“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”
A few years ago I moved from a large city to the smaller town where I now live. There were many good reasons for this move, and overall I am happy with the change.
But as well as the gains there are also losses – looser connections with old friends, a less cosmopolitan and ‘sophisticated’ mentality, poor public transport.
It is sometimes difficult for me to give a place to these losses, as I can tell myself I need to be positive about the move if I am to be happy in the new location.
But unless we are able to acknowledge and make a place for the losses in our lives, it is paradoxically harder to ‘move on’.
Nancy Newton Verrier, a pioneering writer on adoption, says that loss is not well understood in our society: “We tend to deny its importance on many levels.”
She gives the example of a couple who get married – this is a happy occasion and yet there is always also a loss involved for those individuals, notably their independence. Similarly, when a baby is born there is joy but also, for the couple, a loss of what their relationship was and an adaptation to becoming a family.
In her book the Primal Wound Verrier says: “There is no permission in our society to recognise in each of life’s transitions the polarities between gain and loss or joy and sorrow. We are expected to be happy, sing songs…but never to mourn.”
The difficulty is that, if we cannot allow ourselves to acknowledge the losses that often accompany the joys and excitement of life changes, we cannot truly give ourselves to life.
Novelist Tim Lott makes some interesting points about loss and having children in his recent Guardian column. He points out that watching one’s child grow up means feeling a continual series of losses (as well as joys), as they move from dependence on you to semi-independence, culminating in the final loss when they are old enough to move out.
He says: “I sometimes wonder if the pain of seeing them grow up is merely an echo of one’s own pain – the loss of childhood we all had to go through.”
Our discomfort around loss is understandable. Feeling our losses brings up sadness and, in some cases, anger. But if we hide our losses (and these feelings) from ourselves we are inviting trouble.
Feelings like sadness that are repressed have a nasty habit of making themselves felt in other, less direct ways. These include depression and illness.
In therapy there is often a lot of work around grieving early losses, what therapist John Bradshaw calls “original pain feeling work”. This refers to the losses we all suffered, to greater or lesser degrees, as children. These include not being accepted for who we truly were or, in some cases, emotional, physical or sexual abuse.
Acknowledging and grieving these losses is not about becoming a ‘victim’, but rather about mourning the losses the child experienced but was not able to mourn at the time. Rather than victimhood, this process can lead to empowerment because it brings us into a deeper and more compassionate relationship with ourselves.
It involves, says Bradshaw in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You, “making contact with the lonely inner child…this child is that part of us that houses our blocked emotional energy.”