Coming to Terms with Loss

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Loss runs through human life, and it is one of the hardest things to cope with. At the very beginning of life there are times when we feel cared for by one or both of our parents, but then they go away and leave us alone. At first we have no understanding of why that happens, and no ability to do anything about it. Bewilderment and helplessness are intertwined with our experience of loss from the outset.

fraser watts lossWe have to cope with so many losses through life, and they are very varied. People who were important to us move away or lose interest in us; or their circumstances change in some fundamental way, so that they don’t seem the same people who we once depended on. Marriage may give some stability for a time, but partners can change over time, just like anyone else, and eventually they die (unless we die first).

There is also the loss of our hopes. Through life we pin our hopes on various things: people, groups, causes, beliefs. But, sadly, our hopes are often disappointed, and the loss of hopes can be as cruel as any other loss. It is not only individuals but whole societies who struggle with the loss of their hopes. It seems an inescapable part of the political process that leaders get hopes up, but then can’t fulfil the hopes they have aroused. The

We also lose aspects of our own lives, or even our very selves. There may be physical loss as we become ill, or lose a part of our bodies in an accident. For some people whose work has been important to them, retirement is difficult to bear. We can lose our mental faculties as we get old. Ageing involves multiple losses. There are also losses of employment, or of status and position in society, or loss of the respect in which we were once held. And eventually we lose even our lives.

Loss is a central theme in the stories about Jesus and those around him. People come to him for help when faced with their own losses, and he has losses of his own, such as the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11).  Eventually he faces the loss of his own life in his crucifixion, and his friends and followers face the loss of him as an everyday companion.

How are we to cope with loss? There are basically two contrasting strategies. One is to try to minimise the experience of loss in our lives. We try to protect ourselves through insurance policies, contracts of employment or other bureaucratic arrangements. Similarly, we can try to protect ourselves against the loss of people who are important to us by institutional arrangements such as marriage, or through various attempts at emotional manipulation. I am generally not very impressed by the effectiveness of trying to managing loss; things come and go, and our efforts to stop that happening often seem like Canute trying to stop the tide coming in.

The other approach starts with an acceptance of the reality of loss. Rather than trying to prevent loss, we try to find better ways of coping with it, ways of staying resilient through loss, and rebuilding what we can on the far side of it. That approach generally seems to sit more easily with a spiritual life. It is also the one that Jesus endorses in one of his core sayings, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16.25).

Several of the stories Jesus told seem to advise against the strategy of trying to secure what we have (whether that is money, goods in barn, or whatever) in the hope of accruing more. Rather, they advise a strategy of risking what we have in hope of gaining something better.

It is a recommendation that sits well with the psychology of C G Jung, and his endorsement of sacrificing the rather limited life of our ‘ego’, the centre of our conscious life, in the hope of making a reality of what he calls the ‘Self’, the higher and more complete person we have the capacity to become.

– Fraser Watts