Most of us have experienced the loss of a loved one – to death, to betrayal, to circumstances, to distances – and more often than not for reasons we cannot make sense of.
Having experienced loss doesn’t help answer the palpable question: ‘how can we deal with it’.
The most pressing sentiment behind this statement is a state of mind – helplessness – which we want to rid ourselves of, for it is unbearable. Sometimes we are in touch with not only how unbearable the pain of loss is, but also that in grieving we end up feeling alone. In writing this article I have cited some nuances from different stories of people* who have experienced the loss of a loved one, in some form or another.
Living with sadness juxtaposes living with happiness. These are emotional states where the existence of one warrants the existence of the other. This being a given, perhaps it is easier to imagine how these emotions do not necessarily represent polarities within us, but are our responses to events that can evoke these emotions simultaneously in us. If I can be happy, it does not mean that I cannot be sad, that I cannot mourn my loss or be angry about it. I cannot put a timeline on my emotional experiences or quantify them.
In my clinical practice, I find myself repeatedly confronted with the question: how long will it take to heal, to go away, to leave me alone?
In touch with the pain and helplessness experienced by my patient, my own voice echoes in my head: we can’t erase our feelings; we can’t control them, at best we have to learn to bare them. This is an unfortunate reality that I cannot freely share with this person, this patient. I must wait for them to arrive at it through their own struggle, through their own patience.
Through their experiences of loss and my own, I have learnt, like so very many people before me, that there is unfortunately no way to fast track or short circuit our emotional experiences. They are processes we live with and simultaneously work through. Therapy can simply help you make sense of them, and help you find strength to bear with them.
This we all know. But the problem compounds. Society doesn’t permit feelings, and sometimes just feeling. This too we know. Here’s how I have experienced this oppression expressed in clinical practice.
Our civilization histories do not permit a tolerance towards feelings.
Priya said to me “I can’t say it to them; I am strong enough to deal with this [alone]”. My doubt was not that she couldn’t. The fact that she could deal with it was well the truth and the burden she carried with her. What was striking, and in my experience has become even more certain, is that this strength laden in the falsity (an image) of the self is what gets strengthened in our relational worlds. ‘I will be loved/respected/applauded because I am displaying strength in handling a certain situation.’ We are validated for upholding our ‘strength’.
But this is precisely where the pain is and it is precisely where our surroundings display little tolerance towards feelings. Being strong does not mean that we are not allowed to feel.
“If I were not to handle it and be strong, I will breakdown and fall apart” she continued. This either-or scenario is pretty much imprinted in our minds, and cemented somewhere in our unconscious worlds.
Breakdowns are painful; hence we do all we can to avoid them.
But also it is true that what we fear is the breakdown that has already happened (the death, the loss). We are invested in postponing its mourning; an unbearable state of mind.
We fight ourselves to erase it. We display little understanding towards ourselves. Even worse, we collude with others telling us, “get a hold of yourself,” “it’s about time you got over it”, and many more directive statements like these that do not permit the individual the space or the right to mourn.
After her breakup, Puja cried to me profusely “I don’t know what I did wrong”. Her breakup tore her apart. she couldn’t recover a part of herself she lost in the process. Her insides churned and her blood pressure dropped. Her pain was immense. “Preserving the good did not make me happy”, she painfully confessed. It was a long time before she could say this to me. But she held on to goodness, the only ground under her feet, as most of us do because being good makes us feel safe, but it does not make us happy.
For her acknowledging the bad in him meant believing that it is true and hence having to let him go.
Seema shared with me her experience of watching her mother’s corpse burn at the crematorium, “I needed to see it all, I needed to see her go, and still I couldn’t believe it”. The lingering space of disbelief, the lingering space of doubt, is also the space for hope: to recover the lost at one end and denying the loss at the other.
The plain knowledge of badness or death did not warrant an acceptance. We also fear saying it out loud because it concretizes an experience, making it even more real: perhaps too real to tolerate, too close to accepting the loss it entails. Knowledge and acceptance lie a distance apart on the same spectrum.
Healing begins with knowledge which only ‘goes in’ when we are ready to take it in. Traveling this distance is a very slow process.
With uncovering pieces from her past, it became clearer to Puja as to why she held on and why she still needed to. Keeping the belief of his goodness alive kept her from giving up on him as much as holding on to a part of herself she did not want to lose. With belief came misery, the truth of its unbearableness and the lonely path of recovery, a caesura, which is frightening for it makes separation painfully evident.
There are many reasons why we may choose not to talk about brokenness. Some don’t want to talk about it; they say it gets better with time. Some don’t want expose it, and protect it under the guise of maturity. We ‘handle it’ or keep it hidden in a box deep inside ourselves – so deep that it cannot be accessed. We may experience these as our versions of truth. Many of us continue to live our entire lives with these secrets locked deep within us. It is an effective coping strategy, no doubt, but with these secrets go the emotions, the pain, and the self-allowance to travel the distance between knowledge and acceptance. The pain becomes inaccessible to us, because we have been forewarned that should we meet with it, it will incur a huge emotional cost.
Coming face to face with our feelings and vulnerabilities exposes us not only to others but also to our own selves.
“Look at me I’m sitting here and crying. It has been years,” said Puja. She couldn’t disown that miserable part of herself that she so desperately wanted to. It kept coming up from time to time, as if it finally needed its due attention.
We feel weak and as though we have no control when we experience loss but that doesn’t mean that we are weak.
To feel the loss of someone significant to us, of someone we have loved, is painful and unbearable even more because we do not always have sufficient vocabulary for what we feel.
When we find ourselves alone, and in need of a space to finally experience a part of us that broke down a while ago, we should try and reach out – friends, family, a sympathetic ear. If we can’t find such peace, we must reach out to other paths. Of course, therapy is one such option. Therapy helps make available a safe space for the unbearable in our self, to put words to the unbearable in our narrative. This does not make us happy, but it helps develop a capacity for these unbearable states of mind, to help work through with them independent of socially acceptable standards.
We all must wade through the pain. This, in my experience, will in turn cultivate a true sense of happiness as a freely felt emotion, rather than a moral standard.
*For the purpose of confidentiality, I have altered the details in the narratives cited above.
Rashi is a people’s person contrary to the image of psychoanalytically trained and informed psychotherapists. She is currently working as a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist with the Fortis Healthcare, New Delhi. She works with people across different age groups experiencing emotional conflicts, psychotic breakdowns and difficult states of mind. Working with women issues at the cusp of psychoanalysis and feminism is of key interest to her.