Discovery after loss

"May I have the number to the Albemarle County Jail?" a young woman asks me at the Haven Welcome Desk.

I find the number for her from the colorful slips of reference paper posted along the edge of the Welcome Desk counter. She makes the call.

"He's not there. I don't know where he could be. It's my ex-boyfriend. He broke into a house and I thought maybe he was arrested and put in jail, but I guess not. There are a lot of people concerned about him here. I've got to try and find him."

After calling the two area hospitals and various other locations she thinks he might be, she decides her best bet is to go to the police station and file a missing person's report.

A lesson on loss

I'm not sure what the outcome of her story is. I don't know if she finds him or files the report or not, but her concern seemed to be genuine. Helping her look up those numbers and talk with her about her worries taught me something inspiring about loss.

We all encounter loss in life. It takes on many forms: getting fired, breakups, losing your home, moving to a new city, death of a loved one. It’s an essential part of life we can’t control.

For a little over the past two years, I have been struggling with the loss of my mother. It's a perplexing loss to me because I've questioned, what did I really lose? She was in and out of my life after I went to live with my aunt at age seven. She broke every promise she ever made. The time I did live with her was filled with chaos, worry, instability, and events that a child should never witness or have to experience.

I spent the better part of my teen years and early twenties resenting her for those hardships, yet completely identifying myself with them. Those trials challenged me and made me strong, determined, and an excellent student. I would do everything in my power to never be like her, I used to tell myself. The contradiction of those two ideas, hating her for leaving me and lying to me my whole life, and building my identity around the challenges I had faced, confused me. There was some level of respect and love for her for creating those challenges because they helped me succeed. On the other hand, I feel resentful, incredibly hurt, and have difficulty trusting because she never followed through on her word. It took a toll on our relationship, and for a time, I basically shut her out of my life.

Second chance

Fortunately, I built a relationship with someone who strongly encouraged me to give her another chance. She was my mother after all, and I only really get one. I really value this person's opinion so I decided to let her back into my life.

Finally, with a little effort and compassion my mother and I were getting along for once in my young adult life. I could carry on a conversation with her without biting her head off. We talked almost every day over text and it was getting easier with each month. I expressed my joy at us finally being able to get along to her one evening after we'd had a really lengthy, but constructive, phone conversation. She told me I was her best friend.

Literally, two days later, I got a call that she was "gone." I thought maybe she'd been sent back to jail, but no. Her friend explained she had died early that morning in the hospital from what seemed to be a drug overdose.

Emotional tornado

My whole world was turned upside down. How could she have left me again!? Just as we were getting close and building a positive relationship? What would I identify with now that the motivator of my achievement was gone? Emotionally, I spiraled out of control.

Honestly, up until about four months ago, I was still on that downward spiral. I just did not know how to cope with this loss. I had helped two of my closest friends each deal with the loss of one of their parents before my mom died. That did nothing to prepare me for it happening to me though. I did yoga to try and balance myself. I drank a lot of alcohol to escape. I have great friends, family, and a caring boyfriend who were all very supportive, but it’s not something that anyone can really fix for you. I began to shut people out, in a way, by concealing my true feelings. I felt I had to deal with my grief entirely on my own. For those closest to me, I know that has been challenging, because I was not venting my confusion, grief, and lack of trust in a constructive way, but rather destructively misplacing blame, resentment, and distrust.

Perseverance and community

Still to this day, I am rebuilding my identity after the loss of my mother. I will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life. I am making progress. I have made the most progress through practicing these Small Acts and writing about the journey of that adventure.  The lady at the Haven today taught me that perseverance is probably the single most powerful tool we have to deal with and recover from loss. Maybe that’s obvious, but to see such perseverance coming from a woman who doesn't have a home, and very limited possessions, try so diligently to find a man she isn't even dating anymore, simply because she cares about that person, was incredibly inspiring to me.

The even bigger message was that I can’t really do it entirely alone. Of course, there are going to be times during grief that I need to be alone because that’s part of the process, but ultimately connecting with other people, and especially, helping other people, has been what’s helped me the most.  I can recover my loss by giving and showing compassion, just as this woman who has lost so much demonstrated.

Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.
— Annie Roiphe

I can’t change the way I resentfully treated my mother in the past. I can’t change that she’s gone. I have to accept those facts and work through this last challenge she left me. The grief might not ever go away, and I can’t change that either. However, I am in control of my choices and my attitude. Just like that woman at the Haven today, I can choose to show compassion for others in the face of my loss instead of wallowing in my grief and behaving destructively. I can persevere by practicing these Small Acts to create positive energy in my life. I will let that build my identity. Maybe then one day I will no longer reflect on what’s been lost by her actions in life and her passing, but on the incredible strength I have gained both spiritually and emotionally as a result of my perseverance through this challenge.