What Remains in the Wake of Loss

I recently listened as a colleague ticked off a long list of losses. Each loss felt, to me, like an autumn leaf, brown and shriveled, dropping from a tree, from his lips, one by one. I could see the leaves falling, piling at his feet. I could feel loss upon loss gathered there, at the feet of the three of us, gathered virtually to listen. 

In his poem, Fighting the Instrument, Mark Nepo speaks of the opening that often follows in the wake of loss. He is careful, however, to avoid minimizing the pain of loss. Two-thirds of the way through the poem, he makes it clear: choosing to value the openings created over the desire to fight or bemoan the often cruel agents of change, is never an easy choice.

"This is very difficult to accept," the poem says. The line is so brief and clear, it would be easy to overlook. But, I have stayed in that place of difficulty that precedes acceptance for weeks, months, and occasionally years at a time. Sometimes I think that staying, that willingness to breathe through each painful loss, is what leads to acceptance, is what creates the opening and the courage needed to live into it. 

My colleague listed his losses and they fell like leaves gathered into a growing pile. We listened and affirmed the losses. But, even still, as the leaves were falling, I remembered the way barren branches reveal so much more of a winter-blue sky. I glimpsed, for a moment, the opening being made, and it gave me hope that there would be revealed, again, a "jewel in the center of the stone." 

This post is a reflection on Mark Nepo's poem, "Fighting the Instrument." Visit Spirituality and Health to read the poem and the poet's own reflections on it. 

Gratitude and Our Most Painful Losses

Occasionally, it's possible to catch a glimpse of gratitude bubbling up on the periphery of life's most painful experiences. This gratitude is bashful, hovering just to the side of things, small and round, like a spot of light, refracted. This gratitude invites a turning in those who want to truly embrace it. 

This is not gratitude for the loss itself, but for the path it opened, for the spacious place in which you find yourself now - days or weeks or months later. It is a sliver of light, a glimmer in deep darkness. Such gratitude is best captured by peripheral vision - look too closely at it, slide it under the microscope of quantity, quality or necessary identification, and it dissolves like fog in the morning sun. But, abide with it, welcome it in passing; extend your hand, your heart, to it, as one might do with a skittish cat and maybe, perhaps, one day, when you least expect it, it will walk right over and curl up to sleep in your lap. 

This post is a reflection on Mark Nepo's poem, "Fighting the Instrument." Visit Spirituality and Health to read the poem and the poet's own reflections on it. 



Turn verb: to (cause to) change the direction in which you are facing or moving. 

It’s the end of a long day at the end of a longer week and I’m finally beginning unwind as I sit on the loveseat preparing to read to my youngest boys. One boy sits on the radiator behind the couch with his back pressed against the window, his legs are stretched out on either side of my shoulders. 

His mouth is packed with gum and he alternates between seriousness and giggles as he attempts to blow a gigantic bubble. He focuses, pursing his lips, then collapses in laughter as I stare at him with bright eyes and a wide smile. Several small bubbles expand, then pop across his face. The biggest ones cover his nose and mouth with a thin, pink mask. After several bubbles and fits of laughter, I turn back to the book we planned to read. 

But, every time I start to read, he leans forward, grabs my head in his hands and turns me to face him. The bubbles, the giggling, the sticky masks continue on extended repeat. As he turns my face again and again, I’m transported to another time and place. 

This boy, now nine, is the same one I carried at age three – chest to chest, with his legs wrapped around my back. He always had so much to say, his eager face inches from my own, as a torrent of observations and ideas poured out. While he talked, I would sometimes dare look away – look past him, around him, at the dishes waiting in the sink or dinner simmering on the stove. Noticing my distraction, he would shift his face, leaning his whole body to re-center himself in my gaze. If my inattention persisted, he placed his small, chubby hands, one on each of my cheeks, and forcibly turned my face toward his own. It was a dance, my distraction set in time to his focus and persistence. 

Sitting on the loveseat I see again how his hands turning me, his willingness to repeat the motion, to re-center me, is a grace. Maybe this is how all things are turned– by gentle, but persistent hands of love.