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Wenting Li

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This week, First Person explores the process of dealing with love and loss.

As long as I can remember, I have had a “thing” about closure. This had its roots in childhood, when my beloved father died unexpectedly. If only I had been able to say, “Thank you … I love you … don’t go!”

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It left me profoundly uncomfortable with things unsaid. I knew that people could die without warning. I knew that once they no longer existed I would be left hanging.

As a therapist, I think of the symptoms of distress we feel in body and mind as their way of asking for closure. Listen to me, says our aching back, our head cold or our anxious mind. I need to be heard, to be witnessed. I am not okay.

A few years ago, I heard English novelist Rupert Thomson being interviewed on CBC Radio. He gave a touching example of this search for closure. His mother died suddenly on a tennis court when he was 8. Decades later, he went back to where the court had been, with the friend who was with her that day, just to see the exact place she had fallen. The tennis court was now a parking lot, but the friend showed him the approximate spot. He dropped to his knees right there on the concrete, and as he touched his hand to the ground, he said he could feel the softness of her shirt and the bone beneath.

We have this need to bear witness to the loss, to make peace with what our hearts could not bear.

I had just celebrated my ninth birthday when my father died suddenly of a heart attack. He was the closest to me of my two parents and his death left me reeling. Unfortunately, this was the 1950s and we didn’t have support groups or counselling. My mother was devastated. I used to say “she went lateral” – my way of articulating her inability to offer her grieving children any degree of emotional support. I had two older brothers and was close to both of them. One left home immediately, which registered as another loss in my young heart. The other soldiered on, becoming the man in the house at a tender age. Along with my grieving grandmother, we all just toughed it out.

I became a yoga teacher in the early 1970s and did a fair bit of “growth work” and even some therapy as a part of getting to know myself. But then, sometime in the mid-eighties, my marriage began to show signs of strain. My ex-husband and I had a young daughter together and two children from his former marriage, so the stakes were high. We signed up for one of those intensive couples' weekends that are guaranteed to make or break a relationship. It was there, on Day 3, that I hit the wall of grief about my dad, felt the abandonment and loss of hope that no amount of talk therapy had ever touched.

I remember sitting on the back stoop of the Vermont schoolhouse venue, looking off into the dimly lit woods as the spirit of my father made its way gently into my heart. I had spent all those years pushing away the pain and with it, the father I loved. Only when I was willing to let my heart shatter completely, did he fully enter my psyche. In the space of about 24 hours, I was no longer a fatherless child, but a fully grown woman whose relationships with men were about to take a radical turn.

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Some years later, I realized the truth of what Leonard Cohen called the crack where the light gets in. That painful childhood loss was an opening into my work as a psychotherapist that has, along with my family, given the greatest meaning to my life. His death was my first acquaintance with impermanence and death, and because it happened when I was young and undefended, I was never really able to shake it. That turns out to be a good thing. While loss has been difficult for me, as it is for all of us, I always knew I would survive. I had been through worse.

For many years, I thought: “All well and good about the light that dawns at the end of the healing journey, but I’d really rather have had a dad.” But these days, especially as I move closer to my own death, this thought is tempered by the insight that his death was in some ways the greatest gift he could have given me. My father taught me that death comes to us all and that therefore every moment of life is both tenuous and full of grace.

I have told many stories in my life and the tragic loss of a parent is certainly one of the big ones. It was important for me to tell my painful story and to express the feelings that still lived deep inside.

But our emotional-spiritual development need not stop there. That one event, one of many in a life, was a tragedy, then a portal to a life calling, now a profound teaching. How sad it would have been to remain locked in the narrative, still a victim.

The examined life is neither appealing nor, because of circumstance, available to all. But we can think of our lives as having two trajectories: our personal human story and the deep and often hidden spiritual journey. We may go along for decades, struggling with the karma we are given, while all along something rich and infinite is growing - that ineffable quality we call spirit.

It takes courage to consciously bear one's pain and suffering; that's why we deny or bury it in the first place. But how can we die without bringing to the light the places within us that are broken?

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Nancy Leach lives in Toronto.