What is life after loss?

Embroidery hoop with “We absorb great losses” stitched in negative space

I started this hoop in late January and it’s taken me until now. Which is maybe good because it’s taken me about that long to process everything that’s happened. Earlier that month my roommate had a completely unexpected and unforeseen brain bleed that led to severe brain damage that has really changed the course of his life and his loved ones so drastically.

I met him in college where he was a pretty popular and friendly guy. I always wished we were closer friends, but then he graduated and I was like, welp, I’ll never see him again, and didn’t think of him for two years until I graduated and ended up in Philly. I posted on Facebook that I was in Philly because I moved here for a job and had no network in the area. He was one of the first people to reply to my post saying that he was also in Philly and that we should hang out. It was so unexpected, but completely him. Of course he would reach out to a distant college acquaintance in need of support and friendship.

A few months later I was looking for a place to live and so I asked him about a neighborhood and he replied, why don’t we look at this four person house? To which my immediate reaction was, what? But only in my mind. I didn’t know he would be willing to live with me. By great fortune of timing and placement we moved in together last November. My life post-grad was starting to be an actual life with new friends and reconnections to boot!

By December we were hosting parties, with an arts and crafts area no less, eating brunch in our nook, and collectively trying new recipes to feed one another. We began planning even more events, like an elaborate Spirited Away themed party where me and another roommate would recreate the famous train scene with Chihiro and No-Face in a classic Philly trolley. We were a house that loved to cook; breakfast for dinner, fried okra, mac & cheese, you name it. There was no shortage of homey feelings and enjoying each other’s presence in our new house.

I went home for the winter holidays feeling good about my situation, especially after having such a long and rocky transition into permanent housing and arriving in a completely new city, lonely and lost after graduating. I was so happy I even wrote a letter to him expressing my gratefulness at his welcoming enthusiasm and warmth since I moved to Philly. I expressed that he just made me feel so at ease, at ease in our home, at ease in a new city, and at ease in a rekindled friendship. I don’t take ease for granted. It is a blessing. I didn’t give end up giving the letter to him though. I thought it was too sappy.

I was so excited for what the new year could hold in terms of building upon what was great foundation in November and December. I was excited for my new life in Philly, building upon our friendship, and hopefully stealing his friends because that’s how adults make friends right?

January was like a massive, massive punch in the face. The brain injury that was sustained put him in a coma and information trickled out slowly. My two other housemates and I oscillated between disbelief, hopefulness, and despair. As the weeks crawled by we settled more and more into our new normal, recognizing that he wasn’t coming home anytime soon, which honestly still feels like a new normal to adjust to. There wasn’t as much whistling, arts and crafts, or ease in our house anymore.

I started this hoop when I was reminded of a quote my friend sent to me after my dad passed a few years ago.

“I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.” ― Gail Caldwell

This quote and this experience has made me reflect again on the role of loss in all of our lives. Each loss is a unique individual experience, but everyone loses someone eventually, so in some ways, it’s also the most universal experience. For the way loss alters all of our lives, we still do so poorly in culturally reckoning with it.

My housemate is not dead, but it certainly is a huge fucking loss.

We lost a great housemate and we lost what we could have created together. We lost awesome parties and great food. We lost a friendship, we lost what was probably going to be a great half a year at least (our lease was up over the summer). We lost what could have been right now.

But honestly, it’s such a little fragment of his life compared to the bright life he also shared with his friends and family. His parents lost a particular future with their thriving only son. His girlfriend lost a connection with her partner with whom she shared a past, present, and future life in addition to a great deal of affection and care. His friends lost a certain confidant, someone with only his particular brand of humor, someone with only his perspectives and thoughts. Relationships were drastically and abruptly altered. Everyone who knew him lost a certain expected future with him. One they thought they could count on.

Anyone who knows loss knows that it doesn’t go away. It just sticks with you and you just have to deal with it. I will never get back a 2019 where we lived together and developed a cool friendship. Loss is forever. Ever ever. You had something and now you don’t. Every loss I sustain takes something from me.

Loss is also in the details. In the particulars. Which is why every loss is so uniquely damaging. Each loss takes something different from us. You lose the particular role they played in your life. You lose their smile, you lose their voice, you lose their touch. You lose snacking habits and TV shows together. You lose conversational quirks and idiosyncrasies you would make fun of them for. You lose the emotional space they held for you and you for them. The hole someone you love leaves in your life is both unfillable and unending.

We absorb loss because we sustain damage when something is taken from us, usually by force. We absorb the loss’ impact and it changes us. I am different because of my dad’s death and I am different having lost (a version of) my housemate (and friend). We never get over our losses. It certainly changes how we feel about them, how we hold them, how we make space for them in our lives, but we’re never over them.

Loss teaches you so much and I think there are certainly ways my life has been positively impacted after loss, but there is no silver lining. Losses are excruciating and exacting and overall, really horrible. And yet, for all the pain losses bring, the price you pay for caring about someone, I remain so grateful to have had my father and my housemate in my life for whatever period of time I did.

A work colleague had a close family friend’s daughter passed away this weekend. With every loss I encounter, tangentially or very personally, I come back to the question, What is life after loss? How do you reconstruct your world without that person in both big and little ways? We are constantly re-creating our worlds after loss and I don’t have an answer as to how the impossible happens, but it always happens. Life after loss is always different because loss always changes us.

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