of mentality”, “emergency brain surgery”, “abscess burst before surgery”, “not sure he’ll make it through the night”, “50-50 chance, at best.”
Call when you can.
Call when you can.
Call when you can.
In the next six months, I resigned from my fantastic job so I could take care of my parents, knowing I would never go back to that career, either. Then my son went into crisis, undone by all the loss and change around him, my divided attention, my being in Philadelphia managing my parents’ lives—or deaths, if I’m being more honest. Then eight weeks later, my father died, leaving me to explain to my mother over and over that he was gone and that yes, she was dying, too. Then four weeks later, she was gone too. And then I was unemployed, living through my savings, having nightmares, and my relationship with my boyfriend ended, though it took us two bloody, tear-stained years to let go.
I couldn’t let go.
No, no, no, no, no, no. I can’t lose one more thing. I. Can’t. Lose. One. More. Thing.
I felt I would literally dissolve and morph into some kind of atmospheric matter, so completely was I yanked from any sense of self and meaning. There were days I would look at my hand and think, “Hand. Hand? Hand.” And then somehow manage to get out of bed and act like the mother of a small child until 12 endless and instant hours later I could fall back into bed and think, “What is this thing called ‘being’? Why am I still here? How can I still be here?”
It was hard. It was beyond hard. It was blank. Empty. Meaningless. For months, then years.
But this: I am a better person now. A deeper person. A more loving person. A more connected person. Yes, loss takes and takes and takes.
But it gives, too.
And please, god, NO, not because it made me “appreciate life!” and “pay attention to life!” and “live every moment of every day!” No.
Because it made me appreciate pain.
I found meaning in clouds and license plates and random interactions with strangers and hearing the same unusual word three times in one day.
Pain slows everything down. Pain strips your life of the noise we tend to surround ourselves with. Pain exists only to exist, not to urge me to be better or bigger or smaller or smarter or anything-er. Pain did not give a flying fuck whether I was drawing some great big meaning out of my pain, or learning to “seize the moment” or “love every day” or “treasure the time I had.”
Pain made me have to be present in the pain for every second that I was not able to escape the pain.
The pain pinned me down, and made me still. Still in a way that even my meditation practice had not been able to bring me. Pushed up as I was against the great sewer drain of life, I was drowning, but too big to whirl down the drain and disappear. What I realized then, and only then, was that life had exactly zero expectations for me. Neither my participation nor my presence was required, except to do the duties of caring for my son as best as I could manage.
This total detachment from meaning was … a surprise. It surprised be because the absence of meaning was not nihilistic. It was the opposite. The detachment allowed me to see the random and seemingly misplaced poetry of everyday life, the way that themes or people or associations come back around and around like a fly tapping at a window, until you realize that something (your brain or the universe or both) is trying to tell you to pay attention.
I slowly was able to work myself back up to engagement in the larger world by following these clues: Oh, look at the way that leaf is twirling down in a spiral, wait, you were reading a poem yesterday about autumn… Mom loved that poet, I remember the golden book cover and the dog-eared pages and all the words about nature, and gosh, wouldn’t it be great to have a garden? Yes, a garden. A garden would be good.
I had no meaning to give myself, but I found meaning in clouds and license plates and random interactions with strangers and hearing the same unusual word three times in one day. I began to feel sparks of a quiet engagement in everything around me.
That shift in focus seemed small, but became seismic: I learned how to orient myself toward what brings me joy, instead of the shiny distraction of just what I want. I learned that being small is the greatest escape. The mountains and rivers own the world in a way I don’t have to understand. I learned that the idea I had to be anything of any significance was just my brain talking, not my soul.
Pain obliterated my ego (and trust me, I love my beautiful, dynamic, charming, flattering, vain, egotistical ego) but it gave me my brand-new eyes. And somehow, all that heavy I carried helped me walk more lightly in the world, a gift for which I, and my ego, will be forever, and quietly, grateful.