Weekly Edgework #11 - Sept 14, 2004

The Normality of Loss

Loss is as much a part of normal life as birth, for as surely as we are born into this world we suffer loss before we leave it. – Gerald Sittzer

It is quite different learning about loss from experience than by studying about it in books. For the most part, it seems to me that people try to avoid loss, and the suffering and grief that accompany it, as much as possible. They are uncomfortable when they see it in others and afraid that it might touch them directly. If we can’t avoid it, then at least we want to get over it as soon as possible. To get on with life as it was. Move past it. Demonstrate that you can conquer even this enemy. Faith works. Just trust in Jesus, keep a stiff upper lip and adjust. Adjust to the new reality, did you hear? Don’t get emotional about it all the time. Many people’s losses are greater than yours.

In his book, A Grace Disguised, Gerald Sittzer insists that it is not the size of the loss that is as significant as the way we respond to it. I am slowly learning to accept this truth. So much of my energies, and those of my friends, are expended in somehow trying to avert loss. Or if it does come anyway, then to get over it as quickly as possible. We tend to live in an illusionary cocoon, knowing that we can not avoid loss with its accompanying suffering and grief, but somehow pretending it is always going to hit the other person. I am immune. Others get cancer – I won’t. Others get depression – I will buck up. Others have major accidents – I am a careful driver. Others react all their lives to painful childhood experiences – I had a nice home or at least I got over the bad experiences. Others go to the doctor all the time – I don’t even have a family doctor because I don’t need one.

There is an arrogance about those who can not accept loss as normal. Sometimes in the past I have displayed that arrogance myself. Now I see it more clearly in others. But whether we like it or not, suffering and loss eventually hit us all. The wagon wheel comes round and we all hit the dust. We are all on the rim of the wheel of life whether we like it or not. None of us can claim a place on the hub of this great wheel and call out consolations to others situated on the rim. When we connect with each other around our losses we all do so on the rim of the wheel that eventually touches the dust for all of us.

It seems that when all goes well and we forget that loss is part of normal living, many of us hardly take note of hospitals, care homes, funeral homes, and obituaries in the paper. When we are doing well, we give them a side-ways glance, recognizing in a vague sort of way that there are shadow sides to life. But we quickly turn away lest focusing our attention too long in that direction might somehow infect us with the bug. But such a permanent side-ways glance leaves us unprepared to respond well to loss when it strikes us or others close to us.

When it became apparent a few years ago that I was not well enough to continue the work I loved, and that the prognosis for a cure was not good from a medical point of view, I was forced to reflect more directly on the nature of loss. It may sound morbid to some, but I found myself paying more attention to the obituaries in the paper. And I discovered what I already knew, that not everyone suffers and dies only when they are old and have had a full life behind them. A 47-year old father dies instantly of a heart attack. A 35-year old mother dies of cancer. A 16-year old son dies of a rare illness that has plagued him since birth. This is so very wrong, I think to myself. Of course I am comparing this to the ideal picture in my mind – being strong and productive till 92, having a stomach ache one evening and then dying peacefully in your sleep that night.

Now it may be true that for a few this ideal seems to be the way life works. But for most of us it does not. Most of us are caught up somewhere on the wheel on which we experience various kinds of loss, sorrow, pain and grief. Sometimes it even seems to me that those who apparently are spared this reality become somewhat of a liability to the rest of us mortals. I suppose it is appropriate to just thank God with them that everything has gone so well for them - that they have been spared what others have suffered. But what often happens is that these people get set up as our models. Look how they did it! Look how they conquered life without complaining! Surely you can do it to. And so our own grief and loss is invalidated. And if we can not match up with the strongest among us we are devalued as individuals.

It seems to me that the sooner we learn that loss is a normal dimension of life for all, the sooner we can get on with living well in the context of our various losses. Such an understanding is also the bedrock of the compassionate and caring community we all desire to belong to.