Living through detachment

There are so many times that I have felt like giving up. To throw in my towel, pull the covers over my head, to not get out of bed. When my sister died, it often seemed incredible to me that while my world had frozen, the world around me was still going. I remember catching the train to work, standing in the middle of the carriage, absolutely numb, and wondering if the people around me could see the grief that was etched all over my face. Everything as I knew it had been taken away from me. There was no possible way to hide that.

Oliver Sacks wrote an essay for The New York Times upon learning that he was terminally ill. It became the basis for a collection of essays that formed his last book, ‘Gratitude’, which was published posthumously. In this first essay, Oliver Sacks wrote of his sudden clear focus and perspective: ‘There is no time for anything inessential… This is not indifference but detachment… these are no longer my business; they belong to the future.’

When we lose the ones we love, and we are forced to continue living without them, we experience complete detachment from the world. I still have such a strong desire to live a life with no time for anything inessential. I often think ‘So what? This is no longer important to me. I do not have the time or the space. Please leave me alone.’ Yet I cannot sustain a period of detachment from the world. Because I still belong to the future, and I must keep living. And the world is full of inessential problems that I still have to solve, whether I want to or not. But what I can choose is to make more time and more space for the essential. In a way, grief teaches us what the dying feel.

David Malham, a retired grief therapist, meditated on his own death and how his wife would manage. He came to accept that trying to protect her was not only wrong, but that it was impossible – grief, after all, is the price we pay for love:

Grief is a normal and healthy experience after loss. But so is resilience. Over the years an interesting change in grief therapy has been the emphasis on resilience; the awareness that people normally find healthy ways to adapt and live with loss. That’s not to say it’s a quick and easy task. It’s not that grieving suddenly ends and the person forgets and moves on. No, what happens is that a weight that initially feels unbearable becomes in time, manageable. The grief becomes compact enough, with the hard edges removed, to be gently placed in one’s heart.

Here, I am inspired again by the words of Oliver Sacks on his feelings of both fear and gratitude: ‘Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.’

I continue living, because it is an enormous privilege and adventure. Slowly but surely I continue to find ways to renter the world, though sometimes I fail. But I know that's ok, because it’s not from lack of trying. Trying is everything.

And so each day I pick up that towel I threw away, I pull the covers over my head, and I get out of bed. And if it’s not a good day, that's also ok. Because I haven’t given up in finding a way to gently place my grief in my heart.