Meditations on the Word ‘Loss’: Can We Really Ever Lose Those Who Die?

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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I've been thinking about the word loss as it pertains to someone's death. More specifically, as Merriam-Webster defines it:

"A person or thing or an amount that is lost." 

Somewhere in our linguistic history, society decided loss was an acceptable euphemism for death... Well technically not for the word death itself, but for the person or thing that has died (as defined above). Really I think it refers more to the experience of having someone significant die; so in other words, you have lost someone because they died. Okay? Let's keep moving.

Although I don't love the word loss, I admit it's useful. Without euphemisms of its ilk, we would be left with words that taste as awful as they sound like death and died. We worry these words will land like a punch in the gut, so we use them sparingly—instead favoring ambiguous words like loss and passed away.

Yet as someone who's had a close loved one die, I actually see the word loss as more of a misnomer than an accurate representation of my experience. This became especially clear to me after the following exchange with my 5 year-old daughter, Virginia:

Virginia: Do you miss your mom?

(This is a pretty normal question for her actually. She asks me about my mother a lot.)

Me: Yes, all the time. 

Virginia: Yeah, but how much is that?

Trying to explain the true answer to this question would be like trying to teach her algebra: there are just too many building blocks she has yet to understand. So, as parents often do, I looked for a simplified explanation she might be able to relate to. All I could come up with was this...

Me: You give me hugs and kisses all the time, right? Sometimes you give them for no reason at all, just because you thought of me and felt like it. Well—as many times as you think of me and want to tell me something or give me hugs—that’s how many times I think of my mother and miss her because I want to tell her something or give her a hug and I can’t.

She accepted the answer, even though I doubt she understood and I didn’t belabor the point. But when I thought about the conversation afterwards, I was overcome by the reality that my mother is anything but absent or lost from this world.

you're still here

When I lose something, it's gone; its attributes, the space it filled, its significance to me pretty much fade away. I either forget about it and move on or, if whatever I have lost was important, I replace it. This is not what we do with people. We don't lose people, forget them, or replace them.

I still think about reaching out to my mother, less often than when she was living but often enough. When I do look for her, I don't find a void; I find memory, emotion, longing, aching, fondness, and a million other things. Her body has left this world, but the space she occupied in the hearts of those who knew her is still full. I'll admit the range of emotions I feel toward my mother has changed since her death but, if anything, the spectrum is much broader because it now includes feelings that are depressing, sad, and dark.

How odd that our relationships with people can become even more complicated once they are gone. We still feel things towards them like longing, anger, guilt, and want; we still wish they'd help us resolve our unanswered questions; we still look to them for advice on matters long after they're gone. Commonsense tells me the "relationship" we have with the dead is merely with their memory, but it feels so much more alive that this.

Call me crazy but I think when someone you love dies, your eyes are opened to a world where being dead isn't the same as being gone. Our hearts, minds, and memory stretch across the space between life and death and fill it in with love and emotion of all kinds. Here, in this place that maybe only exists inside of us, we're still together with those who have died in a timeless in-between.

You may disagree, but for me there is no loss, no difference of zero, and no deficit. I still know exactly where to find my deceased loved ones. I will never let them go. They will never be replaced. If you say I'm sorry for your loss, I will know what you mean; this word is just what we say and I will continue to use it to be sure. But I now understand that in this context, "loss" can't hold up to its standard definition. Instead, it means something different to every new griever who hears it.

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21 Comments on "Meditations on the Word ‘Loss’: Can We Really Ever Lose Those Who Die?"

