Grief and Loss: Occupying the Empty Space
When my old dog died a couple of years ago, I tumbled into a state of full-blown grief. My world had changed overnight. Her presence had provided a kind of punctuation that organized my days—from morning, when her demand to go outside got me out of bed, to the end of the day, when she couldn’t wait for me to set down my things and take her out for her evening stroll. I felt sad, lost and unanchored without her.
I had many of the same feelings when my son went away to college and I had to face the empty space he left behind. He took what he needed for school, leaving behind a chaotic room scattered with selectively abandoned possessions. Without him, his room didn’t make sense any more, and it mirrored the way I felt in his absence—sad, chaotic, off-balance, panicky.
My mind played its usual tricks and the more I filled up that empty space with warm memories of the past and desolate predictions about the future, the worse I felt. Closing the door to the room and my painful feelings was very tempting, but I knew that would bring only momentary relief.
To regain my footing, I had to occupy that empty space, to tolerate the acute pain that came with stepping over the threshold into that disordered abandoned room. The aching sadness and panic I felt erupted in tears, and as I cleaned, organized, and transformed the room, I began to feel a kind of grounded relief. I guess it was a way of embracing the emptiness I felt. Around the same time, I remember starting the new routine of walking every day as soon as I woke up, no matter how I felt. And I was lucky that other parts of my life were unchanged. I had friends who fed me and invited me to go places, and work that kept me busy with other distractions. Eventually, that empty space was transformed and I regained a sense of balance and direction.
An empty space is a blank canvass, a place of infinite possibility—fertile ground for the mind’s mischief or for transformation and expansion. Most of us cope with loss and uncertainty by cramming the empty space full with the distraction of activity and whatever our minds make up. When we can embrace the empty space, dare to walk through the door and look around, we open ourselves to unimagined possibilities, to new ways of defining ourselves.
To go through that door, most of us need the structure of routine, the support of friends and family (the people who make sure we eat and stay engaged with life), and sometimes a therapist who provides a quiet, uncluttered, safe space, in which one can untangle and reweave the range of emotions that rock our world when someone we love leaves it.