"My heart is there in the coffin with Caesar, And I must pause till it come back to me."
Those wrenching, tear-stained words were from Anthony's Oration at Caesar's Funeral, as written by Shakespeare in his Julius Caesar, and they call to mind the difficulty of living with loss. Among the most difficult parts of life is the necessity of accepting the loss of loved ones and learning to live with it. Once dear ones are gone, the absence of their presence and essence (and of what they did for and with us) can be excruciatingly painful. As we “mature”, to be euphemistic about aging, the number and severity of these losses must grow in number, until, at some point, they seem to outnumber, even far outnumber, those remaining for whom we feel similar affections. Slowly, a pervasive sense of solitude can creep into one’s psyche, mitigating the joyous spontaneity of our younger years, and, if we are so fortunate as to live longer than most (into our eighties and beyond), the compounding of these losses, if left unbridled, can destroy all traces of the joie de vivre that is so natural in our halcyon youth, rendering us chronically remorseful.
Living with the loss of these loved ones, such as parents, siblings, spouses and dear-dear friends, as the quantity of their absences grows, can become insufferable and is surely a challenge and an art, if one is to mitigate melancholy. These losses of loved ones are compounded by the almost daily losses of the icons of our youth, those ubiquitous and omnipresent figures whom we have enjoyed watching from afar, whose work has brought us joy, e.g., the well-known from all walks of life, whose joy and humanness have touched us, gone, all gone, leaving us increasingly alone. How can we live with such ever-mounting losses? After considerable disquietude, I developed a system that may be of interest to you.
When only 28, I lost my father. The sheer shock of it left me anesthetized for several years, oddly too numb to feel remorse per se, but it finally overtook me a decade or so later. Then, at 47, my mother exited. Strangely, I had never been personally “close” to either, as they were so much older than I, but, after they passed, their meaning became clear and the positive memories materialized in my mind’s eye, remorse suffused my reflective hours ad nauseam. The situation worsened. In my fifties, my friends began to depart in surprising numbers, including many much younger than I. As the sheer quantity of these losses mounted, I searched for a way to fight back. In time, I found one that helped.
I began pulling their pictures from my dusty, photograph albums and positioning them where I could see them often. (Most of us display pictures only of our children. As dear to us as they are, it is our parents, spouses, siblings and dear friends who love us most and with whom we shared the best memories.) My Gallery of Loved Ones afforded me an opportunity to enjoy little visits, vignettes of happy memories, recalling their laughter, their loving glances and all the things that they did for me, just for me. I did the same with the photos of some departed friends, as well. As my eyes sporadically fall upon their still vibrant and welcoming faces, I enjoy the warmth of their love for me and mine for them, again and again. They still “live” in that way. Our thoughts, like electric impulses, are real; these mental images, not flesh and bones, are our real essence and may well outlive us, but, even if not, our thoughts can preserve, sustain and revitalize the enjoyment of our departed treasures. Let us reflect, momentarily, on the efficacy of our thoughts, as they determine how we live with loss:
“There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare
“The mind…can make a heaven in hell or a hell in heaven.” John Milton
“Our life is in our mind.” Buddha
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
We and we-alone determine how we live with loss. Must we dwell on the loss or might we find a way to absorb ourselves in the joyful memories and turn them into a form of plus?
The magic of computers, iPads, iPhones et seq came to my wanting rescue and took me to yet another level of enjoyment of all my loved ones, living, as well as deceased: One day, it occurred to me that I could digitally scan my cherished old photos and install them on the hard drive of my computer, insert them in my Screen Saver, and, presto, these lovely pictures began streaming across the monitor of my multiple, office-computers, fading in and out, effectively greeting me appealingly. Similarly, I installed them on my iPads and joined them with iCloud and they mysteriously appeared on all my “i” devices. All day, this way, at least on these devices and on the computer on which I am not working, my cherished photos stream a montage of priceless memories of those who have meant, and still mean, so much to me. They are with me and I with them. Each photo recalls laughter, a form of carefree joy, memories that shall always be mine, enriching me all my waking hours.
Simply making the decision “not to let go of the good” has kept my lost loved ones alive within me. They are still mine, with me. I see their photos and descry their enriching souls.
The good news is that, as long as I keep them in my heart, really keep them there, and reflect upon my memories with them, they never really leave me. They remain alive with me, within me. As long as I don’t let them go, they are there, truly there. This doesn’t make me cry; it brings me joy.
“…Not a bonnie flower springs By fountain, stream or green Not a bonnie bud that sings But minds me of my Jean.” Robert Burns
All of our Jean’s can be happily held in our hearts. There is nothing wrong with continuing to enjoy them, too. So, yes, I can and do keep cherished loved ones alive in this way, making permanent their presence lost in this system I dub, “Positively Adjusting to Loss” or “PAL”. This has given me great comfort and has enabled me to withstand the debilitating remorse that can so easily overwhelm us, especially with increasing passage of time and the sheer numbers of those physically gone.
Clearly, it is imprudent to dwell too much on the past, tempting though it can be, as life must be lived in The Now, doing more and more daily good for the living, and, indeed, it is worth doing so – helping others as ourselves, the noblest goal of living. Every day offers us new opportunities to create joy. As my Number Two son often says, “It’s time to make some new [happy] memories.” Indeed, it is, and, with my above-described PAL system, I am able to do both: to better accept the loss; to keep their spirits within me; and to focus on the present and all of those still present, who deserve the best that I can possibly give.