Some things you know are true, but you have to experience them before they become real to you.
I’m a Pagan and not a Buddhist, but the concept of impermanence is becoming very real to me.
And so is the concept of loss.
I was 32 before I experienced loss at a deep personal level.
No, I wasn’t that sheltered. I wasn’t sheltered at all, although my childhood environment was exceptionally stable – for better and for worse. It’s just that I learned very early that change is constant. When you’re born 35 and can’t wait to get out of childhood, change can’t come fast enough.
One of the things my parents did right was to take me to funerals. A lot of funerals. From kindergarten through about third grade, it seemed like we were going to a funeral every month. It wasn’t that many, but was enough that death became normalized. People got old, they got sick, and then they died. Sometimes people died before they got old and that was bad, but then they went to heaven, so it was OK. The same preachers who ranted about how most people were going to hell were quick to assure us that our loved ones were safely in heaven, even if it wasn’t clear they had checked all the proper religious boxes before they died.
(In case you’re not a regular reader here, there are no religious boxes to check. There is no hell, even for the people we would like to send there.)
When my beloved grandmother died I was sad. She was the only one of my grandparents who lived long enough for me to really get to know. I was 28 when she died. I was sad, but she had gone from healthy and active at 80 to suffering with cancer at 82 – her death was a relief, not a loss.
I was very sad – and probably clinically depressed – when my college girlfriend broke up with me just after graduation. But at some level I understood this wasn’t a loss. This was a necessary thing. She knew what I refused to see: we weren’t a good match and staying together wasn’t a good thing for either of us.
When I was 32 my job went away. The factory where I worked couldn’t compete with lower-cost products from Asia and the parent corporation decided to close it. This wasn’t a loss either. These things happen (whether they should happen is another question for another time). I was bored with the job anyway and here was a chance for something new and different.
Unfortunately (from my perspective at the time) “something new and different” wasn’t to be found in the same geographic location and I moved from Tennessee to Indiana. The distance wasn’t the issue – it could have been to Georgia or it could have been to California. The issue was that I had to leave the house Cathy and I had built, on the land where I grew up, in the place where all our friends and family lived.
The house was small, but it was designed – by me – to be expandable. We were going to live there for a long time. “A long time” turned out to be six years.
I clearly remember backing out of the garage for the last time, turning to take one final look at the house, and crying.
This was something I genuinely expected would last a long time, and it didn’t. This was something I counted on, something I was invested in – financially and emotionally. It was something I was going to build on – literally and figuratively. And it was gone.
This was loss.
For those of you who lost parents at an early age, or children at any age, or who’ve been in relationships that turned abusive, or who became homeless, or who are dealing with chronic diseases, or who have suffered any of the tragedies of the human condition – whether natural or caused by the neglect of our wider society – this may seem trivial. Perhaps it is. All of it seems trivial compared to what’s going on in Gaza, and in Ukraine, and in refugee camps around the world.
That’s not the point. The fact that other people are suffering more doesn’t make our suffering any less. Must I remind everyone of Robin Williams and others like him?
The point is that loss – to whatever degree, whatever it looks like for you – hurts.
And – at least to me – it feels like failure.
Why didn’t I see this coming? Why couldn’t I keep it from happening? Why did I build my life plans around something that deep down was so unreliable?
Those questions have good reasonable answers, but good reasonable answers can still be unsatisfying. And they don’t stop more losses from coming.
The older I get, the more losses I’m experiencing. Things I thought would last forever, aren’t. Progress I assumed would continue, isn’t. People I expected would outlive me, haven’t. Some of this is the reality of being 61. Some if it is the times we live in. Some of it is… more.
When I stepped away from formal leadership in Denton CUUPS, I knew my time as the Pagan parish priest was coming to an end. I thought I knew what would replace that work and that identity. Several of us were working on something else, something I’ve hinted at revealing a few times. And then it fell apart. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, it just didn’t work out the way I thought it would. The way I built future plans around.
(I will not discuss this on the internet, but if you see me in person and ask, I’ll tell the story.)
And then there’s Covid, and the changes it brought to religious groups and organizations. Most of the reporting on this is in the context of Christian churches, but the same thing is true for other religions. Denton CUUPS has been back to in-person circles for two years, but our attendance is still 40% below pre-Covid levels. Perhaps the pandemic caused these changes or perhaps it simply accelerated changes already in progress. In any case, much of what was, is no more.
The realization that more loss is coming.
Perhaps this post should have been in my private journal and not on the blog. But my particular situation isn’t what’s important here. Much of what I’m describing is simply me experiencing things that happen to everyone sooner or later, in one form or another. Your particulars will be different. Your impact will be different.
Comparing losses and grading suffering is never helpful.
The 5 Stages of Grief are a gross oversimplification that do not apply in all situations. In any case, I’ll grieve in my own way, on my own schedule. What I need to do now – why I’m writing this, and why I’m sharing it – is to move on.
People tell me I need to let go. I’m not very good at letting go. And when I do, it leaves a hole… a hole that ends up getting filled with something. Sometimes more grief. Lately it’s been bad memories… bad memories that have nothing in common, except that they all represent disappointments. Failures. Losses.
I’m better at moving on.
As I often say in other contexts, you don’t have to like it, you just have to deal with it. Yes, I have my “I just can’t” days. I’ve had a couple recently. But the sooner you – me… anyone… but mainly me – can start moving in the direction of what comes next, the sooner things are going to get better.
And if you don’t know exactly where you want to go, start taking steps in the general direction of what you want. I did that earlier this week and I’ve already figured out a couple of the next steps.
Some things remain. Some things really are a solid foundation. I’m not doing this alone – Cathy is another solid foundation in my life.
I am moving on, and I will build a future that’s even better than the one I’ve lost, because that’s what I do.
To Know, to Dare, to Will, and to Keep Silence.
As I will it, so mote it be.
But I’m not quite done grieving what has been lost.
Most of the music from my high school days is Not Good. This is a notable exception, and it’s been on a loop in my head all week.