I learned a new word recently – ending. It was coined by physician Robert Webster, describing the last living member of a lineage or a species. I was chatting with a woman who didn’t have kids, nor did she plan to. Her parents and only sibling, who also had no children, had all died. Though she described a wonderful ‘found family’, she’d always sought a word to describe this feeling of being the last of her biological family. When she learned the word endling she tried it on for size and has been using it ever since.
She described comfort in a word for the aspect of her loss that was often overlooked. She felt being an 'endling' conveyed something bigger than "my parents and only sibling have died".
I love that she has the word endling. There is a lot to say about that unique experience and loss. But this isn’t an article about endlings. It's an article about the "something bigger' this woman referenced. A something that goes beyond just the experience of being an endling.
In my work as a grief therapist and in our griever Hub, I’m reminded of this something bigger often. I think of it every time I speak with someone who has experienced the death of their last living child, or their only child. I think of it when I speak to someone who is a refugee or has emigrated and learns the last living member of their family in their home country has left or died. I thought of it when I read about Bruce Springsteen’s (very griefy) album, Letters to You, written when he became the last living member of his original band. I thought of it when I recently talked to a childless couple who had experienced their fourth miscarriage, one that they had decided would be their last as they were going to stop IVF treatments.
There are some losses for which the grief is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
These losses mark not just the loss of a person (or people) – something immense and devastating completely on its own. They also mark the end of something else – something bigger.
That ‘something’ can be obvious and nameable – the loss of a biological family or a band. Or it can be more difficult to describe. A loss of someone who represented a connection to home, a loss of parenthood, of childhood, the first-hand experience and memory of a time or place.
A death is always more than the loss of the person. We’ve talked countless times about the secondary losses that accompany every loss. Who knows, maybe these are just deaths that carry with them extra-big secondary losses?
But I think it is more than that.
I imagine it a bit like a Lego kit. When you first open the kit, all you see is a messy box of individual legos. But once you put it all together you have something else that feels like so much more – a farm or a dinosaur or The Millennium Falcon.
It isn’t just the secondary losses connected to that loss. It is that the nature of certain losses, in combination with other losses or circumstances, add up to something so much bigger – something that other people often don’t fully see or appreciate. The see the messy box of legos. But you see the unique nature and combination of these losses – something so much greater once they’re all together.
I wish there was better language for it, an easier way to give this grief words (somehow I doubt my lego analogy will do you much good in articulating grief greater than the sum of its parts).
Short of that, I wish I could tell you that this article is transitioning to helpful tips or practical tools.
I’m sorry – I don’t have tips and tools.
All that I have is an assurance that this unique aspect of loss, hard as it is to put into words, isn’t going unseen.
We see the countless endlings out there.
We see the many parents who no longer have a single living child.
We see the tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees who no longer have family in their homeland.
We see the devastated and exhausted IVF couples who have just decided they don’t have it in them to risk another failed round or another miscarriage.
We see everyone who stands alone as the living end of a community, a team, a band, an era.
For whatever it's worth, we see you. We understand that your loss is not simply the messy box of Legos - it is also the enormous reality they build.
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