By Elizabeth Harper Neeld,
It was almost dark when I got home, and a light rain was falling. I could see the kitchen from the carport. I had left a light on, and through the mist the room looked warm and cheerful: tall, bright red chairs clustered around an old circular oak farm table, red-and-white napkins on the table; green plants on the shelf. But I knew the scene was a lie. That kitchen was not warm and cheery; it was empty… it came to me that nothing from the past now gave me any pleasure. Not only was my husband gone — so was everything that I had valued in the past.
Just the evening before I had gone with friends to hear the Houston Symphony play some of my favorite music. It had meant nothing to me. I never sat down at my loom to weave anymore… I had no enthusiasm for teaching; work was just a place I had to go to in order to make the money I needed to make… My house could have fallen down, and I would have hardly have noticed. My family was important to me, but it was clear now that they alone couldn’t give meaning to my future.
Whether I wanted to or not, I was beginning to see more and more clearly what I was facing. I began to realize that I had to establish entirely new habit patterns — how I came into the house, what I did in my spare moments, what I did when I got up. “New paths must be made,” I realized, “like new veins for blood to run in.” I had seen what I had to do, and I didn’t want to do it. (Excerpt from Elizabeth Neeld’s book, Seven Choices.)
When we lose someone we love, we not only lose the physical presence of the person; but we also lose the shape of our life as we knew it. It’s a double loss… a person and the familiarity and structure of my daily existence. Nothing remains the same. Everything seems to exist in an empty vacuum. What is there to do?
I cannot pretend that there is an easy answer for this dark experience of loss and grief. But what I can do is testify to the power of the human spirit to persevere.
Maya Angelou says in her wonderful poem-book, Phenomenal Woman: “All of my work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated.’ In fact, the encountering may be the very experience which creates the vitality and the power to endure.”
Maya’s words remind me, too, of the haunting words of that old song, “You gotta walk that lonesome road; gotta take that trip through the long, long vale.”
Yes, we do have to walk that road when we lose someone we love. And there is something inside each of us, something that resides in our human spirit, that sustains us as we stumble through this very dark place.
A wise woman who lived in the medieval age, Hildegard of Bingen, spoke of what sustains us:
The Spirit’s power makes all withered sticks and souls green again with the juice of life…The Spirit awakens mighty hope, blowing everywhere the winds of renewal in creation…
As we tell the truth about the emptiness of our daily life, we come to be able say, “Yes, I have been hit hard. I don’t know how everything is going to work out. But I do know this: I will endure.”
What’s Normal When We’re Stumbling in the Dark?
• Experiencing daily life in disarray
• Feeling of being suspended in mid-air, having no foundation
• Seeming unable to find a meaningful shape for our lives
What Can We Do?
Dr. Antonio Damasio, professor of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center, talks about ways to “make our way to a happy ending in a universe where even the cheerful, sunny souls can so easily see human suffering.” He suggest a number of things we can do during the dark time while we are making our way, everything from the most simple (take an aspirin) to recommendations like these (which I’ve put in my own words):
• Think of rituals that might help and do these
• Assemble with others who also share experiences of loss
• Meditate, pray, think thoughts of hope and salvation
To Professor Damasio’s list I would add:
Slow down, talk to a professional, keep a journal, exercise, take nature walks, listen to music, get a medical checkup, and continue to ask for what you need.
Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:
The Physical Stress of Grieving
Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.
(Author's photo by Joey Bieber)