Recently I finally did something I hadn’t done since Carlos died 15 months ago: attend a grief and loss support group, one with an explicit focus on mindfulness. I hadn’t gone to any group and also hadn’t gone to therapy. After Deborah told me it was “just going to be an effing hard year,” which it was, I thought, among other things, that I might as well save my money, and it turned out that bodywork was a better allocation of funds. From time to time, I would think I should go to a group, but before I could locate one, the particularly sad period would pass and it wouldn’t seem necessary.
I know some people start going immediately after a loss, and some never go, and that either is fine, so I didn’t feel obligated, but I got an email about this group, and just decided to go. I don’t think about Carlos all day every day (though I do think of him every day), but it is dawning on me that, sometimes when I miss him, it is with the same intensity as ever, and I’m starting to think that is never going to abate. In fact, in a way, now that some time has passed, it seems even more shocking when I have a specific memory of him: that happened? That is gone?
(Seems a little unfair that I should be with him for less than a year and then potentially have to mourn his loss maybe for decades.)
I was the first person to arrive at the group and felt quite hostile. I decided that I would share my name and nothing more, and when one of the co-facilitators approached me, I felt grumpy and very nearly left. However, I’d been thinking that maybe another group member would give me a ride home later, so a vague desire to avoid the 30-minute walk home and a degree of inertia kept me sitting there.
There ended up being six attendees, some whose losses were as long as three or four years ago and some whose losses were exceedingly fresh, plus two leaders. There was no one there I knew. I would have left if there had been, probably. What was said was of course confidential, but I think it’s OK to share the format.
We went around and said our names and who we lost and when and shared a memory of that person. I did that, except I shared someone else’s memory of a thing Carlos once did, and I said it wasn’t my memory.
Then we did a written exercise, reflecting on a past loss, not the one that had brought us to the group. We answered three questions: Did that experience change my life? Did I gain understanding or wisdom? What strengths do I have now that I didn’t have then? We got into dyads (pairs) and shared our answers, taking turns talking and listening.
Then we did another written exercise, reflecting on our current loss, again with three questions: Are there others affected by this loss? How are they dealing with it? Do I know others going through a loss similar to mine? We again shared our findings in the same dyad and then we shared on a group level a bit about what our experience had been. In responding to what we said, one of the leaders put a big emphasis on mindfulness of the body, asking us to notice what we were experiencing and reminding us that that is where our wisdom resides, not in our stories about things. That is, he was speaking my language exactly.
I thought the exercises were brilliant. My previous loss was that of Chet, who was 26 years older than I was, and an excellent friend and mentor to me starting when I was 17. He died of a heart attack when I was 25, he 51. I had been living in San Francisco for five years by then, and didn’t talk to him often, but as it happened, we had spoken on the phone maybe a month before, and after we hung up, I called back specifically to tell him that I loved him.
The experience of his death did not change my life and I did not gain in understanding or wisdom. I remember crying perhaps once, but not mourning beyond that, because it was unbearable. There was no way Chet could be gone, and that was that. Even years later, I couldn’t think about it for more than a few seconds. But thanks to our discussion, I see now that, even though I thought I was all grown up, at 25 I wasn’t able to remain awake to that loss and feel it fully, which is fine. That’s how it was, but one of the leaders pointed out that such un-mourned losses can affect our ability to deal with our current loss; hence the question about strengths we have now that we didn’t have then.
However, I don’t think not mourning for Chet has impeded my mourning for Carlos, which has been full and unstinting. Nonetheless, I plan to spend some time reflecting on Chet to see if there is anything that wants to be felt or seen.
As for my current loss, are there others affected? Certainly; many. How are they dealing with it? As it happens, I’m not in touch with the three other people who were closest to Carlos—his ex-girlfriend, his brother, a dear friend—so I have no idea! But I often run into other friends and acquaintances of his who might say, “Oh, I miss him—I was just thinking about him today.” He was very loved.
Do I know others going through a loss similar to mine? At first, I thought not. I could only think of the other five people in the room. But then I remembered about the administrative assistant at work. And another co-worker. And a person I was in a class with long ago whom I ran into at a party in the past year and have kept in touch with a bit. And a woman in my meditation group. And—duh—another friend I see regularly; how could I have not thought of him? Plus I have two close friends whose mothers are terminally ill right now.
These questions were also excellent, reminding me that I’m not the only one to suffer a loss; I’m not even the only one to suffer this loss. The group meets monthly on a drop-in, donation basis. I plan to return. We talked a bit about things we like to hear on the subject of the person we lost, and things we hate. You can’t go wrong with, “I’m so sorry,” but as far as I’m concerned, you can go very wrong with, “He’s still here in spirit.” That actually makes me angry.
One of the leaders mentioned another potentially angering response: any reference to the loss being a growth experience or how we might receive a gift from it. However, it dawned on me that I have received at least one major gift from this loss: the gift of a broken heart itself. I cry frequently now, about my own sorrows, and, sometimes just as freely, about other people’s. I cried when I heard on the radio about the woman in Washington, DC, who lost her housing and found all her stuff outside on the lawn, that which hadn’t been stolen. I cried when I read about the little girl who was asked to leave a KFC because her facial scars from having been attacked by a dog were bothering other patrons. Until then, she hadn’t thought there was anything wrong with her face. Now she doesn’t want to look in a mirror or have others see her. I’m crying now. I can feel that. It hurts. I can feel it because I was able to feel my own loss.
It is also thanks to Carlos that I’ve ended up at the soup kitchen, which every week softens my heart further. The more open my heart is, the more satisfying and meaningful life is, and if that’s not a gift, I don’t know what is. And, yes, I did get a ride home, from a very nice person.
Since I wrote the above, it came out that the family of the little girl at KFC may have made their story up.
Also, in the days since I wrote the above, the mother of one of my close friends died, after being ill for about a year. I have vivid memories of her starting from when I was seven years old, when her daughter and I would go to their house after school to eat ice cream and sit on giant bean bag chairs, watching TV. I haven’t heard her actual voice for decades, but can hear it in my head as if it was just yesterday. My friend had been planning to marry her gentleman companion in due time, but once her mother became ill, they went ahead immediately, so that her mother could help choose her dress and be at the ceremony.