George Burns used to joke, “The first thing I do each morning is to read the obituaries in the newspaper. If I don’t see my name, I go make breakfast.” Seems as if a lot of people that I know are showing up in the obituaries. Ram Dass, Ravi Shankar, Terry Jones, Jim Lehrer to name some famous people, and mothers, sisters, fathers, and brothers of friends, to name people who will be remembered by their loved ones but be unknown outside of those relationships.
Each death brings with it a passel of memories associated with the individual who died and the times shared. This is true whether the person is family or a celebrity. Many of these deaths create a bookmark in my timeline that, when I return to that place, evokes awareness at how truly brief life is, how precious the moments are when shared fully, and how difficult it is for me to be the one left behind.
As a youngster I remember reading the story of Ishi, the last of his tribe who survived after the Three Knolls Massacre. There is much about Ishi’s life that demonstrates resilience and adaptability, but what haunted me was how alone he must have felt. What I know now is that this was my imagining, perhaps an early expression of compassion. I actually have no idea what his true experience was at being the last of his kind, but it touched something deeply in me.
I had a similar, poignant and sorrowful response on imagining what the experience was like for a rare bird, also the last of its kind, crying out for its mate. This is a genetically-determined behavior in the bird. I don’t know if the bird had an emotional response or if it just moved on. I know for myself, waiting and being met only with silence is anxiety-provoking and very distressful. Today, in our age of instant call and response, our capacity for waiting has become almost non-existent. I can make a strong case that the simmering generalized anxiety that now permeates our world is made worse by this lack of capacity to wait.
The psychological experience of separation anxiety is well researched. We understand at both the biologic and physiologic levels how the physical body experiences and adapts to separation and loss. Increased levels of neurotransmitters are released in an effort to manage the flight or fight response. These include adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Prolonged exposure to stress results in over-production of these neurotransmitters and can negatively impact brain development, particularly in infants and toddlers.
What is less well researched, but now observed more frequently, is how this same pattern of response occurs in older adults. Here the type and frequency of separation changes (e.g., death of a partner/spouse, loss of a pet), but the end result is impact to brain functioning, typically a temporary decline in cognitive skills and an increase in depression and anxiety.
It is inevitable that we will experience loss with increasing frequency as we age. The impact of these losses vary, but when they cluster it intensifies the experience and may result in physical, emotional, and cognitive problems. Broadly speaking, the expectations around loss and being left behind tend to be unrealistic and in some cases may result in poor outcomes including choosing to numb out with alcohol or other substances, withdraw, or fall into depression.
What seems to be most helpful, at least according to hospice workers, therapists, and many spiritual traditions, is to allow yourself to fully express and experience the loss. Acceptance of death and loss happens at different times in different states of awareness. For some, thoughts of dying represent release and relief. For others, these thoughts can bring shame and fear. If you are the one left behind, you may experience guilt or anger, or any combination of intense emotions.
I have written elsewhere of my own experiences with death and loss. For many years, I was angry at my father for leaving me behind. It took a bunch of therapy and several workshops to chip away at the protective barrier I had erected around my heart, thinking I was keeping it safe from being hurt ever again. That strategy didn’t keep death away, and others who I have loved deeply have subsequently left me behind. What I have learned is that the heart does heal. Kindness, self-compassion, patience, and time all play roles in how the healing begins and how long it takes.
According to the folks at the Living/Dying Project, “conscious dying is the process of utilizing the dying process as an opportunity to become more present and loving, an opportunity for profound healing, for spiritual awakening. Eastern traditions such as Hinduism and particularly Buddhism, as well as shamanic traditions, have explicit teachings that guide the dying to a conscious and graceful death.”
With each loss I have also learned how to keep my heart open, even though it hurts and I may doubt that the hurt can ever go away. I try to stay aware of my feelings, especially when I am feeling lonely, afraid, or invisible. I am not always successful in doing this, but the more I practice, the better I get.
Being left behind is inherently uncomfortable. Learning techniques such as meditation, practicing loving-kindness, and finding ways to let go gently and compassionately all help to turn that discomfort into something more soothing. The ache of the loss seems to decrease in intensity not only with time, but with intentional release of tears, revisiting moments of emotions including joy and anger, laughter and intimacy. Extending compassion to self, being patient with a process that is anything but linear and predictable, are all sound techniques to help patch over the gaping wound that loss creates.