The Spirituality of Loss
[Exploring Life] All loss inspires a spiritual journey of self-discovery aimed at attaining wisdom. A spiritual practice inspires a deeper sense of belonging and interconnectedness and helps us to move forward in the direction of embracing a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life. The death of a loved one is one of the most potent and traumatic form of loss we experience in life. Discovering the wisdom within our loss requires a spiritual journey into the raw essence of death and impermanence. The spirituality of loss is a passionate search for wisdom across a stark and inhospitable landscape of bereavement, mourning, anguish, and grief. It is a journey of transformation that changes our sense of identity and purpose.
When a loved one dies, we find ourselves immersed in grief. The death of a loved is a profound event that forces us to our knees to reconsider who we are and why we are here. There is a remarkable sense of ignorance embedded in the saying, “Life goes on.” It is obvious that life continues on when we experience a loss, but the experience of being alive is profoundly and irrevocably altered. The death of my parents has forever altered the terrain of my own spiritual journey. The experience of loss that originates in death is a violent earthquake that releases powerful tremors deep within the secret places of our soul. Loss forever alters our internal landscape. When a loved one dies, we feel broken, abandoned and wounded, and in this weakened and frail state we are confronted by the spirituality of loss.
A Journey into Loss
In the presence of death we realize how incredibly fragile our existence is. Death retrieves our humility and crushes our pretentiousness; the experience of a permanent loss is a primal point of no return from which there is no possibility of retreat or recovery. The death of a loved one is permanent and ultimately completely out of our control. To experience the loss of a loved one is to merge our being with a profound humility. Even with best laid plans, our life course is largely out of our control. When a loved one dies, we realize how fleeting our time here really is, and how subservient we are to the natural processes and inherent uncertainties of life.
The loss of my parents has transformed me in ways that I do not yet, and perhaps never will, fully understand. I do know that their deaths are inspiring change within. At the very least, the journey of self-discovery into the loss of my parents has required me to challenge some of the assumptions I harbour about my focus and direction in life. Death has advised me to reconsider my long-held beliefs, to alter my priorities, and to reconsider my direction in life.
An important insight that helps me to spiritually navigate loss is to imagine what my parents would want for me if they could communicate with me from an afterlife. Though they can no longer speak to me directly, I imaginatively communicate with them in silent contemplation. It is obvious to me that my parents would want me to live a happy and vibrant life, and that my anguish over their departure is minimal. In my own spiritual journey, I imagine holding a conversation with a parent that helps me to move through difficult terrain. Seeking wisdom within loss is a deeply creative endeavour.
Spirituality always involves some form of courageous leap into uncharted territory. Soon after my parents died, I felt the ominous approach of grief, and I knew it would affect every dimension of my life. My fear was significant, and my courage was desperately short in supply. The spiritual landscape is sometimes animated by our fears, anxieties, insecurities, and anguish about death and dying. This is a very difficult terrain to negotiate, but if we walk into it with a firm resolve to enter into our pain and suffering in order to find the wisdom hidden there, we can gradually move forward and begin to renegotiate our place in the world.
A spiritual journey can be harsh and distressing. When death takes a loved one from us, we become mired in a bog of unwelcome feelings, mercurial emotions, and agonizing patterns of thought. Our physical senses seem to perceive the world in a confusing, strange, and unfamiliar manner. We begin to suffer from an identity crisis, of not knowing who we really are and what we really should be doing in life. The spirituality of loss invokes our primal survival instincts, but we no longer understand what survival means or looks like.
Touching the Nature of LossAging is a biological imperative that predisposes us to the experience of loss. Death is an unavoidable consequence of being alive. When someone dies, we rationally understand that death is mandatory for everyone. This knowledge, however, seems to do very little to lessen the psychological and emotional impact of losing a loved one. There is no knowledge that can sterilize the emotional potency of major life events. Our intuitive-affective sensibilities are far more profound than mere logical, rational thought.
Spirituality, for me, is intimately connected with the earth. That is to say, nature (i.e. the natural world) and spirituality are absolutely inseparable. To be spiritual is to warmly invite the presence of earth within the sanctuary of our soul; to be in nature is to foster spirituality. When I am out in nature, I feel the presence of a rich diversity of life that provides me with a sense of primal belonging and intimacy. There is a constant interplay of life and death in nature, a pervasive dance of presence and absence that can provide insight into life.The quality of our spiritual journey is completely dependent upon our skills of observation, awareness, mindfulness, and contemplation. I consider writing to be a form of contemplation that places my mind in a kind of sanctuary. The thoughts I am expressing here are a glimpse into the nature my own spiritual journey. A spiritual journey places a mysterious and unknown terrain in front of us that we must travel across, otherwise we fail to grow and move forward in life.
We planted two bushes beside each other in our front yard in honour of my mother and father. They are totems that symbolize the continuing presence of their spirit in my life. Each time I go outside, I am greeted by my parents and at times I will hold a secret conversation with them.
