The Things We Lost
Last week was my 'escape-aversary' (by now you may know I tend to make up words if there isn't one to sufficiently express my reality). It was the anniversary of the night 2 police detectives showed up in my driveway, in dark suits and a dark sedan, looking something like Men in Black. The officers calmly questioned me for a few minutes about my estranged husband before informing me that they had, what they believed to be, a credible threat against my life and were strongly recommending that I leave my home right away. That was the last time I would lead a 'normal' life for quite some time. It was the last time I had an address, or even a name, I widely shared. That day at work would mark my last day of work at my beloved school with my sweet-faced students, and within 48 hours it would also mark the last time I ever stepped into my beloved church. It was the end of many friendships, as I would 'disappear' shortly after that night: it was the end of my contact with any social or community service network, the end of participating in hobbies or shopping in favorite stores, or even driving a daily path. That night marked an abrupt end to life as I had known it.
It's true that this was also a life-saving event that opened up an entirely new future for my family. We were saved through the most unlikely of scenarios that culminated in trained Domestic Violence detectives (something not widely available even today in most of the country) proactively coming and encouraging me to leave. By any standard, it is an act of incredible good fortune, and most certainly privilege, that I'm even here today. And I want to honor and acknowledge that - but not at the expense of also honoring and acknowledging the intense loss that came from this time.
We don't get to acknowledge our losses enough.
In a world that's just beginning to discuss the idea of toxic positivity and is just beginning to discuss grief, loss, and limitation with anything other than a lens of 'but it was for the best', I think it's time to talk openly about what we've lost.
You can talk about your loss and still honor your gain. Don't believe anyone that tells you otherwise. Not only that, but acknowledging our losses and the resulting limitations is a key part of our post-traumatic growth. You must name your losses fearlessly before you can move forward to your possibilities. As Leonard Cohen penned, "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." You simply cannot have the light of that next chapter unless you first have the cracks. Those setbacks, those limitations, those losses - they feel simply awful to sit with. And perhaps that is why the push for toxic positivity. We are so patently uncomfortable with loss that we want to push right past it: around, over, under, but not through. We want the light sans the cracks.
And it just doesn't work that way.
To be honest, for years I was very angry about the moments that followed this dramatic night. Because I wasn't allowed to mourn, and the mantra repeated over and over again was 'how lucky' I was to even be alive, anything less than total appreciation was deemed selfish and that made it, for me, intolerable. So my grief turned to anger and shame and those emotions metastasized in my body in lots of ways (this is another post!). It effected everything in my recovery and growth, but most especially I'm sorry to say it effected my relationships and my parenting. I couldn't say out loud how I was feeling frustrated because there were no more vacations, dance classes, or other trappings of a (very privileged) life now lost: or how mad I was because I kept getting turned down for credit cards and couldn't even rent a place to live without a begrudging family member as a co-signer and an uncomfortably revealing conversation about why my credit score was eviscerated and why my debt was so high with a skeptical landlord. Fighting for my dignity and feeling the shame we impress in this country upon people who need childcare subsidy or public assistance, or having a full-on existential crisis when I finally realized I was never, ever, going to be able to go back to the career that most definitely had defined me, was all couched in this pink cloud of 'but you are just so fortunate to even be here.'
I wish, in those moments, someone had laid plain for me what is critical to know to grow from our setbacks: We have to lean into the losses. We have to name them, acknowledge them, and mourn them in order to truly move forward with the set of skills, vision, and lessons we can use to start a new chapter. You can do it out of order - but trust me when I tell you, it slows your progress and makes for a painful revisiting.
This isn't just true for individuals - it also applies to our organizations and businesses. Our inability to deal with anything less than a just-happy-we're-still-here attitude is constricting and it will severely limit the ways we can get creative about our next steps. For organizations pivoting out of COVID, employees have to know they're safe to 'miss' old business models, or in-person work, or just a previous way of engaging with their clients and peers. Telling them all the advantages without acknowledging that change is a challenge and a loss is worth honoring, glosses over team development and stunts creativity. We do this, too, with new parents - celebrating the gift of their expanding family and giving almost no credence to the massive life shift that is required when a child comes into the home (however they arrive). Worse sometimes is intentionally or unintentionally assigning shame to the feelings of loss over a lifestyle that is now no longer possible. There is nothing effective in shame and the idea that you must only see the positives of your 'new lease on life', whatever that particular lease is, will leave you, a family, or a business careening toward anger and resentment. You will not thrive. This is like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Do you know what happens if you cut open the cocoon to 'help' a butterfly get out? The butterfly almost always dies. It needs the struggle, the work, the overcoming what it once was, to strengthen its wings enough to emerge and fly. Failing to acknowledge our loss cuts open the cocoon.
So how do we honor our losses without getting swallowed by them?
Write them down. Or say them out loud to a trusted friend (or therapist). Spend a team meeting listing what you miss most from the 'before times'. Sit with those losses. And then destroy them. Cross them out, tear or burn the pages of the book, release a primal, mournful scream, but destroy them as a final act of acknowledgement. They are real, they are felt, seen, honored, and now they can be released so you can move on.
Create the cracks - that is how to let the light in.