Loss. It’s quite a difficult period, coming home, and even though I’ve been home over a month, it’s still difficult. It makes you reflect on loss, and the hope of gain. Think of things like Matthew: you have to lose yourself in order to find God. Or The Winter’s Tale: there’s Perdita, the lost daughter, found, or the ending of The Tempest, Gonzalo’s speech on losing and finding. Or Thoreau, in the Walden chapter “The Village,” it’s not until we are lost, that is to say, turned around, that we discover ourselves and the infinite extent of our relations. They’re all about loss. Of course I’ve gained a lot in coming home, but the sense of pervasive loss is still acutely real. I’m mourning, you might say.
From Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, entry “The Work of Mourning”: Intrapsychic process, occurring after the loss of a loved object, whereby the subject gradually manages to detach himself from this object.
Freud’s thesis in Mourning and Melancholia is that the work of mourning involves detachment, a decathexis, a severing, from the object that is gone, the person who has left or died. That’s a very painful process: it involves remembering; it involves periods of depression. But in that healthy work of mourning you do eventually detach yourself and find another attachment, another person or another work in life. Think about people who are losing their jobs, or having their homes taken away in foreclosure, or are alienated from their kids, or who are enduring losses in so many other multitudinous ways. There’s loss everywhere, and mourning, too, though many people who are mourning loss will eventually begin to detach themselves from what they’ve lost and go on to something else.
Of course, there are many warm, welcoming, even exciting things about coming home. I’ve been making very real progress in breathing, in coughing (extremely important for respiratory health!), physical therapy, arm and hand function, speech, bladder control, and more. It’s extremely energizing and hopeful. Peggy and my various caregivers are always devising new exercises, like flexing what I can of my forearm muscles when I’m being turned in bed. I have a fabulous PT homecare person who is doing work with my trunk muscles (where earlier PTs had said I’d never have any trunk strength at all), and who devises very clever ways of getting the most strength from my legs as well. The OT works relentlessly with my hands, and is preparing me to be able to use an iPad, at least to turn the pages of a book—this way I could read a book, instead of having it read to me. But alongside all this excitement about my much more rapid progress now that I’m home, there’s still the underlying sense of loss and the everpresence of continuing mourning.
That’s one of the reasons it’s hard to come home. For someone who has lost function as I have, and there are millions of us, it involves something similar to but not quite the same as mourning for a lost object, a dead object, but here the lost object in the case of someone who has lost function is an important part of his or her self—or at least the illusion of his or her self, an illusion of selfhood that of course sustains you. Returning to one’s home involves multiple, multiple, multiple reminders of what one has lost. The ability to cook. The ability to get out of bed and walk around. The ability to turn lights on or off. The ability to clean up the garden. The ability to hug someone. The ability to do almost everything that involves physical activity. This is why a wheelchair like mine is such a blessing, even if it looks so forbidding to the rest of you, because it makes at least some of these things possible—moving around, at least. The ability to go for a walk—at least I can motor around through the graveyard near our home. Just the same, I no longer have the ability to do almost all ordinary activities. Our friend D., who also had a spinal cord injury, told a story of driving with his wife and seeing someone mowing a lawn: he burst into tears. According to D., his wife’s consternation, why are you crying? was so obvious, but so was his answer, I’ll never be able to do that again.
According to Freud, that crying would be therapeutic, part of the process of working through what it meant to have a spinal cord injury. There’s grief underneath the surface. There’s got to be grief for you, my friends and family, too; part of me has died. It’s just hitting home, though we’ve been talking about it before; that’s partly why I’m so confused and anxious; I realize now how much of my self I’ve lost. Of course that’s seemed obvious for the past two years; but it’s really hitting home now.
On the one hand, Freud says, there is healthy or natural mourning, that involves the full experience of grief for the lost object, especially bringing up memories of the lost object. I have many, many memories now of the times when my body functioned; they’re around me all the time now that I’m at home—replacing a light bulb or cleaning up the garden or pruning our big grapevine, which we’ve always done during the January thaw. There’s always mourning, even though I’m also elated in trying to get some physical sensation and motor function back, recognizing that you can get things back, even this long after the injury. What’s curious is that you can have two seemingly incompatible experiences at the same time, an intense, driving will to live on and keep working for physical as well as emotional and social-contact improvement, and a deep, inconsolable mourning for what’s gone.
