Opinion | How to do things with loss

Opinion by Zora Ilunga-Reed
May 26, 2021, 8:05 p.m.

I’ve always had difficulty with endings. I have trouble deciding on a last line, a final word, whether to hug or wave goodbye. In our increasingly rapid “return to normalcy,” I’ve begun to feel a twinge of familiar ending-induced anxiety. Fundamentally, I think endings are difficult because they demarcate changes, significant or minor, permanent or not. Despite the shocking tragedy of the past year and change, a part of me has morphed into the shape of pandemic life. That part is now sticking to its mold even as I try to jiggle it out. To leave this now-familiar routine means closing a chapter and opening a new one: an ending, a change.

In an opinion piece last week, Elena Shao wrote of her struggles to label her mix of emotions related to climate change. “I try these words: devastation, tragedy, concern. Loss. It’s not the right word, either,” she wrote. Her reasoning was that “loss doesn’t perfectly describe something that’s changed forever.” If that’s the case, then “loss” fits here. In reawakening from a dystopian year, we are irreversibly losing the emotional and physical state that belonged to this period. We’re jumping to the next line in the history textbooks.

Like Elena, I’ve struggled to adequately verbalize my feelings about this loss. Part of the challenge is the very verbiage I chose above. Loss sounds mournful, and the end of a pandemic is anything but tragic. I’m sticking to my guns with this one, though. I’m not convinced by the other options: shift, alteration, return, transition, to name a few. They’re too clinical and declarative. Loss, on the other hand, is startling, emotional, confusing. Loss is like waking up, making some coffee and taking the milk out of the fridge only to realize it’s gone bad. Your tentative-yet-clear plan for the near future changes and, expectations checked, you throw on some shoes and run to the store.

Maybe that’s a puerile analogy, especially given the intensity of the situation. In the next few weeks, I’m finishing school, moving across the country, starting a new job and preparing for my final year of college. In the next few months, there will be parties, concerts, in-person classes and, I predict, a lot more PDA. The other day, I woke up and realized the milk was bad, that something that had been changing slowly, unnoticed, had finally rounded the last corner and come to its end.

What do you do with loss? Two weeks ago, when I got the news that two people from my elementary school had died suddenly within a week of each other, I felt frozen. Or maybe I felt adrift. There was a moment when I felt angry and a day or two when everything looked gray and still, a placid silty pond. But, gradually at first, ripples emerge and the clouds shift, and the world regains movement and color. Then, I checked my watch and realized time had moved on.

Better to do something with loss. In the mid-13th century, after the sudden disappearance of his mentor Shams-i Tabrizi, Mawlānā Jalāl al-Din Rumi, more commonly known in the West as Rumi, created the samā’. Samā’, a Sufi practice, is a form of listening and dancing to music with the goal of experiencing divine ecstasy. Shams Al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī describes this inaugural samā’: “Night and day they were forever engaged in the samā’ and ecstatic bodily movements. There was not a single moment of calm and repose.” Loss seems to entail a gratitude for what’s left, for the limbs you can still move. And dancing will always be the best way to process emotional distress.

Yet, for many of us, a communal dance therapy session isn’t in the cards. For many of us, this loss is more amorphous or abstract: It’s the loss of a phase or routine that we weren’t aware was one until it began to fade away. You don’t know what you got til it’s gone, to borrow from Joni Mitchell.

I don’t think the solution is to shift our focus from what we’re leaving behind to what lies ahead. I’ll admit to cautious optimism, a privilege of the vaccinated world. The “ending” here is an exclusive, elusive one; it’s yet another facet of entitlement. This pandemic is far from over in a meaningful and concrete way. 

Yet, many hallmarks of our collective COVID-19 experience — mask mandates, distancing, lockdowns, remote communing — are beginning to fade. My privileged perspective of this time as an “ending” isn’t universally accurate, but on at least a national level, dawn seems to creep in. And, whether it’s my obsession with narrativization or my apprehension about endings, I still feel the need to hunt for a moral in the remnants of this past year. Or, at least, to sit with the remnants for a bit before rebuilding the city.

In his escape from a razed Troy, Virgil’s hero Aeneas famously carried Anchises, his aging father, on his back and was led by Iulus, his young son. He carried the past and was led by the future. To Anchises, he said, “I shall take you on my shoulders. Your weight will be nothing to me. Whatever may come, danger or safety, it will be the same for both of us.” I wonder if we can’t do the same. As the future leads us towards something like normalcy, perhaps a vestige of this past year can ride piggyback. I return to The Aeneid whenever I’m feeling anticipatorily nostalgic (which is also a species of loss). Specifically, I return to this line, long ago lifted from the ancient epic and now parading freely on inspiring quotes websites and various Etsy products: Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. That is, though translations differ slightly, “Perhaps, one day, it will be pleasing to remember even this.” I don’t think a pandemic will ever be pleasing to remember. But, perhaps, the person you were then, the things you did and thought about, will be.

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Zora Ilunga-Reed is a columnist and a junior studying Philosophy & Literature. A native New Yorker, she was a Copy Editor, Desk Editor and Staff Writer in volumes past. Read her column if you want to hear her thoughts on the woes of humanities students, tech culture and more.

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