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  1. Vicki  May 31, 2016 at 11:29 pm Reply

    My meditations on Loss: Some of them rather intense and a bit graphic

    I hated it when they said that: “When did he pass away?” Me (thinking): He DIDN’T ‘pass away’ and we didn’t lose him, unless you’re referring to his actual body; we actually did ‘lose’ the body and the coroner never did put ‘confirmed finding of death’ on the certificate, it’s still a ‘presumed finding of death.’ The government is VERY picky about how they say that. If they never find remains of a human body they never call it a ‘confirmed’ death. It remains a ‘presumed’ death. Even 45 and 50 years later, families that lost loved ones in the Vietnam War via their loved ones’ MIA status, if a body was never recovered, or any parts thereof, it’s still considered a presumed finding of death. Richard, my daughter’s godfather who spent 2 years in Vietnam, told me that on Memorial Day too.
    The government has strange words for most everything. They say the body hasn’t been repatriated if it was lost in war; missing in action and most likely dead. I can’t imagine going 40 years with the status of presumed finding of death.
    The worst thing about a presumed vs confirmed death has been that I never “feel” his presence. I don’t know why that is and don’t want to figure out the reason. I just know that where everyone else is convinced their loved ones went to heaven or hell or somewhere After, I still wonder if his soul made it through the flames that destroyed his body so effectively nothing was left but unrecognizable ashes that seems to prove to me that maybe his soul ALSO didn’t survive. Nobody has ever answered the question satisfactorily and I no longer ask it. My 15 y.o daughter was the first to present us with the question. She was studying energy in Science and asked if the soul was a form of energy, was the intense energy from the flames enough to have forced his soul to be dissipated. Fortunately I knew a guy who had a Ph.D in Physics & Chemistry and was a Microbiologist. He said the energy forms of physical matter and that of a spirit were two different types and one wouldn’t have been affected by the other. It sounded like a good enough answer to me. I didn’t want to think about it and was never any good with Science anyway. I took his word for it and told my daughter. Besides that, a religious person had said the same thing about the energy of spirits vs physical energy. Anyway, all this grief we’ve had from not ever seeing his last remains is why I was so glad when someone said “there’s a suite of fiery rooms in hell waiting for Osama bin Laden.” Eric’s brother said that. He was so angry at the funeral he blurted it out. It was his way of expressing frustration. He said he read it in a book and thought it sounded like a great idea that there would be a fiery suite of rooms waiting for bin Laden.

    • Litsa  June 1, 2016 at 4:13 pm Reply

      Ah, Vicki I am so sorry that never having found his body has caused such complex pain on top of something already devastating. You bring up such an important point that many of us take for granted, which is that there is some relief or comfort we find in just knowing where our loved one’s body is – whether it was unltimately buried or cremated, but there is at least a knowing. I am so sorry because of the his body was not found that you were never afforded that and have been left with such a deeply literal sense of loss.

  2. Joyce  January 19, 2016 at 10:51 pm Reply

    When speaking of my daughter, I try to avoid using “loss” or “lost”. I lose my keys, but I did not lose my daughter. My daughter died in a car accident. The absence of her presence in my life is a great loss to me. Thank you for your insightful article.

  3. donna maclennan  January 18, 2016 at 1:48 pm Reply

    I lost my mother last year.It is a word I can more easily use if I am trying to explain my circumstances to someone.Thank you so much for sharing. I am having a difficult time although possibly making slow progress but find I grieve so differently than my older twin brothers.I know that is OK. My mother told me I need , so perspective before she passed.So wise but I have lost my joy of hugs and our conversations and looking forward to our time together each day.LOSS does really seem to describe what has happened with this change in my life.I hope to feel stronger in the future but my loss is still so painful.Nothing like the unconditional love of a mother that I was so blessed to have.Miss her everyday. Thank you for your article.

  4. Kaesmene  October 9, 2015 at 12:58 pm Reply

    Eleanor, thanks as always for a well-written and thoughtful post. I was thinking about this the other day, feeling the loss of our aunts and of your mom. I’m sad, but at the same time I noticed that every fall I pick up acorns and every single fall the first few I gather remind me of your mother and make me smile. It’s a small thing, but I have similar moments from time to time thinking about our aunts and our grandmother. In ways big and little I think people are still with us.

  5. Z  January 9, 2015 at 12:04 pm Reply

    I really love this post; it is very well written and says a lot. I wish that there were more support in this society for people who are striving to maintain a relationship with the person they loved who died, rather than people always telling us to “let go”. But I wish with all my heart that I were like you in one way, Eleanor….you say when you reach out for the one who died you do not feel a void. I do. I wish I knew how to change that. The four beings I loved the most in my life….the ones for whom I lived…. have all died, and I cannot find any of them when I reach out to them. I only find the void they left behind in my life and my heart.

