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On Rediscovering Life after Loss

Aimee Falchuk

Therapist Aimee Falchuk resisted death. She understood it as “humiliation, failure, loss of control, chaos, powerlessness, not getting my way.” Part of her felt like death didn’t apply to her; she admits she believed that she and her family were immune to passing. Then her father got sick. He died. And Falchuk was left to confront what she now felt was the only thing that was real: grief.

Grief left Falchuk in a period of personal crisis. Through internal and spiritual work, she overcame her distortions about death. She discovered a few more of her distortions, about life. In the two years since, her grief has been a launchpad for her own growth. She shares some of what she learned in the personal essay below.

Discovering Meaning in Crisis

While I cannot say that everything happens for a reason, I do believe that everything that happens to us offers an opportunity to learn, heal, and mature. My father died May 3, 2018. The words remain surreal.

My father’s illness and subsequent passing was a personal crisis. It invited me to be with grief as a sacred chapter in life, pushing me into a state of helplessness, forcing me to uncover my own distortions of and resistance to life and death, and making me learn humility, surrender, and receiving. As a therapist, I learned a valuable lesson from the experience about the strength of our defenses—the parts of us that obstruct our living fully for the sake of staying alive.

Crisis exposes the fissures and shadows of disparity and inequity within our systems—in our institutions, in our relationships, or as individuals—so that they can be addressed. In the midst of the crisis, we can ask ourselves, “How do I want to show up in this?” When the crisis passes and we ask, “Did the crisis fulfill its function?” what will we be able to say? Did we learn something? Are we now willing to address those fissures and shadows? Are we ready to heal and mature?

Here are some of the teachings that came out of my own personal crisis with grief.

On Living with Death

Death always frightened me. I perceived it as a personal failure and a total loss of one’s own will, which I found humiliating. And I had a fear of missing out—a place in me that said, “Everyone else gets to stay and I don’t.”

I’ve found that my feelings about death reflected an attachment to duality, or dualistic consciousness. In dualistic consciousness, our experience is understood as either/or, this or that. It is binary. You are either dead or alive. Life is either good or bad. We are either happy or sad. It is implicit that we should always avoid the negative side of any duality. But seeking to avoid a negative means we end up channeling our energy toward the absence of something, like not-death. We are motivated in life not by going toward something but by moving away from another thing. If we’re simply avoiding death, we are not in pursuit of life. It keeps us from living fully.

My father’s death shattered these distortions of death as failure and of dualistic consciousness. I suddenly felt I had no steady ground to stand on. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I lost weight and had very little physical strength. I was emotionally dysregulated. I developed agoraphobia and suffered from panic attacks. I had vertigo and dizzy spells. There were times when I did not think I would survive.

In the midst of this period, I woke up in the middle of the night and a voice within me asked, “Can you be in life in the face of death?”

On Grief Itself

Maybe for the first time in my life, I felt something I considered real. Grief came not from a thought or a conditioned response but from an involuntary visceral truth that I felt throughout my whole body. There is something so primal about it: Some days I wanted to go into an empty field and scream, and others I would get down on the floor, lie there in stillness, and try to surrender to what was.

Grief somehow blows the lid off of convention. There is a certain reckless abandon that comes with grief. After my dad died, I didn’t brush my hair. I’m not sure why. My brother Brad asked me at one point if I was ever going to again. I recall telling him that I wasn’t sure. I found that grief was so real and true that I became less afraid to just let myself be.

There is an interesting paradox to grief. On the one hand, there is a sense of aloneness. No one else can truly understand our personal experience of loss. And yet grief also connects us. I recall teaching a lecture that reminded me that grief, like any other feeling, is a current of energy already in existence that we simply tune in to at different moments. The experience of grief was not something I created; it was always there—it just was not something I had tuned in to yet. And when I did tune in to it, I met so many others who were also tuned in. I met them in ways I couldn’t have before.

On Humility

Writer and professor Stephen M. Johnson writes that the greatest gift you can give a narcissist is their ordinariness. For me, grief blew a hole in my arrogance and self-centeredness. I was so humbled by the anxiety and panic, by my body not fully working, by the shattering of an idealized image of having it all together. Grief gave me humility, the gift of ordinariness, by clearing out my perception of my specialness and the immunity I’d thought it provided me.

