Last year I lost someone.
He wasn’t really mine to lose. He’d been absent from my life for more than a decade, though I thought about him not infrequently. This individual was someone I’d known well when we were both very young and naive, making the kinds of choices that young and naive people make. He was sweet, brilliant, and interesting, and we corresponded through letters for several years after high school, and after I went to college. He had some mental health concerns, which I didn’t really think about at the time (weren’t we ALL struggling in different ways at that age?), and was in and out of treatment. He was a bright spot in my life, and I cared about him very much.
When I inquired into where and how he was last year, I learned that he’d died just a couple months before my inquiry, in a terrible way. I felt regret, and I still do, that I hadn’t reached out just a few months sooner. I am rocked by this still, and think of it most days.
But. Things go as they go, and we get very little say in the matter, as it turns out.
I’m bracing myself. At forty, I think I’ve hit the age where the losses are going to start coming more rapidly, and I’m not wholly prepared for this prospect. I anticipate working with feelings of regret, and of failure, and of not having done enough. I’ve nurtured these emotions so much in my own therapeutic work over the years that I’m not keen to spend yet MORE time with them, but – such is Self-work.
My clients, too, are confronted with this kind of work routinely. In the therapy room, I tend to work with incredibly considerate souls that gladly put themselves on the back burner time and again for the people in their lives that they love; that they are hoping to love hard enough into saving: from addiction, from mental illness, from reckless life choices, from poverty, from pain. There is a kind of hope attached to this work. Of course, no one wants to let go of their hopefulness for the recovery and well-beng of the people they love.
That said, it can be very painful to love people that don’t do a terrific job of taking care of themselves, or that struggle with issues that keep coming back to hurt them (and those they care about). Loving someone with a serious mental health diagnosis, for example, can be exhausting, requiring constant re-evaluation and boundary-setting and self-care. The payoff doesn’t always seem worth it, especially when we see our people making what we perceive to be yet ANOTHER poor decision, or failing to do something a certain way yet AGAIN. With the hope comes the disappointment. Both of these emotions can be terrifically hard to nurture.
How, then, to proceed? Well, I don’t think we give up the hope. I DO think we consider how to release ourselves from the responsibility, from the blame, and from the fear of the loss (in whatever way this comes) of the people we love. We extend our care and attention, we offer of ourselves whatever is readily available from a place of abundance and generosity, and we trust our loved ones (I KNOW how hard this is. I know I know I know) to make choices about their own lives. We cannot make choices for them, and we cannot change who they are, so we let our ideas about how they should live their lives go. We Let Go and we love our people for who they are, where they are, for as long as we have them.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
A note: Self-love is Essential in this process. When we fail to care for ourselves emotionally in the midst of caring for our people who are struggling, we create our own struggle. There is nothing romantic or chivalrous about following someone into the Dark, no matter how many movies and songs tell us otherwise. This is why, in the therapy room, we prioritize Letting Go over and over again, and focus in on what we need first. This practice strengthens our center and allows us to love and hope in ways that are large and steadfast, even when our people struggle. Even when they disappoint. Even when they die.
I never know how to conclude these posts, and today, especially – I have nothing revelatory to say about grief or death. These things are painful and hard, and they should be.
I think we just start with love – for ourselves first, and then for our people. Intentional, considered, centered, large love.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.