Mike Slavin • • 7 min read
The Paradox of Grief: 8 Gifts We Gain From Loss
Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream, a child lost before their time. Heartbreak, we hope, is something we hope we can avoid; something to guard against, a chasm to be carefully looked for and then walked around; the hope is to find a way to place our feet where the elemental forces of life will keep us in the manner to which we want to be accustomed and which will keep us from the losses that all other human beings have experienced without exception since the beginning of conscious time. But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.”
Loss and heartbreak are inexorable challenges that we all must face in our lives.
We all are eventually forced to let go, often before we’re ready to say goodbye.
This is commonly accompanied by excruciating pain and utter devastation. The loss causes us to lose our compass. Our sense of direction is compromised as our imagined future has dissolved before our eyes.
We’re all awaiting this kind of grief-stricken destruction. But this is not a case for despair.
For as challenging as loss and heartbreak can be, the grieving process can be the birthplace of profound gifts.
The paradox of grief is that it is simultaneously world-ending and life-enchanting.
We might not know it at the time, but our letting go is not just that.
Letting go is also grabbing on.
Grabbing on to an opportunity.
An opportunity to discover the gifts previously hidden from view by the world that had come before.
Our plans go up in smoke as the rug gets pulled out from under us.
We fall. But into what?
Gift #1: The Net That Catches You
When a world-ending loss pushes you off a ledge into a freefall, the first gift you will claim is the net that catches us. This net can take different forms.
Sometimes the net is made up of people who are sharing in the same loss. They cared about the person who has now passed away in much the same way that you did and you meet each other in that shared grief.
In other times, you’re caught by those less affected by the loss but who have a deep care for your well being. Like friends showing up for you after a difficult breakup.
These experiences can establish a previously untouched sense of closeness. The vulnerability of the moment demolishes walls and brings you into a realness that had been blocked by a conditioned avoidance of deep emotions and reluctance to let others in.
In this way, loss provides an abundance of nutrients to strengthen pre-existing relationships. Your social fabric becomes stronger.
But sometimes you’re not caught by other people.
Gift #2: You Learn To Fly
There are times in life where there is no one else there to catch you. What do you do then?
You stop falling because you learn to fly.
You uncover something within you that may have previously been untested: your resolve.
This is your capacity for self-reliance. Your ability to overcome adversity, no matter how big. It is an unwillingness to be bested by circumstance. To triumph in the face of it.
Discovering this inner resource can change everything. A life previously mired in fear and hesitance can become enlivened with a deep down knowing that no matter what happens, “I’ve got this.”
Overcoming great tragedy teaches you this. It shows us that our entire world can be demolished and yet something lives on. An inextinguishable spark.
But to arrive at a place of confidence in your own strength, you can’t see emotional experience as a weakness. That is a recipe for the fragility and undigested emotions.
Instead, we see this as a process that unfolds in time. It involves breaking down, touching the depths of our despair, and yet still summoning the will to move forward.
Gift #3 The Absence Left Behind
The subject of your grief has always been experienced through its presence. Now gone, you get to meet what was lost anew in the space that’s left behind.
Honestly examined, this can create an explosion of realizations discovering paths to meaningfulness previously unexplored.
If someone has passed away, you might begin to notice their impact on us in ways you’d never considered. The empty space somehow shines a light on what you couldn’t see before.
Now, these invisible acts and silent contributions get rendered into high definition clarity so you can appreciate sides to someone you never permitted yourself to witness before.
It’s important to be compassionate with ourselves here and not judge ourselves for not seeing these things sooner. It’s natural to miss these things.
Now we can revel in a more vivid picture of what was lost.
Gift #4: The Clarification of Values
Loss and the grieving process that follows can catalyze a deep reflection. Through this, we can come into greater clarity around the ways we’ve been living out of alignment with our values. Loss can also instruct us to forge new values as we now have a clearer picture of what really matters in life.
After a break-up, we might see things that we tolerated that aren’t good for us. In the future we would be clear that this behavior is now a dealbreaker and we refuse to allow ourselves to be treated in certain ways. On the more positive side, we might see more clearly the things we do want. The things that we really cherished in our partner and seek to find similar qualities in a future someone.
