With deep calm, actor Susan Saint James said this after the tragic plane crash death of her youngest child, Teddy:
“His was a life that lasted 14 years.”
Hearing this, Toni Bernhard, author of the highly-recommended book, How To Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, tried using Susan’s sentiment to try to make sense of her own losses over a decade of being bedridden with a seriously debilitating illness. For example:
“If I begin to mourn my lost as a law professor, I say to myself, ‘This was a career that lasted 20 years.’
“If I feel overwhelmed by the loss of my health and its consequences, I say to myself, ‘This was a body that was illness-free long enough to be active in raising my children and to teach and be of personal support to many law students.’ “
I love this. Although there can be no real comparison between the pain of losing one’s child to any other loss in life, this unique perspective can also help get through other losses. In the very short time since I first read about Susan’s reflections on loss in Toni’s Psychology Today article, I’ve already tried using it myself on my own losses since surviving a heart attack – with surprisingly reassuring results.
It’s almost like flipping an internal switch, from the setting called “Why me?” to “What is, is”.
Toni’s story also reminded me of a Buddhist friend whose take on relationships ending – from divorce to friendship – struck a similar chord. He explained that we could choose, for example, to look at our lives as a long meandering path. And on this path from time to time, others will join us and walk alongside. Some will share our path for only a short time – like temporary co-workers or neighbours who move away – while others – like spouses and longterm friends – may be on our path with us for years.
And when the time is right – and only then – when we have learned everything we needed to learn from these people on our path, and when they have learned everything they needed to from us, they will leave our paths and move on.
But in our Western cultures, we tend to rail against such departures. We may not want them to leave, we’re not ready for them to leave, we want them back on our paths beside us.
Instead, my friend advised, we might want to try thanking them for sharing our path for exactly the correct amount of time, and for teaching us so much along the way.
Q: Can you apply “This was a ___ that lasted ___ years” in helping to come to terms with your own loss?