This week has occasioned the celebration of my 40/20 birthday.
At least that’s how a dear friend labeled it – you do the math.
Having reached another chronological marker in my life reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother several years ago.
“They’re dropping like flies.”
That was my mom’s response to my question, “Mom, you sound a little down, what’s going on?”
It was the beginning of a phone call nearly 15 years ago. She was about 70 then and as it turned out that week she’d gotten word that several more of her acquaintances had died.
My mom died suddenly 10 years ago and undoubtedly became part of many other people’s similar laments. As folks get older their worlds shrink, at least in terms of the people who populate their world.
It was rather eerie to be in a position to counsel my own mother. After all, she was the one who taught me just about everything about life. She taught me manners. She taught me the letters of the alphabet and the numbers we use to count – though I don’t think she ever mentioned 40/20.
However, like so many mothers and fathers when my little heart was sad my mom would attempt to soothe me by telling me, “Don’t feel bad, everything’s going to be okay.” After all, she had been socialized in a world that made that statement the default setting for response to almost all sad or painful events.
But sometimes everything does not turn out okay and tragedies happen and people die and being counseled not to feel the way you feel is not very helpful.
So on that day, many decades after my own childhood was but a jumble of memories, happy and sad, I taught my own mommy some important lessons about grief and how to deal with the avalanche of emotions she was feeling in response to the deaths of many people who had been dear to her.
On that day in her seventieth year, I told my mom that it wasn’t just the number of losses that was affecting, her but it was also her beliefs about dealing with loss that contributed to the sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of losses.
Over time, we have been called upon to help people who are stuck under a mountain of losses. Sadly, not uncommon for us, is a call from someone whose entire family was wiped out in a car crash or an airplane tragedy. If it is unimaginable what the impact of the sudden death of a loved one might have on someone, multiply it by having it be dad, mom, brother, and sister all in the same horrid event.
Beyond instant accidental tragedies that take a large number of lives, there are many other losses that can make people feel as if it is impossible to ever regain any sense of emotional balance. We are privy to those people who have undergone a litany of losses that are unbearable even to hear about. It is almost impossible to imagine how people survive the emotional onslaught of such repeated devastation.
The analogy that seems to be most universal, is the idea of someone flailing in the ocean, going down under a wave, and finally getting their head back above the surface, only to be inundated again and again and again.
Talking to my mom that day and talking to thousands of others over the years, I had to deliver this most awkward truth; “If you don’t have the tools for dealing with the first loss, you won’t have the tools for the second loss, the third, the fourth, and down the line.”
We learn CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and other emergency skills so that if and when we are confronted with a medical crisis we will know what to do. Life and death are often measured in seconds and minutes.
Yet we are often unwilling to acquire life-saving emotional skills before we are drowning in a sea of sorrow. The experience of pain does not prepare us for recovery; it only teaches us how bad pain feels. There are some lessons we keep putting off until it’s too late.
Loss is inevitable. There is no time like the present for learning to deal with life’s losses, before they happen.