Dr Pamela Polcyn Phd, MFT

Loss During the Holidays: The Art of Losing

In the process of searching for the owner of a lost dog in the neighborhood, a 4 pound pomeranian who had run off and joined a walk with some large rather tough looking dogs, I received several calls from distraught owners of lost animals hoping that somehow we had found their pet. They had seen the sign or the Craig’s List ad and hoped we had found their animal companion. I was reminded when talking with each of them of the many people who are suffering, probably silently, in some stage of grief and loss during this festive season. I was reminded of how difficult it can be to celebrate the holidays when sad and when missing something that was beloved in life.

Holidays don’t take away these grief experiences  In fact they can heighten the experience, emphasizing what is missing or absent. Distraction can temporarily alleviate the pain of loss but invariably something brings the loss back to mind. The holiday expectations of happiness and joy, of companionship and family, often act as a hard backdrop to the realities of changed circumstances involving loss that have evolved in many people’s lives.

Intense grieving can last from three months to a year after a loss and frequently continues for several years. Emotions need attention, understanding and compassion during this period in order to be processed and integrated. Giving oneself kind attention calms the often painful feelings of sadness or anger or emptiness. Making some formal expression of remembrance, giving a donation, planting a tree, planning a memorial, can help to create a positive context for the loss. Allowing grieving space in amidst the festivities can help to soothe uncomfortable emotions.

Although there are different theories about grief, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Finding a balance between grieving and continuing on with a productive life after the initial shock of a loss will aid in incorporating loss into life. Loss is part of our life and part of what make us cherish what we hold near and dear to our hearts.

One of my favorite poems emphasizes the importance of developing this capacity in our lives, this capacity to lose. Elizabeth Bishop describes this as the “art of losing.” What better way to describe this valuable life lesson and challenge, this truth about living.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The important lesson she teaches us is to notice small losses and to put them in perspective. In doing so we prepare for losses that are more challenging.  We develop the ability to integrate loss with an attitude of acceptance.
As we assimilate these losses and the accompanying emotions, we create room for new things to come into our life. Our focus moves to the many possibilities that surround us and opens to things we may never have imagined. We gain, as we have lost. We develop resilience, the ability to rebound from the difficult internal reactions we have to challenges in life.

When we stop and appreciate the  wonderful moments shared with those lost to us, it helps us to focus on the gift of their presence in our lives. An attitude of gratitude has been shown to help in dealing with many uncomfortable or distressing emotions. Gratitude reopens closed hearts and reorients us to difficult situations with a new perspective.

So, after several hours of putting out the word, the teacup pomeranian was lost and found no more and was reunited with his tearful and grateful mom. We left, a little at a loss, after having been absorbed into the life of this fun and rambunctious tidbit. Our gain was the delight of this lightweight curious creature for a few moments who goes through life with no fear and with love, warmth, and curiosity. Our gain was the reminder of the importance of learning the art of losing and the importance of lending a compassionate ear to those dealing with loss.