We know we can’t do everything. We know that each day, as we do what we can, we move towards what will become our future. We also know, of course we know, that infinite futures recede. Some we wanted, some we sought, yet those will not be ours.
This is grief in its most mundane form: loss of paths not taken. It seems straightforward, we think we know, yet at some point it becomes felt. Maybe we make a tough choice, realizing we can’t live both stories. Or, something we wanted eludes us.
We obsess over optimizing our outcomes from here, racked with doubt over decisions we’ve made. We’re distraught with opportunities we let pass, enraged at people and things that got in our way. We become numb: so protected from loss, we lose even what we do have.
While each feeling brings its own crucial story, their prime directive is to fight brain’s true villain: Grief.
The problem with grief is that we can’t get rid of it. Other emotions show up with exit instructions:
Anger says, “if you want out, make this right!”
Regret says, “if you want out, don’t let this happen again!”
Guilt says, “if you want out, do better!”
Shame says, “if you want out, be better!”
All grief can say is, “you have lost.” Loss can’t be escaped.
This leaves us feeling helpless: brain’s least favorite thing. So it deploys its protectors: guilt, regret, the whole crew. These feelings aren’t fun, but they get the job done. They give us a sense of control, keep us occupied with self-blame, with what we should have done, what we can do, to never lose again.
Yet of course, we will lose again. We lose all the time. Loss is a feature of human life. But when loss-avoidance occupies us, it produces the very loss it fears. We may feel less grief, but in our shame and anxiety and all the rest, we lose full contact with our lives.
What can we do?
1. Take solace. The loss of paths not taken is a ubiquitous experience, something everyone must bear. So too is the mind's attempt to get us out of it. We all grapple here. You’re in good company.
2. Let yourself notice. Although painful, noticing what can’t be is the price of admission to what is, delivering us more fully and truthfully into the lives we do have. The more honest we are with our circumstances, the better choices we're able to make here and now.
3. Learn from loss. Through absence, grief teaches us what we care about and why. It puts us in deep contact with our loves and values. This self-knowing indispensably helps us navigate towards what calls to us.
4. Beware the guards. If you find yourself in the grip of protectors, you may feel quite a bit of anxiety, guilt, regret, shame, blame, or numbness. Sometimes another mind is needed to come alongside and help parse the stories these feelings tell. It may be time for help.
5. Seek connection. We often need company in our grief. Turn to a loved one or therapist for solidarity or support; or, if you’re not a people person, find a book or podcast that resonates with you.