Good Mourning: Grieving the Loss of Past Experiences

Good Mourning: Grieving the Loss of Past Experiences | Sometimes the best way to move forward is to give ourselves permission to grieve experiences and identities from our past.

I’ve always loved a good, sad, heart-wrenching love song, and I think I finally realized why.

Interestingly, it’s not because I’ve actually experienced a terrible break-up. Although I’ve had my fair share of crushes, dates, and awkward romantic encounters that I’m hoping we’ll all laugh about in 10 years, I don’t have any actual ex-boyfriends. And although I can certainly relate to the pain of having unreciprocated feelings for someone (I was the mayor of Friend Zone City from 2006-2014), I can’t relate to what it’s like to be hurt by someone who actually told me he loved me. As a result, my affinity for melancholy music puzzled me for a long time (and probably freaked out my current boyfriend). But last week, as I was driving to work and listening to Bring on the Night, a beautiful, brave, and tragic tune from The Corrs’ latest album, it occurred to me that break-up songs don’t just help us get over romantic relationships. These melodies are there for us as we mourn all kinds of losses and cope with all sorts of pain: friendships that end with bitter words and cold silences, as well as those that simply fade over the years as everyone grows up and grows apart; identities we shed like snakeskin in order to adapt to our continually changing circumstances; and memories so golden and sweet that we wonder if maybe the best years of our lives really are behind us.

For me, one of the hardest parts of growing up has been learning to allow myself to mourn these losses in healthy and productive ways. I tend to swing to one extreme or the other: I either bottle up my feelings and tell myself to get over it and quit living in the past, or I let the grief consume me and color my present circumstances with longing and regret. I also tend to focus so much on what I no longer have that I neglect to celebrate what I have gained in the process. So today, I’m cranking the sad tunes and pouring my heart out, in hopes that putting my thoughts in writing will help me to reflect on these losses (or perceived losses) in new ways, to swim through the sadness and, rather than drowning in it, come out on the other side.

One loss I continually struggle with is that of my identity as a musician. I played the piano from age 6-16 and the viola from age 11-15, until I no longer had time in my busy high school schedule for adequate practice. Giving up these instruments was not a decision I made lightly, and to this day, a part of me aches whenever I am reminded of this former me, perhaps by the sound of a string quartet or the sight of a grand piano (swoon). I miss the duets and life chats with my piano teacher; I miss filling the rooms of my house with music and silently tapping out scales and arpeggios on my desk at school; I miss mastering the classics that have delighted for centuries and figuring out catchy new pop songs from the radio by ear; and most of all, I miss having a way to speak when words weren’t sufficient, a means of allowing my feelings to fly directly from my heart to the keys or the strings without having to go through my overly anxious and analytical brain first.

And yes, I realize that music can most certainly be a lifelong passion, and that in theory, I can pick up playing again whenever I choose and take my instruments with me wherever I go. However, as I get older and begin to see my adult life filling up with other responsibilities and pursuits, the more I begin to doubt whether I will ever regain my identity as a musician, or whether I should even strive to do so. It would take a considerable amount of work, as my “music brain” is rusty, my fingers have lost their former ease and dexterity, and I no longer have weekly lessons and yearly recitals to provide structure and motivation. In addition, there are so many places I want to go and things I want to learn and people I want to spend time with that I don’t know how playing an instrument–let alone two–will fit in. I’m not saying that I’ll never sit down at a piano or pick up my viola again, but I also don’t want to promise myself that I will, at least not on a regular basis. But no matter what, I am eternally grateful for those years of musical exploration and expression and for everyone who supported me along the way.

Another loss I mourn is that of my athletic side. (I always hesitate to refer to my former self as an “athlete,” since I never played an organized sport; when people at the gym used to ask me what I was training for, I would laugh and say “life.”) Prior to a string of injuries and health issues that have kept me largely sedentary for the past 4 years, I spent hours on the road, on the bike, on the mat, and in the pool. I was determined to overcome the perceived lack of athleticism that had haunted me throughout years of elementary and middle school gym classes, and in the process I honed my strength and speed and flexibility until I was able to out-run and out-push-up many of the other girls and boys. (My ability to throw, catch, and kick is a different, and far more comical, story…)  The gym was my second home, and I owned more workout clothes than regular clothes. When I wasn’t working up a sweat, I loved to spend time creating new workout playlists or catching up on the latest issue of Runner’s World. I had incredible energy levels without drinking a single cup of coffee and was far more focused and relaxed in school.

This training came at a price, though, and despite my attention to safety and proper form, I experienced several major injuries. Maybe I pushed myself too hard, maybe I have bad luck or weird anatomy, or maybe it was a combination of things. All I know is that even after multiple cycles of physical therapy, a shoulder surgery, and months upon months of rest, the pain isn’t completely gone to this day. I feel like I’m living in a completely different body now, one that tires from carrying grocery bags or shopping at the mall and frequently feels stiff and awkward. In the past few months, I’ve been able to start easing into yoga again, and that has been an incredible blessing both mentally and physically. I doubt that I’ll ever return to my former level of fitness, and I’m okay with that; it might even be for the best. But I also wonder if I’ll ever be able to run, bike, or swim again at all, and that thought is much harder to handle.  For now, I’m just trying to be grateful for every movement that I am able to perform.

In addition to the loss of these identities, I am saddened by the conclusion of certain experiences, particularly by the end of my time as an undergraduate student. My campus, with its infectious energy and breathtaking beauty,  provided the landscape for a whirlwind four years of growth, creativity, excitement, and discovery. I met some of the best people I may ever know, developed a passion for public health, traveled abroad for the very first time, and started my journey home to the Catholic Church. At my commencement ceremony, as I stood in my cap and gown and addressed my fellow members of the class of 2014, I reassured everyone that this was just the beginning, that the best years of our lives still lay ahead. At that time, I was feeling inspired and hopeful, and I truly believed what I was saying. In the two years since then, I hate to admit that my 24-year-old self has often thought otherwise. Grad school was lonely. Therapy is helping.

As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I will admit that I feel a bit lighter after putting all of these thoughts into writing. Before I close, though, I feel I should add that I don’t want pity, nor do I need to be reminded of the many people who would gladly trade their problems and losses for mine. I’m incredibly blessed to have food in my pantry and clothes in my closet and a roof over my head and people who love me. In fact, I realized that I needed help precisely because I had all these things and was still miserable, precisely because I had such a full life and yet felt so empty. Part of turning my outlook around is allowing myself to grieve if that’s what I need to do, regardless of how others may view or judge the process. I hope you, dear reader, will understand; however, it’s also okay if we disagree. I’ve got my break-up songs to get me through. 😉 

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