Recognizing, accepting the gifts that come from loss


AUGUST 28, 2022 6:00 AM

I remember once as a child when we had a babysitter, a rare occurrence for our family, and my siblings and I were home with a high school girl named Biffy. We were sitting around the family room playing with the TV on in the background. I caught a glimpse of the TV screen and there was an image of a boy having a seizure. I’m not sure if this is the moment my immature brain first encountered the notion that bodies aren’t always healthy or that mortality is part of the contract I signed before coming here, but I just remember sobbing uncontrollably so much so that Biffy called the restaurant where my parents were so that I could get the soothing I needed.

After talking to them, the only thing that soothed me was imagining my mother’s face and remembering her nurturing voice. This is what got me through until they got home, knowing she was coming to be with me. Knowing my sense of home would be restored. She would never let anything bad happen to me. I was safe and loved forever with my mom.

Those safe, cozy early childhood moments faded into the sharp edges of early adolescence. We moved from our idyllic country home to a suburban neighborhood closer to a city. My mom no longer stayed home with us and the busyness of being a working mother with her own unmet emotional needs from her own mother (who now lived minutes away) led to depression and alcoholism. We went from womb of young childhood with its simplicity and plenty of love to go around to an all-out brawl among the four siblings over the phone, the use of the car, to get to the desserts first, to sit in the preferred seat in the van, and so on. I can now see that as we lost our mother’s devotion and attention, we turned toward each other with the fierceness of competitors.

As adolescence turned to adulthood and now having my own children, I feel the hurt of not having the mother I wished for in new and painful ways. I see as my children wonder aloud about why she doesn’t visit or how come she never stays long. I see her love them as much as she can and yet, her limitations still prevail. I understand how her own struggles as a child, along with her temperament and personality structure, and the cultural and societal pressure she endured led to her limited ability to mother. I can hold her in a compassionate way when I do this. And yet, there’s no escaping a child wanting their mother and feeling the gut-wrenching pain of not being able to find her.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give voice to the spiritual gifts of not getting what we most need. One of these gifts manifests in a primary knowing that everyone and everything, when met with expectation disappoints. There is no exception. And that truly the only way we suffer is when we don’t walk into relationships with open curiosity keeping a clear inner sense that our story about this person is merely a story.

The other gift I am still on the cusp of receiving has something to do with the sweet side of loss. If we allow it to break us open we find we are held by the great love that holds us together. This love is truer to me than anything I have felt or known in the usual dimension that we call life. Cynthia Bourgeault has my most favorite quote about this that speaks to this better than I can. She says, “Mourning is indeed a brutal form of emptiness. But in this emptiness, if we remain open, we discover that a mysterious something does indeed reach back to comfort us; the tendrils of our grief trailing out into the unknown become intertwined in a greater love that holds all things together.”

This wisdom was perfectly placed and given to me by my own mother. Yes, the same woman whom I lost in childhood gave me some of the most beautiful wisdom gifts of my life. She said several times to me that when we can’t seem to find what we are looking for from a fellow human, it is an invitation to turn toward God. The ache for God is misplaced onto people, things, places, and experiences and we come up empty handed. Every. Single. Time. Only God quells the ache of the longing that alone belongs to Her.

What a beautifully placed riddle in the center of my life. The ache that my own mother caused paved my journey toward the Sacred and this wisdom path was shown to me by the same woman who couldn’t meet my earthly needs. For this, I am grateful for her life, for losing her, and for her showing me a way to a greater love than I could have ever known existed.

Maria Vinca is a teaching professor in the psychology department at Penn State, an owner and practitioner at State College Psychological Services and mom of three. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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