On The Outside
My parents loved to spend time outside. Often times they would simply sit outside and observe the weather and activities of the animals that shared the land near them. They did not feel any need to understand nature in an academic sense, that is to say, they were not so concerned with the naming of things and understanding the abstract concepts about the environment. One of their greatest joys later in life was simply to be outside and present in nature.
My mother had a very close association with the earth and nature. Her gardens were her sanctuary and she spent large amounts of time caring for them. She would sometimes talk to her plants, in a light-hearted manner that revealed the intimate bond she shared with them. Bird feeders and baths created a sanctuary of engagement for my mom. She experienced a vibrant sense of joy when the birds would visit her; their presence inspired joy and wonder in her.
I can recall my father sitting for hours in a chair outside on the back deck simply observing his surroundings. There was often a tremendous sense of calm about him. Sometimes I would ask him what he was thinking about, and discovered that he wasn’t really thinking about anything. I am certain he experienced moments of pure awareness during this time. There were periods of time we would sit in silence, but the silence was never uncomfortable. Nature helps us to understand that observing, watching and listening are sometimes more important than talking.
My parents, in some way I cannot comprehend, have returned to nature; their lifeless bodies, now reduced to ashes, are in the ground and the energy that sustained their existence has moved back into the earth. If there is an afterlife, it is impossible for me to know what it is. Death is cloaked by an impenetrable mystery that evades comprehension. When it visits it generates intense emotions of grief, anguish, and sadness. At the same time, death advises us to cherish the present moment, and to live an inspired life rich in the awareness and acceptance of our own fragile impermanence.
Regret is a child of loss. When death ushers a loved one away, regret invites the poignant remembrance of things left unsaid or undone. Regret makes our best efforts seem inadequate; it plagues us with the feeling that we could have done more and we are left to heal the gap between what we were able to do and what we wish we might have done. We secretly fear that regret might introduce a permanent unresolved memory of our failure to contribute.
The gradual deterioration of my parents due to the effects of advanced aging certainly challenged my resilience, which, in the face of my parents’ crisis had at times become quite frail. There were times that I simply wanted to release myself into self-pity myself and wallow in my own anguish, but the thought of doing so while my mother and father were suffering seemed repulsive. In those weaker moments, I redirected my attention to the actual experience of my parents, which by comparison was immensely more challenging than my own. In trying to imagine their suffering and anguish, the feelings I was having seemed trite by comparison.
Grief is a spiritual journey that requires us to find the meaning and purpose of our suffering. I have found that it is helpful to think of experiences such as grief and regret as mentors, to embrace the suffering they invoke as a means to move forward in life and seek higher ground. Our most distressing and painful emotions are our most dedicated and profound teachers. In the absence of spirituality, we become mired in the negative aspects of our experience. There is something positive to be discovered in all experience. The spirituality of loss requires us to discover the wisdom hidden deep within our suffering.
Journey of the Heart
All spiritual journeys originate in the heart. The heart is the essence of wisdom; in the absence of heart, our thoughts and ideas are incomplete and inadequate. The heart is innately courageous, while the mind can often be weak and undependable. We tend to avoid contemplating the inevitable in life, and misrepresent them as being morbid or too uncomfortable to focus on. This is of course the mind speaking in the absence of the heart. This is the voice of avoidance.
I held my mother’s hand and looked directly into her eyes the moment she took her last breath while trying to convey a sense of calmness to her. I was able to be present with my mother during her final hours. My father died alone in his sleep during the night. I was not with him in his last moments, and we were not able to say goodbye to one another. And in the space of four short months, they were both gone. Through this period of time it was my heart, not my mind, that offered some sanctuary from the tempest of emotions, thoughts, and feelings that gathered around me.
The spirituality of loss is a journey into the center of our impermanence that is ignited by the death of a loved one. The spiritual journey is often an extremely difficult one, and the journey into loss is extremely severe and has the potential to cause injury. Our grief completely overwhelms us, bereavement shatters our sense of normalcy, and our mourning feels as though it will never lift. But we must fully inhabit this barren and distressing environment in order to reclaim our identity and discover who we have now become. And in doing so, we hopefully discover the wisdom of our loss.
An Offering in Remembrance of My Parents
Though you have left me
Your presence echoes within the landscape of my soul
Tears caress the beauty of your memory
And I know you have been released from darkness and suffering
Your absence presses on my heart,
And touches my spirit so completely
Grief has become my trusted advisor
For in loss we are created
And in the solitude of my despair I discover you
Embracing my fragile sensibilities
We can sit with each other no longer
The absence of your voices is outrageously loud
But the essence of your love remains
Deep within that eternal place
Where you whisper
Your home is now in my heart
Your essence is in my spirit
In the beauty and resilience of nature
I will always discover you all over again
You have become
A source, an essence, an inspiration
For me in the here and now
Where I reside until I must also leave this world
May your memory remind me of purpose
May your words remind me of meaning
And may your lives remind me of the gratitude
That is the origin of love
- Brian Alger