This can, at first, be a rude awakening. Our ego may see humility as failure, and we may feel not humbled but humiliated. I certainly did. But I now believe that it is actually our greatest achievement: freedom from our idealized self-image.

In humility, we are unmasked, disillusioned, and exposed, and yet we still stand in whatever it is we’re going through, face it, and move through it. That takes real strength and courage. In this way, the humility that comes out of grief is an opportunity to right-size ourselves. Right-sizing is one path to healing our narcissism. And as we leave our narcissism behind, we become the best of who we are: Our hearts become more available to others.

On Finding Our Own Internal Sense of Safety

My father’s death forced me to come to terms with the fact that I had falsely secured my sense of safety through him and other men. Under their wing, I had felt special and therefore safe. When he died, I was left feeling as if my fuel source had been cut off, and I could not find the ground beneath me or the center within me.

My task was clear: find my own source and my own sense of internal safety. In order to do that, I had to see the ways I had made my father and other men into God. I had to come into contact with the part of myself that said, “I won’t take care of myself. You do it.” I had to look within to develop my own internal resource and my own sense of safety rather than search for it outside of myself. And lastly, I had to uncover all that it had cost me to contract out for safety. What life was it keeping me from experiencing? What light of my own wasn’t I willing to shine?

On Learning to Receive

I watched the doctors and nurses care for my father. They were truly amazing people for whom I have such profound respect and gratitude. I watched his friends and family—especially my mother—give to him in the most beautiful ways: a kiss on the forehead. A simple visit at home or at the hospital. A question for him about medicine or history, which reminded him that he was still a doctor and a teacher and that others wanted to learn from him.

And I watched my father receive. I can’t imagine it was easy for him; he always seemed so much more comfortable giving to and caring for others. He gave so generously to so many and asked for so little. Yet here he was, allowing us to give to him. It felt like such a gift to be able to give to him and to have him receive.

“Receiving is an unselfish act.”

Receiving was always difficult for me. I was much better at taking. There’s a difference: Taking feels assertive. When I was taking, I felt that I maintained some level of power. Receiving is inherently more complicated. The power dynamic shifts; it’s intimate. When I was receiving, I felt vulnerable and at the mercy of the other person.

Receiving is an unselfish act. In order to receive, we must accept our own wants and needs as well as acknowledge that those wants and needs can be fulfilled by the love of someone else. It allows us to give more authentically ourselves. We no longer need to give in order to get (or get in order to give). Instead, we understand that giving and receiving are one and the same. They are mutual expressions of love.

On Being Who We Are Rather Than Who We Think We Should Be

We can get so consumed by our status, from what we do with our lives to what we look like to what we do for others. We can get caught up in the illusion that those things make us lovable.

What I have learned from my dad’s absence is that what made him lovable was simply his presence and energy. His curiosity. His love for medicine and British comedy. His devotion to family. It was the essence of who he was, not his identity, that made him so lovable—and so missable. The same is true any of us. For me, the lesson here is to rely less on who I think I should be and more on who I am.

On Forgiving Ourselves

I had a few minutes alone with my dad before he passed away. I was sitting next to his bed, feeling so much in that moment: love, fear, longing. I wanted to reach out and touch his arm or his hand—the parts of him I felt I knew best. But I was paralyzed and just sat there in silence. Fear and humiliation over expressing love so openly and directly is a familiar feeling to me, and it overcame me in that moment. Instead of reaching out to my dad and touching his hand one last time, instead of telling him how I was luckiest daughter ever and that I loved him and would miss him terribly, I stood up and said, “Okay, Dad, see you later.”

My father didn’t get to hear my words or feel my touch before his death. I may never know how that impacted him. And I missed the opportunity to feel the depth of voicing my love. It took me a while to accept what I did that day and forgive myself for it.

“What I have learned from my dad’s absence is that what made him lovable was simply his presence
and energy. His curiosity. His love for medicine and British comedy. His devotion to family. It was the
essence of who he was, not his identity, that made him so lovable—and so missable.”

We have to understand that our defenses are incredibly powerful. They are born out of a need and will to survive. But even when we come to learn that our defenses, once life-affirming, are now life-defeating, we can still choose to let our defenses to win. We have become so used to the darkness that surrendering to love can feel too bright. Step gently and slowly into a more expanded state so that the mind and body can adjust to holding more energy flow.

Aimee Falchuk, MPH, MEd, CCEP, is the founder of the Falchuk Group and works with individuals and groups.