At my job as a veterinary technician, I frequently see people in the various stages of loss and grief, both of pets and sometimes other aspects of their lives. The elderly woman who the staff notices isn’t as sharp as she used to be, repeating herself and seemingly unable to comprehend simple instructions. The couple who is losing the dog that brought them together. The dog euthanized by friends of a man who has recently been moved to a care facility with kidney failure and Alzheimer’s.
In an exam room where I am demonstrating the administration of subcutaneous fluids to a woman whose cat has kidney disease a woman blurts out “my husband is dying and my cat is dying.”
Is the feeling of loss the same as grief? Is the loss we feel really the cause of our suffering, or is it the story our minds tell us about it?
People who are dying can experience grief for all that they have lost by being ill and all that they are losing as death approaches. In a sense, we are all dying all the time and so our lives are tinged with an inescapable melancholy of loss that make our moments of pure gratitude, of being present in this moment all the more valuable.
Is grief different for the one who is dying than for the one who is left behind? Almost certainly so but at the root of both lies fear: fear of the unknown, of how to end a journey or to comprehend how that journey might continue in the absence of the loss.
I recently heard that a neighbor who is elderly and was recently hospitalized will be moving to an assisted living facility. It is difficult and sad to imagine these sudden, final losses of our homes: the deterioration of our physical body, which we think of as our true home, and the house, condo, apartment, or trailer in which we house our body and our possessions.
But this will inevitably be our lot, as our bodies fail us and eventually die and our possessions are scattered in the wind. And the losses around us begin to pile up, faster and faster, the longer that we ourselves survive.
I felt a profound sense of loss and grief when our neighbor moved out. It was a bit shocking even though her health had been deteriorating for the past couple of years and we knew she had been hospitalized a few times. It’s not as though we were terribly close, but we had helped her when her previous cat had died and I worked at a feline shelter, in getting a new cat. I was called on once in a while to give her cat pills when it needed them, and only a few weeks before her departure I had gone into her apartment with the woman who feeds and cares for the cat when she was in the hospital in order to give the cat a pedicure.
A few weeks later we were told that she was moving to a long term care facility, one where her cat could live with her. A few days later friends came to move her belongings and remove those that weren’t making the trip with her. It is a common scenario that plays out many times in the course of an average week, an average month. But I was watching it unfold up close, and I realized that I was projecting my own feelings from recent losses and grieving in my own way.
In many ways it doesn’t matter whose loss it is, our grief can attach itself to the most ephemeral things: to a song, an afternoon when the shadows were a certain way, a day when a special gift was given, a stranger gave up their seat on the bus because ‘you two should be together’, a special meal, a poem, a kiss, a scent, anything at all. No matter whether the loss is personally yours, you can relate to the loss because you have experienced these special moments.
No matter how near or far the loss is from your emotional ground zero, it is profoundly felt as an amplification of your greatest fears: fear of being alone, fear of losing something or someone you cannot imagine life without, fear of pain, humiliation, whatever it is. Those are the losses that will suddenly hit you, and they will hit you hard.
When I saw footage of the raging wildfires in California last summer, I felt devastated with grief, with the sense of the enormity of loss. I’ve seen a great deal of footage of disasters in my life, and I’ve felt empathy and sorrow for those trapped in their wake. But this sense of loss was enormous, because it again involved something that was deep at the root of my being: fear of losing home base.
It’s a base camp, really, whatever we call home. Our house, chateau, hut, tent, apartment, our boxes and storage lockers, our clothes and, ultimately, our bodies.
We move in, establish identities, create habits, and our lives go by. Until something happens. Until we are kicked out, evicted. Put out into the street by poverty, or sickness or just plain living too long.
Then we get good at all this loss, all this grieving. Or we don’t. It doesn’t matter. We go through it anyway until we understand, sometimes very late in the game, the nature of our lives here.
It’s the nature of the human condition that we all come from the same place and are a giant ocean of humanity that shares our lives here but at the same time we are individual, alone and sometimes isolated from the moment we are born. Our feelings of aloneness are heightened by loss. We understand completely that everyone goes through these same experiences and suffers the same losses but we cannot escape the fact that it is happening to us right now, and it doesn’t seem to be happening to my neighbor, so I feel alone in my loss.
You can’t really experience connection if you don’t also have the sense of separation,” says Douglas Brooks, a scholar of Hinduism and professor of religion at the University of Rochester.
“Heartbreak is part of the human condition—if it comes off the table, so does love itself. Vulnerability is what makes life worth living; without it we’d lack meaning and purpose.”
‘Lead With Your Heart: How to Practice Bhakti Yoga’, Hillari Dowdle, Yoga Journal November 2012.
When you consider it, vulnerability, the ability to feel heartache and loss, really keeps our existence from being one giant robotic routine.
The miracle, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the earth and to be aware of each step.
The miracle is that we are here at all, together, and sharing this time and place.