Loss Changes Everything

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I had one of “those days” recently – the kind of day when I feel a subtle but pervasive discomfort, uneasiness, agitation. Trying to feel better, I searched through the whole forest of my brain to determine what was wrong. It could be any number of things. Did I forget to pay a bill, or call someone, or complete a work task? Did I make someone mad and feel I have to make up for it somehow? Did I leave some permission slip unsigned, some kind person unthanked?

I went through all of that, and the answer to each question was no – no, no, no, no to every one. At the bottom of the question barrel, underneath all the rest, was one last question that I ultimately had to ask: Is it that my brother is gone?

Yes. Yes, it is.

That loss changed everything.

There are moments in your life that create a definitive boundary like a line of fire, moments before which one world stretches back and after which an entirely different world stretches forward. The two worlds meet at the line but never overlap. Once you move into the new world, you cannot go back through the fire to the old. In fact, it may seem like the old world begins to diminish almost instantly as you set foot in the new. If you are lucky, you have some photographs of how life was before, but even as you stare at them you might ask yourself: Did that really happen? Was I really there? The flames of the fire line moment are so high and hot that they can obscure your view of the old world, even as they bring new surroundings into sharp focus.

Examples come to mind: The birth of a child. The deaths of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. September 11, 2001. It is probably no coincidence that these moments all have to do with the beginning or ending of a human life.

My brother Frank died nearly two years ago, suddenly, unexpectedly, too young, killed by a drunk driver. But a death doesn’t have to be sudden, or unexpected, or caused by someone else for it to change everything. Even a loss of someone who died at an advanced age or someone who has lingered for years with a terminal illness can set the fire line ablaze.

A cousin wrote me a note a while ago, saying that she felt that the world had changed irrevocably when Frank died, and that there was something not right now that would never be right again. That’s exactly how I feel. The not-right-ness of the world is an undercurrent of unease for me, more or less noticeable depending on what else is going on, but always there. My father says that sometimes when he is having fun and laughing, he suddenly wonders: How am I having a normal happy moment? Am I forgetting what happened? As he asks himself these questions, he realizes that of course he isn’t normal in the way that he was before his son died, and won’t ever be again. He can find laughter and joy on this side of the fire line, but it comes with that undercurrent, like an endless field of mud that makes it tougher to move forward than it used to be.

If we who have lost someone we love seem different, we probably are. Being different doesn’t mean we cannot live and love and laugh. However, we may do it differently than we used to, and differently than you expect. Sometimes we may cry when you expect us to have ourselves under control. Sometimes we may laugh and have fun when you expect us to be somber and tearful. Sometimes we can handle things that you would expect to incapacitate us, and sometimes the tiniest things will devastate us. This is the way it is when loss changes everything. We may not be able to go back to the way we were, or to what normal used to mean to us – but we are doing our best to continue walking on in this new muddy world.

Sarah Kravits

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Sarah Kravits is a writer and teacher who for over 20 years has co-authored the Keys to Success textbook series on college success, published by Pearson Education. In June of 2014, her only sibling and beloved brother was killed in an auto accident when his vehicle was hit head-on by a severely impaired driver. In navigating this loss through self-exploration and writing, she has come to understand judgment -- specifically negative judgment, of one's self as well as of others -- as a paralyzing force that prevents the full realization of who we are and what we are capable of doing. Her website is at www.lifewithoutjudgment.com where she blogs regularly on coping with crisis.

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  • Steve says:

    Thanks, Sarah. This is certainly how I feel about the times before and since I lost my mom–though I’ve also had enough other “existential markers” (births of children, deaths of other loved ones, major challenges) that I think I see the whole differently. Not as bifurcated so much as serialized or punctuated. Anyway, I’m grateful for your efforts to articulate this painful part of reality for so many of us. It helps!

    • Sarah says:

      Steve, I had never thought about it that way — when you have more of these life-changing experiences of course you have more dividing points or lines. Makes so much sense. Like sheets of colorful acetate or something that each start at a specific date, one later than the next, laying on top of what came before. The further you go, the more deep and complex the layers of color you are living in…

      So glad this helps. It helps me to help you. Thank you.

  • betsy says:

    Sarah, Not only is your writing beautiful, but you have the ability to put my feelings and thoughts into a tidy little package that I can share with my loved ones so they can understand how I’m feeling. Thank you for giving me the words!

    • Sarah says:

      Betsy, thank you so much…I could not be happier about what you’ve said, because that is one of my primary goals — to articulate what we are thinking and feeling in a way that can be delivered to others to help them understand. “Package” is the perfect word for it. My gift to you, and there will be more!

  • Polly says:

    As always thank you Sarah for your words of wisdom and comfort. They always say exactly how I feel and gives me calm knowing that I am not the only one feeling like this or the odd one. You are such an inspiration!! Hugs to you!

    • Polly, you are so welcome! You are also so completely NOT odd and alone and the only one. We are out here with you making it happen day by day, hour by hour. I am so glad my writing helps remind you of this. Sending love.

  • Roshnee says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Thank you. Your writing brings me a lot of comfort and reassurance I’m not losing my mind!!