I am connected to a large number of people who are faced with a certain amount of change in their lives right now, most of it unlooked-for, most of it unwelcome. A few people have lost a parent recently, one has lost a home, another has lost a good friend. A huge number of people have just this morning lost their careers, cut out like somebody else’s cancer in a vast corporate firing. What do you say in these instances? What, for all the world, do you do?
The older we get, the more these treacherous transitions become familiar, but they never become easy. Many of us remember when we’d never been to a funeral before, never known or loved anyone who had died, never lost a pet, let alone a job. Nothing we’ve ever heard in our youth can prepare us for any of those events when they actually, finally happen to us. The years of our youth crawl by with exquisite, almost unendurable slowness, and then at some certain, precise moment when we are so not paying attention, we accidentally bump the Fast lever and everything rushes past in a barely-intelligible blur, spotted and dotted with aching loss in addition to the joys we’ve come to know, suffused with an adrenal exhilaration that takes us by surprise, makes us half-wonder when we’ll get accustomed to it, half-wonder if maybe panic is the appropriate long-term reaction after all. All of the truisms we’d heard in our lives — each and every one of them — comes true, fully illustrated, in our own lives. If we only knew then what we know now.
When Mom was diagnosed with cancer, and when finally it became plain that there was no escape for her, and so none for us, I reflected on this a little. We’ve all heard of people, every year of our lives, who lose a loved one. Usually they’re older than us; usually the person they lost was even older. I remember thinking that never, not even once, did I ever feel insensitive or uncaring towards those people when I heard the news. It must have been awful, unimaginable. But it was just that: Unimaginable. I had no frame of reference for such loss, and so while I could sympathize, I couldn’t empathize. Suddenly, then, I was a grown man facing the illness and death of my own mother, with nothing to do but be present, be aware, and be loving. I saw her in the hospital a few days before she died, and as I flew back home I remember thinking: People have gone through this since the invention of people. Somehow they’ve always gotten through this, so somehow I will, too. It’s just that I haven’t the slightest clue as to how I’ll go about that. Once, I bought a book having something to do with coping with a dying parent. It sat unread long after Mom died, and eventually I threw it away. Before something like that happens, no one can tell you what to expect. After, no one needs to.
These are the searing experiences, the formative ones, the ones that shape our lives just as the births, the adolescences, the First Times, the moves away from home, the weddings, the careers did. These, though, involve pain, sometimes tragedy, and aching, unyielding loss. These are the ones we always knew were coming, but still feel as if they got here too fast, caught us unprepared, made us realize that we didn’t really think they’d happen to us, and that we’d do almost anything — no, literally anything — to back time up and keep them from happening this time.
People who haven’t gone through a firing, either as an individual or as part of a mass “effort,” can scarcely imagine what a cutting blow that can be. Especially here in America, where our identities are so tied up with what we do for a living, the panic, stress, sense of failure and ultimate sense of loss, definitely on par with the loss of a person, require (and should be given) all of the time to grieve — actually grieve — that’s required. Especially when these losses are a result of something out of our control, like a corporation’s poor performance, for example, as opposed to our own performance, that directionless sense of anger and depression can’t help but redirect themselves back onto us, so adding shame to the shit salad we’ve already just been served. It’s a loss no less debilitating than a death itself.
But what do we learn, eventually, after having the carpet yanked so painfully out from under us? The truisms click into clarity there, too, and thankfully so: We’re never given anything we can’t handle, yatta yatta. When one door closes, yatta yatta. Mom used to love “God fits the burden to the back.” These and others all may be treacly, but they’re no less true. When have we ever taken a leap of faith and regretted it? When that leap is replaced with a shove, the end result is no less compelling. Think of what we can do, now that we’re faced with a chance to change. Think of who we can even be, now that the rules have all changed. When offered a choice between staying where we’re comfortable or stepping out into the unknown, I daresay a great majority of us would choose Comfy (I used to be one of them). But when we’re not given the choice, when Comfy is taken away and we’re left with Whatever Comes Next, what are we going to do? First, I hope, we’ll realize that we’ve gotten this far in our lives, sometimes by our wits alone, and at the end of the day we’ve been okay. It was hard, it was scary, it sucked, it wasn’t fair, but we were okay. We didn’t die. So we’ll be okay this time, too. It will probably take a while, and it will suck not one iota less, but we’ll get there, and we’ll be okay. For those of you going through this now, I hope you’ll allow yourself to know this: You’ve surmounted every transition in your life up to this point. You had to have, or you wouldn’t be here now! So, somehow, and someday, probably sooner rather than later, you’ll surmount this one.
To those of you who’ve lost a parent, a sibling, a friend, “this too shall pass” always fits in situations like this, because it’s true, even if it makes you want to hit things with a hammer. The most meaningful thing I ever heard tell, though, which I learned so, so well after the fact, was this: It’s true … the love doesn’t die. The memories can’t be taken away. All that was meaningful and important and loving about that person, and all of their love for you, is now safely installed into your own heart, where they never can be hurt, and never can be taken away.
I wish you all peace now. Remember the truisms because, I’ll be darned, they’re true. Talk to people. Get out and see people. Get some exercise. Write a little, if that helps. Most importantly, surround yourself with people who’ll give you all the time and space you need to cry, to mourn, to think and wonder and heal. It’s near springtime. When you’re ready, go out and smell the flowers.