If a loved one passes away, we might uncover the attributes that we deeply value and admire. This can propel us to emulate these traits that have impacted us so deeply. In doing so, we take the loss of something beautiful and internalize that beauty so as to make it a part of ourselves.
Gift #5 Beautification of The Miniscule
The departure of something we held dear begins to hold a mirror up against all the experiences that were shared.
Looking in that mirror long enough and we will find an elevation of the little things. We are reminded of small moments that at the time felt completely inconsequential. The insignificant bits begin to add up to something of astonishing beauty.
Mundane rituals, tiny idiosyncrasies, and forgettable afternoons suddenly become showered in meaning. Microscopic moments made into something of great significance.
This is the beautification of the minuscule.
Gift #6 A Reunion With Vital Energy
Any experience of loss comes with the loss of investment.
This investment is made up of a blend of time, energy, and attention. Initially there will be a spike where it feels like even more time, energy, and attention is devoted (only now to something’s absence rather than it’s presence).
But as the grieving process unfolds, we’ll eventually begin to reunite with vital energy that had been spent. This can come as a relief.
The inevitable end of a relationship that is constantly in rocky territory will likely be followed by a valley of longing and sadness.
But there will also be immense relief. The boulder that was being pushed up the hill can finally fall down. The weight being shouldered is lifted. Energy can now be reclaimed.
Serving as a caretaker for a loved one with a terminal illness is a difficult duty to bear. There is great beauty in being there for someone who truly needs it but in other ways, it puts life on hold.
When the person passes, it can catalyze a strange emotional cocktail: heartbroken on one hand and liberated on the other.
This is not an occasion for shame. The duty was carried out and now a tremendous well of energy is made available to you.
Gift #7: A Vivid Sense of Possibility
The void that is opened up might feel empty cold and dark this void was once filled with something that gave us a sense of warmth, a sense of meaning, a sense of beauty.
And in this cold darkness, we might feel nothing could arise to fill the space.
And yet, if we were to reach out our hand into this black void we might claw our fingers into nutrient-rich soil.
The space that opens up as a place for seeds. Worlds not yet born into your life.
Loss can open up a sense of vivid possibility. A life that had felt solid and fixed in place is suddenly made more malleable. The future is available to be sculpted into a new dream.
Gift #8: A Deeper Bond With Life
This will not be our first loss. In fact, it will unfold in all of the things we hold dear.
None of it is promised. All the things we deem have value exist in our lives as gifts.
In this way, a single experience of loss can catalyze the mutation in perspective that gives birth to 1 million gifts.
We discover a deeper relationship with all of life and find an appreciation for the many things we once took for granted.
Loss cures an insensitivity to the preciousness of things. We wake up to the delicate nature of life and through this recognition, we come to honor it with more sincerity than we ever could have mustered before.
Jeff Foster captures this perfectly:
You will lose everything.
Your money, your power, your fame, your success, perhaps even your memories.
Your looks will go.
Loved ones will die.
Your body will eventually fall apart.
Everything that seems permanent is impermanent and will be smashed.
Experience will gradually, or not so gradually, strip away everything that it can strip away.
Waking up means facing this reality with open eyes and no longer turning away.
But right now, we stand on sacred and holy ground, for that which will be lost has not yet been lost, and realising this is the key to unspeakable joy.
Whoever or whatever is in your life right now has not yet been taken away from you.
This may sound trivial, obvious, like nothing, but really knowing it is the key to everything, the why and how and wherefore of existence.
Impermanence has already rendered everything and everyone around you so deeply holy and significant and worthy of your heartbreaking gratitude.
Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.
Unpacking The Gifts
We might not find ourselves unwrapping every gift in the losses we experience. But if the grieving process is met with an earnest heart, we’re likely to discover at least one.
And from that place, our grief can transform into something new. Something that points the way.
It’s as if, what we’ve lost reaches back from beyond with a final offering. Something to enrich our lives.
And in taking hold of that gift, the only appropriate response is “Thank you.”
“…If heartbreak is inevitable and inescapable, it might be asking us to look for it and make friends with it, to see it as our constant and instructive companion, and even perhaps, in the depth of its impact as well as in its hindsight, to see it as its own reward. Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is a deeper introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable and often beautiful question, something or someone who has been with us all along, asking us to be ready to let go of the way we are holding everything and everyone that comes our way, and preparation perhaps, for the last letting go of all.”