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What Is Lost? What Is Left? What Is Possible?

After a major loss, we work on coming up with answers to some basic questions — as psychologist Dr. John Schneider has said, we need to discover what is lost, what is left, and what is possible. We discover that more than just the person himself or herself has been lost, but we also come to discover things that remain and possibilities that open up as we continue on in our lives.

Of the many questions that come up after someone you love has died, there are three that may not have even come to mind yet. But even if you haven't thought of these words, the work of grief is a process, over time, of discovering answers to these questions:

  • What is lost?
  • What is left?
  • What is possible?

What is lost?

Just like after a hurricane runs over a town, it takes time after a death to look through your life and discover what has been lost.

Of course, what is lost is the person who died. But it doesn't take long to realize that this main loss is just the biggest of a whole train of further losses.

The other losses are the many ways in which the loved one's absence has created so many holes in your life, has wrecked so many plans, has broken so many routines.

Everywhere we turn we stumble across another place where they are not and will never be again. There's that familiar voice. That unique smell. The special food enjoyed together. The now empty chair at the table. There are holidays, birthdays, family get-togethers of all kinds, all different now.

Even parts of us are lost, gone, changed now. There are hopes and dreams and goals and plans, wrecked like that flattened town after the hurricane has blown through.

What is left?

But not everything is gone. It may take some time to realize this, and even more time to discover what is left, but over time we find more and more that has remained, that is still with us.

Memories for one thing. Memories remain. At first, we might not see that as a gift, since we'd trade all the memories we have just to have the actual person right there in front of us again. But the memories can be cherished as a continuing connection to the one who is gone.

More can be discovered. There are other relationships that remain. And we might have keepsakes, special items handed down from our loved one. There are traditions we might still keep, or that we can change. Maybe there are values and beliefs, and even dreams, rearranged over time to fit our new reality.

No one else can say for any of us what is left for us. It's something we'll have to discover for ourselves. But as we continue our journeys of grief, we will continue to make these discoveries, and find connections with the past — and with the person who died.

What is possible?

At first, even continuing with life itself may not seem possible. But possibilities do begin to open up as we continue on this journey.

Again, since these are our own possibilities, no one can tell us what they are for us. No one can discover them for us.

What comes first?

Most often, we'll discover some of what we've lost first, and then pieces of what is left, and finally begin to get a sense of the possibilities that are open to us.

But this doesn't happen in nice, neat stages, one right after the other, where we finish one and then move on to the next. What is lost is usually more obvious at first, but we might continue coming across new discoveries of what's been lost even years after the person died. These processes overlap and often happen together.

The important thing is knowing that as we struggle with these questions day by day — maybe not even consciously aware that we're struggling with them — we're growing in the new person we're becoming.

See Spirals of Grief for more on what grief is like.