Recently at an SOS meeting, I was on the edges of an interesting conversation. I don’t want to invoke the details because we promise confidentiality at our bi-monthly meetings; that “what is said here, stays here.” So let me simply say that one participant shared that an earlier loss in his life derailed him more deeply and for a longer period than the more recent loss that brought him to these meetings. And another participant suggested that surviving his earlier grief may have helped him with the new loss.
I didn’t think about this again until the following morning, when I realized that I have lived through something similar. In the mid-1970’s, I felt the future had closed its doors to me, and I could no longer believe that I had a place in this world.
When Jon died, I felt in doubt about many things–I felt that I had failed as a father and as a human being–but I didn’t feel oblivion pulling the ground from beneath my feet in the way I did at that earlier time in my life.
I was already aware of the parallel between these two times in my life; otherwise, I wouldn’t have devoted a chapter to that earlier traumatic time in “Winter Came Early”. But when I wrote about that earlier time, I was trying to understand the desperation that Jon must have felt in his last months and years, not invoke my own.
It wasn’t until the following morning that I understood that the shattering of hope, which swept through me decades ago, could in fact have helped prepare me to live with the loss of my son. Because I had escaped the jaws of oblivion decades earlier, I could more quickly recover trust in the future and the world in the wake of the more recent loss.
As I write about these losses, I wonder if I am speaking for anyone else. Or am I just hoping that my life experiences have global relevance in order to excuse my dwelling on personal “tempests in a teacup” that are so common and so individual that they don’t warrant the attention I continue to give them three years later. But still, I go on . . .
The image of Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall and shattering on the roadway below has become an image of loss and grief for me. That nursery rhyme invokes for me how, looking around at pieces of eggshell, survivors can hardly recognize that those pieces were once part of themselves. These experiences–familiar to anyone whose life has broken apart in the many ways that it does—invites an image to capture the bewilderment and grief that inevitably follows in the wake of loss. But until this morning, I didn’t take the additional step of noticing that the parts that remain—even if they are scattered and damaged—continue to offer a basis for healing going forward.
Certainly, the pieces of shell scattered across the roadway are themselves quite useless. They are of no more use to Humpty than an old skin is to the snake that has just shed it. The process of repair and healing must proceed from what arises in the heart, no matter how painful that feels. Humpty, if he is to survive his fall, must grow back a new skin–not a new shell. Survivors need to accept a new nakedness that life has thrust upon them.
When we listen to the lessons we were forced to learn earlier in our lives, we may witness that they have allowed us to be more confident when new losses arrive than we could otherwise be. Honoring those earlier versions of ourselves, who ventured so courageously through fields of doubt and adversity, we may realize that we owe them a debt of gratitude for the difficult journeys they have braved on our behalf? And in that coming together of who we once were and who we are now, we can venture forth into an unknown future arm in arm . . .