How to Survive the Loss of a Love

 I’m back to moving through treacle again.

I thought I was done with the particular type of mourning that comes with a child leaving the nest. It was a busy autumn. My days were full, my nights restful. If a wave of sadness hit, it was usually on the weekend and, on at least one occasion, it resulted in a quick text followed by a lovely Skype visit with my globe-trotting son. Yeah, things were going pretty well.

And then December hit.

We decorated the tree — without Gabriel.

Jacob drank eggnog — alone — and there was no-one to fight with over the best Santa hat. In fact, Jacob discovered the best hat wasn’t really all that much better after all. What made it the best was the scrap over it.

The Christmas music was ho hum.

And there was no teasing preamble leading up to December 1st. No one to pound out a carol on the piano mid-November, one mischievous eye watching for his dad to round the corner and bellow, “No Christmas music until December!”

And there was no painfully frustrating attempt to get a good photo of the Spence brothers to add to our Christmas letters. No crazy high jinks. No giggly screwed up faces. No howls of laughter and grabs for the camera to see just how ridiculous they looked.

The first half of the month was pretty muted. Yeah, I was sad. Yeah, I was really missing my boy, but that’s life, right? And he’s off having a great adventure.

Yeah, I talked myself through the days and was holding together pretty well.

And then came the annual High School Christmas Concert.

I love this event. It’s a huge thank you from the High School Band to the community. Thank you for supporting our love of music. Thank you for your generosity when we come knocking on your door with yet another fundraiser in hand. Thank you for making it possible for us to travel to other places — even other countries — to play our music and learn what it means to work as a team, as musical ambassadors for our little town.

There’s music (of course). The gym is beautifully lit. There’s coffee and tea and juice and a huge assortment of Christmas goodies to enjoy while listening to the music. And there’s a Silent Auction during the intermissions.

I love the generosity of the Band parents in the form of interesting and creative items donated for auction. I love the generosity of the people bidding on the items — often the very same people who donated in the first place. I love watching the friendly rivalries and hearing the laughter as people bid on items of interest. And I love being a little cog in the wheel that helps to make the Silent Auction run smoothly.

What I forgot was that last year’s graduating students would be back to take in the concert.

Everywhere I looked, it seemed, there was one of Gabriel’s former classmates. I gave one of his friends a hug, from behind, as he sat in his chair, joking that it would be the closest I got to hugging my boy this Christmas. Cody’s a big, strapping fellow so I was able to remain light-hearted.

But a little later, as I was helping to tabulate Silent Auction bid sheets before the big rush at concert’s end, I looked up to see another of Gabriel’s friends smiling down at me. It was his walk-to-school friend, the one who inevitably had to sit on the bench in our front entrance waiting for Gabriel to get ready, every school-day morning from Grade Five until the attainment of drivers licenses meant walking was passe.

I jumped up to give him a hug and immediately burst into tears. Hugging Matt was like hugging my boy — they both have the same tall, rangey build — and the tears have not fully retreated since then.

It’s getting a little embarrassing. I can’t hold them back. If anyone asks how I’m doing, there they are, proclaiming the truth of these crazy mixed-up MotherLove feelings. Or . . . I’m holding myself so tightly in check that I’m not truly present for the conversation.

The other night, I found myself wandering the house. Upstairs. Downstairs. In my office, staring at the papers on my desk. Sat with my husband for about two seconds as he watched his new favorite TV show. Built a fire and sat in the living room for maybe five minutes, staring alternately at it and the book in my hand. Finally, at 9:10, I gave up and went to bed. Tossed and turned. Got up again at 10 to 10. Wandered the house. Ended up in my office, staring at the books on my shelf.

And this one jumped out at me:

How to Survive the Loss of a Love

“This is ridiculous,” I thought, as I pulled it off the shelf. “It’s not like I’m never going to see him again.”

Just that afternoon I had a conversation with a friend whose son died many years ago. Now that is loss. I was feeling bad for spilling over with tears about my son who was alive and well and coming home some day, when she would never see her son again. She, being the loving, compassionate person she is, reminded me that loss is loss, pain is pain, and she, too, would enjoy a Homecoming with her son one day.

And what she said is true . . . maybe . . . but still.

I read the book, cover to cover. Took about half an hour.

One of the first things that caught my eye was a list of what loss feels like:

. . . there are other reactions to loss that are not so obvious, such as:

– feeling helpless, fearful, empty, despairing, pessimistic, irritable, angry, guilty, restless

– experiencing a loss of concentration, hope, motivation, energy

– any changes in appetiteor sleep patterns

– a tendency to be more fatigued, error-prone, and slower in speech and movement

That’s a lot of checkmarks.

And the wonderful authors of this little jewel of a book — a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a poet (I particularly appreciated the poignant, heartfelt poetry) — reminded me that, “Any or all of these are to be expected during and after the experience of a loss. It’s part of the body’s natural healing process. Be with these changes; don’t fight them. It’s OK.”

