The Mathematics of Loss

May 10, 2015

Over the past few months, I have lost count of the losses I have experienced, and I have been reminded anew that when one loss is added to another, the truthful total is often more than two. The more losses you add, especially in close and unrelenting sequence, the farther from traditional math your emotional equation may roam.

Last February, on my father’s 89th birthday, he fell and broke his hip. I traveled to accompany him through his surgery, but soon after, he went into hospice, and at the same time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. So began a two-month multiplication of losses that included my father’s death and funeral, and, for me, multiple biopsies, a mastectomy and two emergency surgeries within as many days after. Sometimes life is like that – one loss colliding into another until you have a whole pile-up that necessarily brings everything to a standstill for a while.

Gratefully and with no small gladness, today I can say, while still recovering strength and movement, I am cancer-free and will not require additional treatments. Remarkable medical technologies (some developed by a childhood pal of mine, whose work I now treasure in a new, more personal way) made possible an early detection that required only surgery. For that, and for all the dear family and friends who accompanied me through the past few months and the colleagues who stepped forward to help me clear my plate of work, I am grateful beyond words.

Now, a month after my surgeries, I have been reminded that though some days I may feel and look like I’m recovered, I still have a lot of physical and emotional healing to do. I recently received this sage advice not, as you might guess, from a spiritual mentor but from my most remarkable surgeon. As if to verify her caution, she then recited to me the long litany of losses I have suffered in the past few months, including not only the medical losses but also the emotional ones related to my father, my health and my identity.

Now, spurred by her advice, I am taking my time in returning to the busy life I had been leading. And I am pausing to do the math on the losses I have experienced.

At first, this feels like returning to my earliest grade school lessons in the grammar of subtraction. Back then, we didn’t say “subtract” but rather “take away,” as in “Five take away two is three.” Now I apply that to parents: Two take away one is one; one take away one is zero. Add in all the other “take-aways” of my recent medical diagnoses and procedures, and I see that I have been living on the far side of zero for the past month or two. No wonder I feel depleted.

And then I realize that this kind of math works differently as well. I think of those simple equations that pop up when you fill out an on-line form and someone wants to verify that you’re not a spam-bot. So you’re given a basic equation (such as 1+3=?), to which you certainly know the answer, but “just to make sure you’re human” they distort the numbers as if you’re reading them in a fun house mirror. The figures bend and bulge until sometimes I begin to wonder if I really do know the answer, simple as it should be. Is that a plus sign or minus? I can’t always tell. That’s what emotional math feels like to me – proving, perhaps in its own way, that I am human.

Sure, I can tally up the losses of the past few months with a simple set of hash marks, bundling them like sticks in countable groups of five. But that doesn’t account for the way one loss sometimes unpredictably rubs against another, making sparks and, before you know it, igniting the whole bunch of them into a flaming, incalculable blaze. One plus one plus one plus one plus one does not always equal five in the mathematics of loss. Sometimes it’s just a hot mess of flaming emotions.

Thankfully, with a similar and balancing distortion, this addition of the negative numbers of loss surprisingly does not always take us south of zero’s border. Just as I have noticed that one loss added to another and another can dip us into an ocean of grief where it makes no sense to separate one drop from the next, I have also been grateful to experience the way that this ocean is made of inseparable waves of love as much as by uncountable drops of grief. When I give myself over to grief, I let down my defenses and become open to others and to love in astonishing new ways. So one loss plus one loss plus one loss (and more), in my recent experience, can sometimes add up to so much love and so many blessings that some days I feel like I am actually coming out ahead.

I still have a lot of healing (and grieving) to do, it’s true. But in adding up what I’ve lost and what I’ve received in these past few months, I’m grateful to discover that my healing is already well underway – and it is multiplying daily.

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