My Facebook feed was abuzz with news that a former colleague had passed away unexpectedly. I hadn’t seen her or been in touch with her for more than thirty years, yet my heart was suddenly aching. I had always had great respect for her and the gifts that she brought as a leader in the academic world through her commitment to excellence. And though she was always the consummate professional, everyone around her was touched by her enormous heart and generous spirit.
However, our personal and professional paths had gone in different directions long ago. So I was surprised and perplexed by my own deep sense of personal loss in receiving news of her death. What was this feeling of loss really about?
As I sat in my unnamed grief, I slowly realized that this unexpected news had triggered a feeling of mourning within me for the profound impermanence of life. Nothing stays the same, ever. Nothing. Over the last few years, I’ve lost many people that were dear to me. Traditions, institutions, and beliefs that I thought I could count on forever no longer exist in the form that I cherished. And in recent months, I often feel like I don’t recognize my own country anymore.
I’m quite sure that I’m not the only one experiencing these kinds of feelings. Yet what do we do with them? How do we navigate this uncomfortable terrain?
When we experience a powerful connection with a person, a place, a belief, or a tradition, what makes our experience powerful is what it touches inside of us. Some part of us comes alive. Something is awakened. We touch a part of ourselves that may have never been touched before, or at least not for a long time.
The person, place, belief, or tradition is actually just a catalyst – a door opener. We tend to associate the power of our experience with the catalyst itself. Yet, actually, the experience is powerful because it touches something deep inside. It touches some aspect of our essence – that timeless and infinite aspect of our being that exists outside of linear space and time. In that moment, we recognize a part of ourselves that has always been there, yet for whatever reason hasn’t been touched quite this same way before.
Receiving the news of my former colleague’s death took me back to a “coming of age” period early in my professional life. It was an incredibly painful and challenging time. Yet through that experience, I found parts of myself that I might not have otherwise found. Although my colleague and I never talked about this, I always knew that she recognized my struggle. And from her, I always felt acceptance, support, and respect.
Hearing of her death took me back to the time when I was first learning to feel those things for myself. She was a catalyst for that. She helped me touch my belief in myself. As I sat in my unexpected grief, I realized that I was mourning the loss of a beautiful spirit who gave that gift to many people. And I was mourning the loss of an academic leader who held the highest standards for integrity, knowledge, and professionalism. Recognizing what my grief was actually about helped transform my sadness into celebration – celebration of who she was, and of the gifts of self-confidence and love that she helped so many people find within themselves.
Loss comes in many forms. Losing someone dear to us can be painful. There are ways in which life will never be the same again now that they are gone. Changes in a relationship, in a community, or in an institution or tradition can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under us. Many people are experiencing this now with the many uncertainties in our world.
Yet the part of you that came alive with that person or that thrived in that relationship, institution, or tradition, is still there. The person that you were before recent changes in our governments or society is still there. The outside circumstances have changed, but who you are in your essence is still there.
Once you have touched that part of yourself, you can never not know it again. It’s just that now that the catalyst is gone – now that the circumstance has changed – you may have to be more intentional in your practice of keeping that part of yourself alive.
As you find others who are experiencing similar feelings, support each other. Call forth the best from each other. Become the new catalysts that each of you need in order to keep getting stronger. Support one another to keep bringing your gifts to the world.
We’re living in challenging times. Yet just as many things have changed very quickly, what is happening right now is also not permanent. Nothing is permanent. Change on the outside will continue.
The essence of who we are on the inside, however, can never be lost to us. The essence of who we are is bigger than our circumstance. And it will continue to evolve over time and through experience. It is up to us to remember who we are at our essence and who we are when we are at our best. It’s up to us to keep the connection alive.
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