Then, on page 8, another little gem that finally served to stay the whip on my self-judgement:

 Temporary losses (lover on vacation, spouse in the service, son or daughter away at school, a slump in business), even though we know the outcome will eventually be positive, are losses nonetheless.

Here was a category where I fit. My son was away in the School of Life, on the other side of the planet, so maybe this gaping sense of loss really is legitimate.

It also helped to read, in the list of Not So Obvious Losses, things like loss of a job and loss of a long-term goal.

Parenting has been my number one job for 18+ years. That job, as far as Gabriel is concerned, is absolutely over — at least in the intensive 24/7 kind of way. And, my other son, Jacob whose been hell-bent for independence since birth, is already half-way out the door, newly minted driver’s license in hand.

All this is precisely what we want as a parent, what we worked toward from the moment they arrived in our arms — for our children to become independent adults, able to successfully fend for themselves in the world. So, it’s absolutely true that, when they head out into that world, we are left mourning the loss of a ‘job’ and of a long-term goal.

It might have been good to stop reading there.

What followed was a list of age-related loss that, for me, just happens to be occurring at the same time: loss of “youth,” “beauty,” teeth, child-bearing capacity (hello menopause).

There’s a veritable cocktail of loss going on.

It’s definitely a time to be gentle with myself.

And when I sit with this knowledge (because, believe me, there’s not a whole lot of anything else more productive going on) I think of how fast the world is moving, how quickly things change and I realize WE ALL need to be gentle with ourselves ALL THE TIME. Every one of us experiences loss every day, not just when something huge shakes us to the core and makes it okay to lay down with a cold cloth on our heads.

The annoying little things:

The loss of time and peace of mind when a traffic jam makes us late for an appointment.

The loss of a familiar comfort when . . . say . . .  a cherished  mug is broken.

The end of a favorite television series, or the end of a good book, or the demise of our most comfortable pair of jeans, or the ruin of a perfectly good shirt when that stain, borne from a moment of careless clumsiness, won’t come out.

And then there’s the not-so-obvious daily losses. Some of them — if they go on long enough — can result in a chronic feeling of malaise:

The loss of another day when we fall into bed, exhausted, without having taken even one tiny step in the direction of our dreams.

The loss of an opportunity for growth when we turn away — yet again — from that difficult and oh-so-important task before us.

The loss of a moment of pure connection when we swallow something that needs to be said or turn away from someone who needs to be seen.

It all adds up to the need to treat ourselves every day like the precious and cherished people we are by laying on some radical — or should I say extreme — self-care.

Which reminds me of another great book:

Extreme Self-Care

Aren’t we fortunate to have all the wisdom of mentors, allies, and friends so close to hand when we need it?

If only we can give ourselves permission to reach out for it and the time and space to let that wisdom seep into us.

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8 Responses to How to Survive the Loss of a Love

  1. Lorien says:

    Oh Maxine, I’m really feeling for you, over here where I am experiencing the temporary loss of my health–stomach flu, ugh! I started crying right at the part where you mentioned your friend saying that she will experience a homecoming with her son one day as well. There is so much joy and so much pain in mothering. At times like these nothing helps at all…but letting ourselves feel what we’re feeling is a step in the direction of transmuting the pain into art…catharsis for someone else who hasn’t yet allowed themselves to feel. Your post was a testament to that. Thank you for letting yourself feel and for sharing that beauty with us–the utter love you feel for your baby boy. (I don’t care how old they get–they’ll always be our babies!)

    • maxinespence says:

      You’re right, Lorien – it doesn’t matter how old they get – they’ll always be our babies. I hope you’ve ditched the flu bug and have been able to fully enjoy the holidays with your babies.

  2. S Webster says:

    I could identify with ALL of this and is what I was experiencing after coming home from Kelowna. Loss on top of loss on top of loss. We really do need to be kind and love ourselves.

    • maxinespence says:

      If you are half as kind and loving with yourself as you are with others, Sheila, you will be very well cared for, indeed. I hope those losses are not weighing so heavy these months later – maybe even creating a nutrient rich base for lovely new things to grow.

  3. MJ says:

    Thanks, Maxine.

  4. whoist says:

    Writing this at 3.30am and so much of what you wrote rings true for me. My father is dying and I am struggling in every area of my life – two statements that perhaps one might think would obviously be linked, but it wasn’t until I read this post, and particularly that checklist, that I realised that these two things are so intertwined, that this protracted grief can be what is impacting on everything in my life and be why I’m struggling. Your words “I’m holding myself so tightly in check that I’m not truly present for the conversation” struck a big chord – I don’t feel I’m present in much at the moment and I guess that holding in grief could be the root. I’ll have to look out that book, I think I need that extreme care, particularly as the road is going to get worse ahead. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    • maxinespence says:

      I’m so glad sharing my own experience shed a twinkling of light on your own. Yes, you most definitely need the tenderest, most loving kind of care right now as you navigate this journey. In fact, it’s the most important thing you can do along with allowing your grief room to be. Sending love.

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