“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”
–From “Paved Paradise” by singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell
When we lose possessions that are important to us, what can we do to help ourselves let go?
This is my first blog that I’ve written on the suggestion of one of my readers. The topic came from my daughter Janelle, who one day exited the doors on a train and, suddenly aware of her empty hands, realized she had left behind an umbrella that she was particularly fond of. It was made of fabric that looked like layer upon layer of peacock feathers–so real looking they made you want to reach out and touch them. Even though it was only an umbrella, she felt a real sense of loss—even though she could almost certainly replace it.
When I think of things I’ve lost, my mind goes instantly to a handmade wooden jewelry box built like a small bureau, with each drawer divided into small sections. One of the sections in the back of the top drawer is earmarked for what I call my orphan earrings. Without looking, I can describe for you exactly which earrings are there and what they look like.
My favorite orphan is from a pair of earrings I even gave a name to: Tree of Life. My friend and sister-in-heart Nancy gave them to me years ago. One day I looked into the mirror in the restroom at work and saw the naked earlobe that made me catch my breath. Immediately after work that day, I spent more than an hour fruitlessly re-tracing my steps. When I gave up and realized the earring was gone for good, I felt truly sad.
Another experience—from last summer—may seem downright silly. For the first time, last year I planted cabbages—purple, of course (for those who know me well). This being an experiment, I bought only three starter plants. Over the summer the cabbage plants grew into surprisingly large heads, perfectly formed. One day in late summer when I saw insect holes on the leaves, I decided to harvest all three heads. Since they were large and our refrigerator is not, I stored two heads in a refrigerator elsewhere that I had access to and that wasn’t being used.
About a month later, I was ready to bring home the third and final one (already wistful that it would be the last). That afternoon, though, I learned the cabbage had—just a day or so before–been blithely tossed into the trash, even though it was still in perfect condition. Now anyone can understand feeling a bit upset about this. But it was much more than that: I was practically in a rage. But even though the tossed cabbage made up a full third of my harvest, which I was quite proud of, still–we’re talking here about losing a cabbage!
So there you have three stories of modest loss by any measure—an umbrella, an earring, and a head of cabbage.
In contrast, of course, each of has no choice but to experience significant loss at some point in our lives. We lose homes to foreclosure, we lose jobs—and with them our livelihood, and we lose savings and security in retirement. We experience divorce or splitting up with a significant other, and the loss of good friends. We cope with the death of a beloved pet (which are members of many families), a parent, a spouse or partner, a sibling, or, unspeakably difficult, the loss of a child. A great deal has been written about coping with this type of intense and often abiding sense of loss.
But setting such big losses aside, what steps can we take to more quickly recover from the more modest type of loss I’ve described above? Below are a few ideas.
1. Make a list of the top ten things in life that contribute most to your sense of happiness (or wellbeing) and fulfillment.
Go back over the list to see how many of the items are possessions, especially things like umbrellas, earrings (yes, even diamond ones), and cabbages.
2. Acknowledge your sense of loss (no matter how small) as valid.
3. Buy a replacement—soon.
You may end up liking the replacement more than the item you lost.
4. Put the loss into context.
Despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, we tend to see ourselves as immortal. The small losses we experience are good reminders of the big loss each of us will experience someday. He or she who has the most toys…still has to leave them behind.
5. View the loss with new eyes by focusing on the possibilities in the vacuum left behind.
I’ll never forget a friend who, when she lost almost everything she owned in a fire, thoroughly enjoyed buying things to replace what she had lost (or not). Eventually she said it was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
6. Engage in a quick ritual to say goodbye and let go.
I’m not sure I recommend keeping orphan earrings around, for example, which feels like a small form of torture. Better to get rid of them or at least bury them in the back yard.
7. Be creative and make up your own way of letting go and moving on.
Although it’s best not to expect it, on occasion lost items do find their way back to us. Last year, I found not one but two orphan earrings. One showed up in our driveway directly in front of where we park one of our cars. When the winter snow melted, there it was. The second earring surfaced when I was putting our vegetable garden to bed. I looked down and there it was near a small pile of grape tomatoes I had piled up to add to the compost bin. I practically squealed with joy. An even better story is the saga of how our daughter Janelle’s treasured Selmer VI tenor saxophone, which she had left two months earlier in the trunk of a cab, miraculously made its way back to her.
When called upon, may we all be more able, when facing the small losses of life, to simply let go.