Freud also recognizes pathological mourning, which he says occurs when the subject holds himself responsible for the death that has occurred, or denies it, or believes that he is influenced or possessed by the dead person, and so on. Here’s where the Lama’s advice is so important, don’t ask why the accident happened; otherwise you get all tied up in self-blame. It would be easy to be crazy about this, pathological: did I do something to deserve this fate? Why me, God? Job’s comforters, as we mentioned earlier, had lots of these answers: we’re all sinners; you deserved it; you must have done something wrong. But once you go down that road you never get out of that box, the retreat to self-blame.
The more central issue is why exactly one finds oneself crying, either inside or outside, for all the things that home reminds you of—of course you’re crying about the lost object, that part of yourself that is gone, essentially much of what you were, if what one is is partly a function of what one is able to do. That partly explains why you cry, and also what antidotes there are—that’s in part the role of teaching for me, it’s a way of somehow doing something constructive with what you’ve got left, which may, in fact, if you work through the mourning process, involve a finding of oneself in a different way. There are new connections, for instance: Certainly I would not have said there are millions of us until I became one of us, and that’s why a place like Neuroworx, a genuinely forward-thinking outpatient rehab facility, is so important for people, because those people are discovering others they knew nothing about. Who among able-bodied people has disabled people much on their radar screen? Only a few, I think.
Freud also differentiates normal mourning and pathological mourning from melancholia, where the ego identifies with the lost object. But this is in a way the biggest challenge in my situation: after all, what’s lost was me, my body and my capacities for activity; why wouldn’t the ego identify with these things? So is it possible to do normal mourning, “healthy” mourning, when after all you can’t really separate yourself from the lost object: that lost object is (was) after all you.
Here’s where the advice of the Lama has been so relevant, when he came to visit me in the hospital not long after the accident: the body is nothing; the mind is everything. As you may remember, it was tremendously consoling at the time. If I could still believe it fully, mourning and melancholia wouldn’t be a problem. I try; but it is hard to lose one’s body, even if you still have your mind.
Meanwhile, Peggy has been facing loss too, over these last two years and of course continuing on now. She says she’d been looking idly while staring at her computer at the Nature Conservancy’s website of Best Nature Photos of 2010; almost all of them are taken in kinds of places we’ve been, but won’t be going to again. And she confesses that she has a secret stash of some of the many travel and trek brochures that come in through the mail: glossy brochures with photos of mountain ranges in Chile, Buddhist temples in Cambodia, picturesque medieval villages in France and Italy.
Is this about loss? Is this about the anguish of not being able to go there anymore, at least not as the couple we once were? We can’t; that’s a simple fact, and if we were to try to do so it would be so encumbered with equipment and backup precautions it would hardly be worth the effort, and in any case we would have lost the spontaneity we once enjoyed. After all, I think we narrated earlier, when we first knew each other we’d sometimes just put our sleeping bags and backpacking gear in the car and drive out to the main highway, and then decide whether to turn left or right, south or north, then west or east after that. There are wonderful mountain ranges in every direction from Salt Lake City, so it didn’t make any difference which way we went. The deliciousness of complete spontaneity was always part of the pleasure.
We can’t do that anymore. So what, Peggy says. Someone whose wisdom she’s come to admire said awhile ago, about all those places like mountain ranges in Chile, Buddhist temples in Cambodia, and medieval villages in France, well, after all, you’ve already done that. You’ve already been there.
It takes a long time for this to sink in. You can’t do it in the future; but you’ve done it in the past, when you were whole. Do these somehow cancel out? Does the fact that you can’t do it in the future anymore somehow weigh more than your past experience, no matter how pleasurable and intense that was? That’s after all over, gone. Or is it that we should value what we’ve done in the past more than what we might do in the future, given that we never really know what the future will bring and given also that past experience lives longer with us than future experience will, since future experience occurs closer to our own deaths. Or should we weigh them equally, our pasts and our futures? Traditional philosophical puzzles like this become much more real in a situation like losing your body, but of course they’re also part of ordinary aging, of living through time. So we’re not alone at all in confronting issues like this; they just seem more acute when you realize not just that you can’t do much of anything anymore but that you can’t recover from mourning for your lost self in any of the usual, healthy ways, by detaching from that and going on to something else.
Peggy says she doesn’t keep the secret stash of travel brochures because she wants to go there, but to remind her of what it’s like not minding not being able to go there, the positive side of not needing to anymore.