Lessons on Loss and Hard Realities
Sometimes loss is just loss.
Last week was the fourth anniversary of my mother’s passing (4/19/2019). It was the culmination of three difficult years watching her decline due to liver disease.
Independent realities are those realities that exist whether you like them or not, believe in them or not, or accept them or not. As seen from a perspective of an independent reality, she was gone. She was not coming back. The world would continue spinning on its axis. My life would move forward, albeit differently.
We create our social realities by the information we take in and the people with whom we surround ourselves. From the perspective of a social reality, I had lost a parent. She had preceded my father, who is still alive and well at 87 years old. As the culture of my family of origin had been written well before 2019, the responsibility of his care would pass to me, as hers had when she became ill. This was a social reality as discussed and accepted by me several years earlier.
Another part of the social reality that we are taught, tacitly or explicitly, is to be by our parents’ bedside at the time of their passing. (How often have you heard the refrain, “Ms. X passed surrounded by family and loved ones”?). This social reality directly affected my personal reality both at the time of her passing and to the present day.
Personal Reality and Loss
Personal realities are those direct experiences we cannot share directly, but we can express them.
The personal reality of losing a parent must vary greatly – although we can’t know for certain – based on the role of your parent in your upbringing and your relationship with them, as well as your age and theirs at the time of their passing. (It is very different to lose a parent when you are 10 than when you are 50.)
I had a close relationship with my mother. It was not a perfect relationship, and sometimes it was indeed fraught. But she raised me and my brother doing the best she could with what she had. She was not a perfect woman, but she was a woman well ahead of her time. She advanced well more than many other women from her culture and her social reality. She was smart, kind, unyielding to what she thought was right, and generous to a fault. Much of what I learned about how to live my life I learned from her.
Being at my mother’s bedside at the time of her passing was the most difficult thing I have had to do in my life. It was gut-wrenching and painful in a way I have no words to describe. Her final gift to me was showing me a part of myself I previously did not know. It forever changed my personal reality. Because of this, her final moments will remain one of my most cherished experiences.
Why Does Any of This Matter?
In psychology, there is a clinical term for losing a parent: It sucks!
In all seriousness, there is a saying in psychology, “When you contain an emotion, it changes the shape of the container.” This means that when we learn to hold a new emotional experience, it changes us.
In the last several weeks, I have worked with leaders who have been doing all kinds of backflips and other acrobatics to avoid the social reality of the culture they have created in their own businesses or the culture they have allowed others to create. Culture is not only about what is required; it is about what is allowed. So is our social reality – it is both about what is required and about what is allowed.
If you have someone who is underperforming or indifferent or toxic or punitive or vulgar or (fill in the blank with a detrimental behavior), you are allowing them to create a social reality that directly affects the personal realities for the people around them – your other employees or supervisees.
Taking action in these circumstances requires a leader to experience a new personal reality that is usually not easy. It requires us to contain emotions (anxiety, fear, angst, dread, loss, etc.). Containing an emotion changes the shape of the container. It makes us more courageous as leaders and as people.
Remember, courage is not the absence of fear. It is the mastery of fear.
I have always dreaded loss. I still do. But in facing the loss of my mother, and being completely present for her passing, I was able to learn a new mastery of it that I otherwise would not have known existed.
So, personally or professionally, what emotions are you doing acrobatics to avoid?
I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.