There it is, beneath the thoughts, the chatter, the doubt, the irritation, the barriers against love in all of its varied manifestations: the fear of loss, the fear of change, the excruciating awareness that we will, all of us, ultimately, be separated from the ones we love. At times it seems one of the cruelest realities of life on this planet: that we can love so deeply, but eventually we will separate. Yet as much as we can rail against life, beat our heads against the walls of the universe, argue, bargain, and rage, at some point we need to come into acceptance of death if we are to live our lives with any measure of peace. Death is what is, and to resist what is leads to suffering.
And yet… the more sensitive you are the more acutely aware you will be of death’s many faces, and the more you will try to safeguard against it in all the ways the ego fights reality: your mind will travel into the relatively safer realm of worry in comparison to the vulnerability of staying with an open-handed heart; you will stay in your head and talk and talk and talk about loss without dropping down into the grief, vulnerability, uncertainty and powerlessness; you will create obsessions and compulsions (what we call OCD) to try to control the outcome and live in a world of illusory safety (if I think or do this or that, I will keep death at bay). In other words, death makes us feel out of control, so the more aware you are aware of death, the more out of control you will feel and the more you will try to control your external world in order to grasp hold to something solid, even if it’s only your thoughts.
It doesn’t work, of course. The more we fight against it, the more it demands to be known, creeping into consciousness during the day or waking us up in the dead of night with heart-racing terror. The more we squeeze loss into the palm of our hands, trying to rid ourselves and the planet of its existence, the more it wreaks havoc on our serenity. The highly sensitive heart – which is also, quite often, the gifted mind – is adept at creating ways to prevent heart and mind from touching down into raw, unencumbered awareness of death. Intrusive thoughts, addiction to worry, and the head-space of “what-if” are all ways that we avoid dipping the ladle of heart into the plain truth of loss.
The ego-mind tells us that if we limit the love by creating the barriers – and in the world of relationship anxiety all of the projections of “Do I love him enough?” and “What if she’s not smart enough?” and “I’m not attracted” are barriers – we will safeguard ourselves against this risk. We think that if we love less and with protections around our hearts, it will hurt less if we are separated from each other. But it’s actually the opposite that’s true: when we limit our open-heartedness, the loss, if/when it does happen, is filled with the regret of not taking the risk of loving fully. As the character of Bernadine says in Kate Kerrigan’s “Recipes for a Perfect Marriage” (who spends a lifetime keeping a wedge between her and her husband, never saying the words I love you until the moment of his death):
In the moment he was gone, there was a revelation.
As I said the words “I love you” to my husband for the first time, I realized they were true.
I held him for one hour and I said the words “I love you, I love you, I love you” over and over into our empty room . And I imagined them carrying his soul in a stream of words out through the window and way up to heaven – how many words does it take to carry a soul to heaven? How many “I love yous”?
[That was] the greatest revelation of all: James had been the love of my life. Not what I had wished for, not what I had dreamt of – but wishes and dreams don’t live in the real world. James had been my life. My reality.
Love can live in your mind and your heart, and it can be anything you want it to be. What I shared with James truly belonged to me. Love that lives in the world, love that has to sacrifice, compromise, share, endure. Tangible, touch, tender love, this is the real thing. Love you can touch, that can comfort and hold and protect, love that smell and tastes familiar, if not always sweet. pp.279-80
Oh, but the risk of touching down and opening up. Relationship anxiety has many root causes, one of which is the fear of loss and this awareness of death. What risk we take in loving! Sometimes it cracks me open completely when the petals of my heart open fully to this daily risk. How can I live with an unbarricaded heart when pieces of my heart are walking around on the ones that I love? There’s a piece of my heart, swimming in the pool, diving his almost-eleven year old head underwater again and again. Did he stay under too long that time? Dear God, please keep him safe. And there’s another piece of my heart, six-year old brown hair tousled from sleep, waking up coughing and coughing again. Is he sick? Oh, God, please keep him healthy.
And there’s my love, sitting in his studio, pouring his mind and time and energy into our life, our land, our home, the three of us at the forefront of his consciousness, always. He carries me as I do him. We are attached in ways unseen, a symbiotic unit, so deep are the strands of our attachment. How often I’ve pushed him away, but the tether of us always bring us back into each other’s sweet fold. Sometimes I let myself touch down into raw awareness of what would happen if I lost him, and in those moments I whisper into his ear, “Love is so scary.” But we keep loving, because not to love is, as they say, a fate worse than death. What an interesting phrase.
If we knew we could recover from loss it wouldn’t feel so scary. But because very few of us are guided through the heart-shattering feelings spawned by transitions of all kind (all of which include loss, and, thus, death), we stumble into adulthood with the belief that we can’t handle death. The universe doesn’t make mistakes; we wouldn’t be handed this plan of life that includes death if we weren’t also equipped with the tools to handle it. We are gifted with the very resources that wrap love and loss into one chamber of the heart and, with each loss, our hearts become simultaneously stronger and softer. The cracks are where the light comes in, says Rumi, which means that it’s only when our hearts crack open from loss that we’re offered an opportunity to receive more light.
What are these tools that allow us to navigate loss with more grace?
The primary tool, of course, is to grieve fully, without inhibition, shame, or self-judgement. When we allow the tears to crash, wail, and roar from heart and out the portal of eyes, we give ourselves the biggest dose of healing medicine available to us.
The second tool is support. Sometimes we need to grieve alone, to curl up in a ball in the corner of the bed and sob. Other times we need our grief to be witnessed. We pick up the phone and pray someone answers, someone who can hold the space of grief without interjecting many words. If possible, we allow ourselves to be witnessed by the actual presence of loving others, letting them hold us as our body rocks and shakes until that wave of grief washes through.
The third tool is expression. We are gifted with many ways to transpose the grief from pain to wisdom: we write, dance, paint, act, draw, photograph, sing. To grieve is human. When we stop fighting the grief and extend the hand of our individual paintbrush onto the canvas of our life, the pain becomes manageable.
I don’t know that we ever fully heal from loss. When someone we love leaves the planet, an emptiness remains, the space in our heart that they occupied while they were here. We can say that the love never dies, which I believe to be true, but our human selves in our human bodies will always remember and long for the physical, here-and-now connection that we once shared. A scent, a dream, a place triggers a memory and we’re flooded back into the place of grief, missing our beloved person or animal. Then we cry, talk, express, and move onto to the next moment of our life, the love of this life, of others who remain, enfolding the place in the heart where the departed once lived.
In the end, it’s a choice we make: to remain safe in the narrow realm of the protected heart or to dive off the dock of our fear and swim out into the bottomless sea of loving. In saying yes to the risk, we say yes to the love. For me, it’s the only sea I want to be swimming in: dark and blue waters, giant swells and calm days, rainbow fish and barracudas, and more and more, as the years pass on, the warm, soft island sand that enfolds us, the trees that shade us, the sky that gives us shelter. I choose risk. I choose vulnerability. I choose love, again and again and again.