They tell you that losing someone you love is hard for all the reasons you’d expect and project. That person isn’t physically here anymore and, as a result, your life will never be the same.
They tell you that grief is hard, too. For all the reasons you’d expect and project. You’re grappling with a brand new reality, absent of a person you loved more than yourself, and that can be dark and depressing.
But there’s also a lot they don’t tell you though about love and loss. A lot that you couldn’t possibly expect or project.
There is collateral beauty in heartbreak. Eventually flowers start to grow through the new cracks in your foundation. You become more empathetic towards other human beings and see a new depth in life. You start to experience strength in yourself that you never knew was there.
But there’s also something deeper, perhaps the worst part of going through a cataclysmic loss: you lose yourself in the process. And in the process of losing yourself, you may lose people you love, too.
You won’t notice it at first. Somewhere between trying to survive and trying to remember who you once were, you’ll start to feel trapped in an alternate reality.
Eventually, you’ll realize it, but you still won’t know how to reverse it. You’ll wake up on most days, look in the mirror and be unrecognizable to even yourself. All of the things that used to make you who you were — your carefree laugh, your yolo spirit, your love for life will seem to have evaporated. And to your surprise, the resounding evidence of your own mortality may make you more afraid, may make you want to “carpe diem” less for awhile.
They don’t tell you that — no matter how hard you try not to — you’re going to harden for awhile. You’re going to feel lost and confused. You’re going to hurt a lot of people that you love, in a myriad of significant, but unintentional ways.
They don’t tell you that — your pain — is going to blind you. That the coping mechanisms that you develop to survive in this new reality aren’t going to work after awhile. They will at first. But one day, they’re going to start harming you more than they’re helping you.
And in that process, to your own dismay, you may one day wake up and realize you forgot how to love, how to live, how to be you.
You became so worried about protecting your heart from hurt that you stopped giving of yourself, you stopped exposing yourself to the deepest, most vulnerable parts of the human experience.
You didn’t want to, but you did.
You stopped living.
See, the idea that life is precious and short can inspire two trains of thought:
- I better not do anything to prematurely destroy it.
- I better do something to make it meaningful.
Since my mom died a little over five years ago, I thought I was living by the philosophy of bullet point #2. I’ve been obsessed with this idea of post-traumatic growth, inspired by people that weather terrible tragedy and come out the other side better for it.
I stopped drinking, started working out every day. I’ve read more books in the last five years than I have in all of the other years combined. I discovered a passion for writing. And I’ve found work that I love.
For a long time, because of all these various external measures, I’ve been convinced that I’m on the right path, checking the right boxes, doing the right things. I’ve adapted who I am and completely altered my sense of self, my beliefs about life and death — to survive in this new world.
And I’ve been proud of myself for it.
But, I’m realizing now that this was only one part of the puzzle. It was the first step in a long process of finding my way without her.
Because if my mom’s life and death taught me anything, it’s that love is the only thing that matters in life. And more importantly, that love isn’t these grand romantic gestures on you and your partner’s anniversary or on your kid’s birthday.
Love is taking out the trash without being asked. It’s painting the front door. It’s making dinner, when you are exhausted from working all day. It’s unconditional forgiveness. It’s putting all of yourself into being the very best you can be. It’s being at the soccer game, fully present — cheering at the top of your lungs.
And yes, sometimes it’s having a few too many beers in a dive bar with your best friends.
Love takes practice, work. Love is a skill. It’s a choice. It’s not something that you can phone in. So, when you don’t make time for it in your life, when you don’t create space for it — you‘re bound to fail at it.
Luckily, there’s a trigger point in grief. When you realize all that you’ve forgotten, all that you’ve missed out on — just trying to survive. For me, it came as all growth does — through more immense heartbreak.
And the stark, uncomfortable realization of who I’d become.
I realized, that in my pursuit of bullet #2, I poured myself into things that don’t matter at all. I poured all of my energy into trying to save what was, protect what I thought could be. I sought out accomplishments to fill this deep hole in my heart.
And I didn’t save space for love.
I don’t hold myself in contempt for it, for forgetting how to live, forgetting how to love.
Because in school, they don’t teach you how lose someone or how to love someone for that matter. They don’t teach you how to bounce back from heartbreak in a healthy way or how to recognize when strategies that once worked are no longer effective.
You have to learn that on your own. And that process isn’t easy — it’s painful and it’s raw. But damn is it worth it.
Because it’s real.
For a long time, I’ve forgotten to wake up every morning and be madly in love with my life and the people in it. I forgot to feel things deeply, to care about more than just myself and my worldly ambitions. I forgot to serve the love in my life. I forgot to fight complacency in every facet.
I just forgot. Not with ill or malicious intention. Not without care for the people in my life. Not without care for myself. Just in pursuit of survival, pursuit of a solid baseline.
On the path of just scraping by, I forgot what was most important to me, replacing it with things that I could control.
And I guess that’s how it happens in life. We typically don’t blow up our lives or create suffering on purpose; it’s usually by accident. We don’t walk straight into becoming people we aren’t proud of; we back into becoming these people. All the way blinded by how our thoughts, beliefs, words, and actions are dictating the reality unfolding around us.
Mortality is a powerful tool to have in your arsenal. But only if you use it right, only if you use it to drive you towards exploring life, not evading it.
I’m awake now, awake to the reality of what matters to me most to me.
Awake to the poor decisions I’ve made, the blindspots I’ve maintained, the flaws present in who I’ve become.
And without attachment, condition, or expectation, I’m working on remembering again.
On remembering (and re-learning) how to love.