As a nurse I have seen loss up close and personal, and it’s often a challenge to try to help patients come to terms with it.
A fifty-year old Diabetic sat in his hospital bed, fuming. “This damn leg isn’t healing and now the doctor said it will most likely need to be amputated!” He cursed the discolored limb, grumbling about how much trouble it had caused him over the last year, in and out of the hospital. He seethed about wanting to just get it over and done with.
I looked at his leg – all blue and black, practically lifeless now, and I saw something quite different.
I suggested that instead of feeling anger about the impending surgery, he could instead have a going away party for his leg. After all, it had carried him through many years of his life, playing sports, riding a bike, chasing girls, running up and down stairs with his own children and so on. .
I encouraged him to decorate his leg, even have people sign it if he wanted to express his thanks to such a fine limb.
More than all the outward symbols, I really encouraged him to think on his body with compassion and gratefulness and to express his thanks to his leg for working so hard, even with the challenge of Diabetes. I encouraged him to say goodbye.
A friend was diagnosed with breast cancer and was full of angst about her upcoming mastectomy. I gently asked if she would consider reframing the surgery in her own way. I suggested that perhaps she could decorate her breast with henna, in beautiful designs, and have a going away party for it. I acknowledged that such a loss was devastating, but again hoped she could find a way to say goodbye that would celebrate what had been, not just dread what was to come.
I never asked if either of these two took my suggestions, but I know when presented with the idea, it was one that they had not considered before.
I have had my share of loss, and have had opportunities for goodbyes of my own.
On the day my divorce was final; I left the City Hall office and went to a nearby river. I had taken time the night before to write out a long list of all the things I knew I would be giving up starting the next day. These included giving up my ability to grow old with the man I married, being part of an intact family, and being part of a partnership with parenting my three children.
At the river’s edge I stood there for a long while, not wanting to let go of my list, as if letting it go would make it all real. I felt frightened and alone. There was no going back, but the future was uncertain. I finally attached my goodbye list to a balloon and let it go. It didn’t fly away up into the heavens as I had imagined, but rather it scooted along kind of slowly on the surface of the water for a while, before taking its beleaguered flight.
This is what it’s like to let go. We want to have it fly far away so we don’t have to deal with the loss. But letting go of pivotal things in our life is usually harder, bobbing along beside us, reminding us of what life was like “before”.
Loss is a bitch, there’s no two ways about it. The hollowness it creates can seem impossible to ever fill. But loss is a part of life and it takes many forms. Losing a marriage, or a friendship, a pet, a body part, a job – every loss seems to take a part of you away and yet I still think it’s worth trying to have these ceremonies. The Goodbye Ceremonies.
Isn’t it possible to say goodbye and yet try to find the grace to say hello to what is left for us? In these moments of loss, when we feel betrayed by life and bereft, we can celebrate what was, and yet not hang on to it. We can try to honor the resiliency that we possess and be thankful that even in the midst of our loss, we still live. And where there is life, there is hope for something wonderful just around the corner.