I believe in the lessons of loss, among the most important lessons life has taught me. My inclination, of course, is to avoid loss. It has been hard to learn to accept, much less appreciate, the transience that fills human life, but sometimes only loss is able to slam my face up against the plate-glass window of mortal reality and force my eyes to see where I have let the trivial become important or let familiarity blind me to life’s daily gifts.
I still remember the first car I truly loved, a sleek, green beauty. When a drunk speeding through a red light mangled the whole driver’s side of the car beyond repair, I mourned its loss. Yet my sense of loss was microscopic compared to my gratitude, because my wife, who happened to be driving, miraculously escaped with only bruises and slight whiplash. I learned then the lesson of the family clinging to each other near a home destroyed by tornado or fire: the lesson that those we love are fragile and more precious than anything money can buy.
Nothing compares with temporary loss for teaching gratitude, too. The ever-present quickly becomes little appreciated until loss rips away the obscuring veil of everyday familiarity. Heating, lighting, and a refrigerator filled with food seemed extravagant luxuries after an ice storm left my house without electricity for several days. Long separations make me especially cherish welcome-home hugs. Even health and mobility have been most precious when I regained them after a painful illness or injury. Loss helps me see the gifts, wonderful beyond my deserving, that permeate my life, and recognizing gifts evokes the gratitude needed to truly enjoy living.
Among the hardest lessons are those brought by death, the final loss. The morning after Christmas, many years ago, I watched my brother, a young father, slip quietly into death after a heroic battle with cancer. I saw years of increasing infirmity and pain teach him, finally, that death can be a friend.
For years afterward I beat my fists bloody against heaven’s gates in anger, but there were positives, too. Experiencing his death made me a more caring person, by hollowing out space in my psyche for greater empathy and depth of emotion. It carved deep into my bones the knowledge of my own mortality, which bounds my time to accomplish goals and so lends urgency to my present. Seeing my brother’s suffering, I learned more profoundly that my personal goals exist amid the needs of community, so helping others deserves much of my limited span of time’s flow.
Still, death looms, a gateway made fearsome by humanity’s ignorance of what lies beyond. When I reach that gateway, I hope my sense of gratitude and wonder will have been toughened enough by my life’s lessons of loss that I greet death as a grand adventure into the unknown, whether I then find a fulfilling life on a different plane, as my faith and heart expect, or find nothing at all.