    • Eleanor  January 13, 2015 at 10:45 am Reply

      Hey Z,

      I guess I do sometimes still feel a void. But even that void is something – a reminder that they are still here even if it is through the pain of those who miss them. This sounds weird, I know but pain or comfort I’m reminded that she continues to be loved.


  6. Pankaj Mishra  January 9, 2015 at 9:58 am Reply

    Thanks a lot for sharing this article..I was literally glued to your article and didn’t want it to end .. This article is abstracting every aspect of grief ..I felt so good from within after reading this.once again thanks a lot.

  7. Beth Warren  January 9, 2015 at 7:52 am Reply

    I appreciate your view, agree with your feelings in “loss”. There is truly no way anyone that you have loved could be anything but ” present”.

  8. Sheila Bergquist  January 9, 2015 at 2:17 am Reply

    I never thought about that word in this way and you are so right. Yes, they are lost to us in body, but never in our hearts. I use the word but will now always think of your article when I do.

  9. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)  January 8, 2015 at 6:01 pm Reply

    Points well taken, Eleanor, and I thank you for making them. When I hear (or say) “I am so sorry for your loss,” I am referring to the loss of the physical presence of the loved one in a person’s earthly life ~ but I don’t for a moment think that the person (or cherished animal companion, for that matter) who is now gone from your life is forever lost. Certainly our loved ones live on forever, just as long as we keep their memory alive in our hearts and in our minds. Love never dies.

    • Eleanor  January 13, 2015 at 10:46 am Reply

      As always, well said Marty!

  10. Jenifer  January 8, 2015 at 2:58 pm Reply

    Hi Eleanor,
    I have been reading your blog for about a month now and I find that I can really connect/relate to you. Reading your experiences and thoughts have been very helpful for me. Just the connection I feel helps me process my own feelings and cope with this difficult, lonely time. My mom passed last May. My son, 4, and daughter 3, also ask me if I miss her. Of course, I tell them yes, very much so- reading your response with tears running down my face- made so much sense.
    So on to my question… I want to be able to feel the connection you feel in the “space between” when I think of my mom. It’s hard for me- near impossible. I am struggling with my faith and am so confused and skeptical about that area. I know this is personal, but can you tell me about your faith and if you truly believe your mom is in a better place- literally? You inspire me, thank you for doing this.

    • Eleanor  January 13, 2015 at 10:38 am Reply

      Hey Jennifer,

      I’m so sorry about your mother’s death and I’m glad that we’ve been of some help in your grief. First I think it’s important for me to point out that my mother died about 8 years ago and in the first few years, where you are now, I wasn’t anywhere close to having this perspective. Personally it’s taken a lot of self-reflection and shifting of world-views to get to the place I’m in now and I’m not entirely sure how much of that I would have done had it not been for this website and readers like you. I just wanted to say that so you know my perspective mainly has to do with time and finding the right coping skills. The second thing I wanted to share was that Litsa wrote a wonderful post on how grief can make us challenge our faith, which you may find helpful if you haven’t already seen it.

      But as to your specific question I’m afraid my answer is…it’s complicated. In a general way I feel that she’s still out there, but I have no idea what this literally, specifically or realistically means. I guess I find the most comfort in the reminders that she was here and that she really does continue to have an impact on the world and those who love her. Although she is not on this earth, I can still have a relationship with her. I’m not sure if this post would kind of explain it, but maybe. I’m sorry, this isn’t very helpful. I guess the best thing I can say is that I think it will make sense in time. Death and grief, they change us and making sense of the world afterwards often requires a lot of searching.


  11. Betty  January 8, 2015 at 2:42 pm Reply

    Nicely put. Thank you.

  12. Candace  January 8, 2015 at 1:03 pm Reply

    Excellent!! Love this perspective on “loss”

  13. Andrews Victor  January 8, 2015 at 12:36 pm Reply

    Extremely well thought-out and stimulating article.


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