A time to gain. And a time to lose.

Over the past few weeks there has been so much loss around us. Today, in almost every room, our guests were watching the queen’s funeral. It feels like yesterday that they were watching the jubilee celebrations with bated breath, enjoying the splendour and almost fairy-tale like pomp and ceremony, and now, the nation grapples to come to terms with a world in which a constant, someone who seemed almost as permanent as the monarchy itself, has suddenly ceased to exist.

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Closer to home, we sense the loss of our most precious guest – my dad – whom we had the absolute honour to look after for 14 months. He was always present, sitting in our lounge or right next to me at my desk. Wherever I looked during my work day, I could see him. Suddenly I can’t and the empty chair has morphed into a cruel reminder of a reality I did not choose..

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I have a friend who lost a son just before his fourth birthday in a horrible freak accident. Not long after this unsparing tragedy, I went through a break-up. I was devastated and depressed but felt that I dare not even mention to her that a boyfriend dumped me. How could my loss ever compare to hers? She was quite incredible though, and came to me, taking my hands and said, “You had a loss. Full stop. We don’t need to measure and compare it. You still have to suffer your loss and I have to suffer mine.” Acknowledging my small loss in the greater scheme of things, was so kind and taught me all those years ago, that losses are not there to be placed in little boxes and labelled and judged. Just like grief, they are to be suffered and endured in your own space and in their own way. (I recently told her about how what she said has shaped me, and she has no recollection of this conversation. Seems that some people just impart wisdom like that without even knowing! )

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The loss of a loved one, like me with my dad, or the loss of a revered figurehead like the Commonwealth has suffered, might be easier to verbalise and to process, but there are other losses that seem so insignificant that people do not understand the weight they really carry.

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I knew one of my guests was battling when I saw her swollen eyes and crumpled tissues. She has been with me for palliative care since Autumn. Her symptoms are being managed beautifully and she is completely pain free. This weekend, her children went to clean up her house as it was sold, and had to make decisions as to what to do with her belongings. Logically she knew she was never going home again, but this was not a reality her heart understood yet. With her house being packed up she did not just lose her home, but maybe a bit of hope? Maybe now that it is official, that she can never go home, never live unassisted again, she knows with more certainty what the road ahead holds. How do you explain to people that losing your independence is frightening? Everyone keeps telling her how lucky she is to be alive and comfortable and being looked after. She knows this, but now on top of this, feels ungrateful and the reality is actually that she would rather be on her own patio making a cup of tea and not thinking of a horrid disease slowly stealing her life.

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My heartbreak after my dad’s death is easy to understand. I adored him, and he loved me. The loss I feel is blatantly obvious. It’s more difficult to understand why, after my friend’s most spectacularly awful father died, she also experienced a great sense of loss. He was abusive and they did not talk for years, but when he died, she was devastated. The unexpected tears and feelings of profound sadness took us all by surprise. I thought we were going to throw a party as the world was better off without him, and yet, there my friend was, unable to get out of bed. The loss she felt was not for her dad, but for “a dad”. Suddenly with him no longer in her life (as ghastly as he was) the idea of the dad she could have and wanted to have was also gone. She almost got permission to officially mourn for being deprived of having a father that loved her all those years.

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Maybe this abstract sense of loss is similar to when one suffers a miscarriage? Even though you did not know your baby or held it in your arms, it is that aching hollowness that enfolds you, of what should have been, what could have been. What you anticipated is suddenly gone and there is simply nothing in its place.

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My grandmother was born with one perfect ear and then her other ear only consisted of the earlobe (a win for fashion as she could still wear two earrings, but a bit of a problem as only one ear had an auricle or outer part of the ear and no opening). She always battled with hearing and when doctors discovered in her late 60’s that she in fact, had a perfectly formed internal ear which would have had the capacity to hear, she broke down. She could have been spared so much hurt, teasing and frustration if only they could have helped her then and opened her ear up, which these days would have been a relatively simple procedure.

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We have a guest with a daughter the same age as one of mine. The daughter has cerebral palsy and comes to South Africa regularly for botox (Yes, botox. Botox reduces muscle spasticity and even though not a permanent solution, it provides a wonderful relief for CP people/kids). At every birthday or celebration I look at this special child and unwillingly compare her to my daughter. There is such a loss as one ponders the life she could have lived, of who she could have become. Certainly, there is also a loss for her mom, who will always be her caretaker, and after her dad walked out, will forever battle to find a man with a big enough heart to take on this girl who requires so much care and sacrifice.

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People look forward to retirement so often only to discover the overwhelming feeling is that of a loss of purpose and that the one day on the golf course is hardly as rewarding as you hoped it would be. During COVID we all lost so much. I was filled with gratitude when we had a funeral for my father this weekend, where firstly people could come in person, without masks, and hug you, talk about him, and share a meal. We would have been deprived of this beautiful celebration honouring his life if he died a year ago. My sister-in-law was taken away in an ambulance during the height of COVID and died in an NHS hospital. The family had to forfeit those last hours with her in hospital and we had to endure a Zoom funeral which did not do her life justice. She deserved us wailing together in the pews of her old-fashioned Anglican church afterwards going to the little English pub around the corner from her house where we could have raised a toast to her. This we lost. This was taken away from us and our mourning seems to just continue for her.

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There are so many losses one can grieve, and I am sure we all grieve some at any one stage of our lives or another. There is divorce (or for that matter, any relationship that comes to an end, be it a marriage, a longstanding romance or a friendship). We experience the loss of a loved one’s health or your own health, and your ability to live freely without the constraints of illness or damage after trauma. The loss of a job (whether through retirement, retrenchment or other circumstances) and financial stability is also very real. If we look at the Ukraine, we wonder how they deal with the losses they are suffering,. This trauma is not only stealing their lives but their stability and place of safety. Their loss is so big that I am not sure I could ever bear to get up from under that weight.

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But here I am comparing loss and how we grieve it again. Eleanor Hayley wisely said “the grief-comparison game is common among people who’ve experienced loss, and unfortunately, it’s a competition everyone loses”.

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Let’s carry our losses, whatever they may be, gently, and together, knowing that they are all brutally unforgiving, undeserved, palpable, devastating and very very heavy.

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