Lifestyle

Seeing our losses as a potential source of strength

Some years ago, my youngest daughter went to the store with me to spend her allowance for a favorite toy. She was all of maybe 5 or 6 years old and had her eye set on some of the miniatures in the doll aisle. However, her older brother was also with me, bouncing between the action figures and the Hot Wheels sections. I attempted to float between my two children, making sure they were where I left them as they asked, “Do I have enough allowance for this?”

And then it happened. I had just answered my son’s latest question when I returned to the doll aisle — and my daughter was gone. I quickly moved from row to row in the toy department, scanning every aisle for my daughter — nothing. I spotted a nearby sales clerk, ran to her to explain my dilemma, and asked her to make an announcement on the intercom. I began jetting past row after row of aisles in the entire department store — there was still no sign of my daughter.

And then I saw her. Another sales clerk had scooped her up from a swinging lawn chair display where she had been completely out of sight when I had looked down that aisle. My daughter had no idea. At that moment, my panic instantly melted into sheer joy and relief. She had not been kidnapped. She was not hurt. All of my immediate fears vanished.

Today, I can still easily get in touch with the feeling I had when I watched my clueless 5-year-old smiling at her frazzled father.

Some years later, I befriended a hair stylist to whom I routinely went for my haircuts. Over time, she shared with me one of the most difficult choices in her life. She left her two young daughters to come to the United States for work that could provide for her family. Alone for several years, she worked and saved her way to the day when she was able to have both of her daughters reunited with her. She expressed to me the joy that she felt when she brought her daughters home for the very first time.

I thought about the joy that I had felt from being reunited with my child after only a few moments of absence, in contrast to the much, much greater joy that my friend experienced — having missed her children every day for years.

There is something about loss that changes us. Often, it is too painful for us to see or feel anything except what is missing. But it can also prepare in us a place, a kind of container, for joy.

For my hair stylist and for me, what was lost was recovered. But we can also experience loss when there is no return, no recovery and no restoration. Experiences of loss also have the potential of becoming our source of strength.

My friend, Sister Cheryl, an Episcopalian chaplain serving in a large city hospital in pediatric oncology and intensive care, is able to be present in such a powerful, personal and understanding way with mothers who have lost a child because she knows exactly what it feels like. She, too, was once a mother who waited day and night in a hospital room by her child’s bedside only to watch all hope slip away.

Avoiding loss is impossible. Grieving our losses reminds us of our precious humanity. But transforming our losses into the appreciation of the good things in our lives and being able to be there for others are strengths like no others.

Steve Pults, LMHC, is an individual, couple and family therapist at Mercer Island Youth & Family Services.

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