What we talk about when we talk about loss

Crit from the Brit
Look closely, these are some real keys
Look closely, these are some real keys // Creative Commons

Last week, I lost my keys. I’d last had them in my suite, where I spent a day rummaging distractedly for them, half-expecting to see them at every turn. “I mean, they have to be somewhere,” my long-suffering roommate helpfully pointed out as I upended my closet for the third time. And she was right, they did. Anything you lose always has to be somewhere. It was just that, for a day, I wasn’t sure exactly where that somewhere was.

Losing someone is nothing like losing keys. I’ve always thought that “loss,” when it comes to people, is a particularly cruel euphemism. It implies absent-mindedness or neglect. It makes you feel guilty, like you weren’t taking good enough care of that person to make sure they stayed with you. Like maybe if you’d called them last weekend, they’d still be around today. It places blame on you. You left them behind in a back corner of your mind, and by the time you remembered them later, they weren’t there anymore.

Having to tell people you’ve lost someone is cruel too. It’s socially alienating to mention death in polite chit-chat; people leap back from the word as if you’ve tossed a grenade into the china-set of their conversation. “Loss,” by contrast, is neutral. Loss is casual; we lose things every day. By draping that euphemism over something big and dark and scary, we ensure that no one feels uncomfortable. It makes people relax, and proffer a prepackaged sound bite that probably includes the word “condolences.” But no word has ever been more impotent than “condolences.” And nothing is more alienating than feeling a grief that you can only talk about in terms that minimize it. “Loss” creates a distance between what we feel and what others acknowledge.

And what is cruelest of all is that talking about losing someone seeds false hope. It makes you think of the situation as being provisional. It makes you think of that person as temporarily mislaid. It makes you secretly imagine that if you look long enough, you’ll find them again. “They have to be somewhere”, right?

Little children have particular trouble with this. It’s not uncommon that the very young who have suffered a loss — there’s that phrase again — will understand that someone has died, but won’t quite realize that that’s a rather permanent state of affairs. They’ll ask over and over again when Granny is coming home. Sure, they can comprehend that she’s gone for now — but for forever is a different story.

What no one ever warns you about loss is that it reduces you to a small child. At first, you too can’t really believe in the finality of it all. For a while, it can be almost impossible to wrap your head around the idea that someone is no longer anywhere, anywhere at all. It’s disorienting; it’s terrifying. So terrifying that we all, at some point or another, seek comfort in that old chestnut of “a better place”. Because if we believe someone is in a “better place,” no matter where that place may be, we can promise ourselves they aren’t completely gone. We’ve put them back on a map we think we can use to find them again.

What they also don’t tell you about loss is what it’s like to deal with the things that are left behind. We’re not good at getting rid of debris. Our grandparents were the waste-not want-not generation; we’re the children of plenty. Today, “replacement wedding ring” churns up almost four million hits on Google. We’ve grown up in the age of the Internet, surrounded by an endless archive of everything that is us. We’ve been conditioned to think that everything we have is replaceable, and that nothing we ever say or do — as politicians and child stars have both learned to their peril — can ever fully be erased.

But here’s the sad thing: Offline, people can be. When someone passes away, they leave the traces of their last days behind them. Their unwashed coffee mug in the sink. Their leftovers in the fridge. Their book open by the side of the bath, the spine creasing deeper by the day. The trappings of their life stand firm around space they used to inhabit — but there’s nothing at the center anymore. So, when you start washing the coffee mug, eating the leftovers, suddenly it starts to feel like you’re undoing all that was left of that person. You feel complicit in their loss, as if instead of searching for them, you’re losing them all over again. It can feel intrusive; it can feel therapeutic.

But no one ever tells you about the strange hollowness that comes when that person’s things are all packed up and gone, and there isn’t anything of them anywhere, anymore.

I lost my grandmother three weeks ago this Saturday.

I found my keys in the pocket of a jacket under my bed.

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