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09.13.2015 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

Does Loss Define Who You Are?

I once heard someone state that loss doesn’t have to define who you are. This from a man who had tragically lost his son.

I’m hoping he meant that grief doesn’t have to define who you are. Whatever the nature of the loss, yes, you can pick up and begin again. I totally agree.

But, if this man meant to suggest that loss doesn’t change who you are, I’d have to shout out, “Uh, NO!”

A loss of any significance changes who we are. Change is the nature of loss. You simply cannot experience loss without change. Failure to acknowledge this change is a form of denial that insults the importance of the loss.

September Hope

A while ago, I wrote a blog entitled, September Mourns. I wrote this blog in response to the many stirrings I encounter every September as I remember the passing of our only child Michael.

I offer this September as hope for all who have recently experienced some form of loss because this month marks the seventh year of Michael’s passing, and for whatever reason, it’s somehow different.

This is the first year I can honestly say that I’m actually breathing in life. Until now, I’ve simply been gasping for air.

And, it’s important to note that this gasping wasn’t anything traumatic or odd. This gasping simply consisted of living through the daily motions of life—each and every moment full and complete. Yet, each also simultaneously empty, less than, missing.

Loss, it seems, is paradoxical.

Thinking back, it’s been a bit like walking through life with a paper bag over my head. I could hear, touch, smell, but all I could see was empty space.

Even so, it’s in that empty space that I discovered a complex existence, one bursting with silence and loudness all at once. Yes, there is still an empty seat at the table, but also a fullness— an inexplicable purpose that could only be birthed from the void of darkness.

So, I’ve been thinking this September less about the details of Michael’s passing and more about how it is that one moves from the void of loss to the fulfillment of meaning and purpose.

I’ve decided it’s about a few simple, yet profound, things.

Embracing the Story

Most often, the story of loss doesn’t make sense. Embrace it just the same. Embrace without judgment if you can. Let the meaning reveal itself in due time. Everything in the now will have significance in the future if you just let the story unfold.

Embracing the story creates space for growth and restoration.

Discovering the Meaning

The emotion associated with loss clouds our ability to discover the meaning behind the loss. This is particularly true when the loss is tragic and makes no sense in the present moment.

Discovery is a process, and you can’t rush that process. It requires reflection and a willingness to accept a cycle of emotions. Our emotional responses help us discover the underlying meaning of loss.

Sometimes we can dive down into the meaning via journaling or talking with family and friends. Sometimes we need professional counseling to understand what’s happened.

We’re wired to make meaning of our existence and our losses. When we do so effectively, we’re positioned to encounter freedom, love, and joy once again.

The point is to engage in the process. Don’t deny it. Don’t hide from it. Make room for discovery.

Rewriting the Ending

Sven Birkerts (2008) states that “the memoirist writes, above all else, to redeem experience, to reawaken the past, and to find its pattern; better yet, he writes to discover behind bygone events a dramatic explanatory narrative.”

Sometimes, we keep on writing the same story of loss. Over and over again. Maybe we get tangled in the same tragic relationships or we fail to take care of our health and lose again. Repetitive patterns can happen when we fail to make sense of the loss. When we note the patterns of our story, we have the potential to rewrite the ending.

By this I mean, the loss has already occurred, but how you make sense of it defines the authentic ending. The end is not always as it first appears.

Rewriting the ending of loss allows us to learn from the past, move forward into the future, and take on the challenge of a new and different story.

Yes, loss will break our hearts. But it can also change us in powerful ways. When we make sense of our loss, we not only create a more authentic ending, we also rewrite the future.

What I’ve learned through the loss of Michael is that all of life is cyclical. Michael’s passing is not the end of the story; it’s the beginning.

If you’d like to learn more about how Michael’s story continues to unfold, I invite you to visit the Michael Spano Foundation.

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. September 13, 2015