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Losses teach people to embrace life while living it

WASHINGTON • When my son exploded down the stairs and into the kitchen in his typical 12-year-old way on a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon, my husband stopped him before he could run into the den.

"Maybe you should mention to mum what you're doing upstairs?" my husband said.

They exchanged glances.

"Why? What are you doing upstairs?" I put down the pot I was drying, vaguely alarmed.

He licked his lips. "I'm just putting away my Legos. You know, putting them in big plastic bins and then into the attic."

"Oh, that's a great idea. Gives you so much more room," I said as normally as I could.

He knows me well, my son.

"Are you okay?"

I tried to laugh. "Of course!" I said, fake as a tiny yellow Lego figure.

"I'm going to go fold laundry."

I went into my bedroom and, despite myself, let out a sob. Just one. Then I sat down in the middle of the clean wash dumped on the bed and began to fold as the news settled in.

He hadn't played with Legos for years at that point. It was well past time to pack them up and put them away. I can't remember when he took down the last of the framed Lego boxes that had decorated his room ever since the Christmas my brother gave him his first set, a firehouse, when he was four.

They had been replaced with posters and team jerseys and a big Red Sox flag long ago. The completed models were crammed into bookshelves collecting dust and the million remaining loose bricks sat in a wooden toy chest covered with football and lacrosse gear.

I can't remember the last time I saw him spread out on his belly on the floor, working intently on some creation. He had once spent hours a day, every day, sitting in a pile of infuriatingly tiny plastic bricks. He had been one of those little boys whose entire identity had been wrapped up in that particular toy.

When he was six, he declared: "When I try to imagine heaven, all I see is Legos spread out on the floor as far as I can see and the smell of dog."

"Well, I guess that's a good sign," I said to my husband that night. "Because it basically describes our living room."

And now it was done, that time in his life. I knew it would come, of course, and now it had. It was an ending.

It was also a loss, a tiny little loss. The kind that happens a thousand times in a life. The only difference, of course, was that I was aware of it this time.

Before you think that I'm making a mountain out of a mole hill, I should probably mention that I've worked for years as a hospice chaplain. I have seen loss, all kinds and lots of it. Death is the last loss of the dying experience, but not the only one. There's the loss of health, the loss of work, the loss of an active sex life, the loss of independence. And even before those big end-of-life losses are the losses sprinkled throughout any lifetime. Many endings come before the last ending. It comes in guises big and small.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the influential psychiatrist, called the losses that occur over the course of a life "little deaths". Some little deaths are bigger than others: divorce, being fired, the empty nest. These endings can feel like they cleave a life in half. But some endings are not so much little deaths as they are the natural developments of life, of growing up, of children putting away the things of childhood. Putting away the Legos was an ending, but not a little death.

Maybe it's a blessing that we are not aware of many of these million little endings. If we were, we might not be able to get through a day. Better that we usually don't realise that it will be the last time we hold our child's hand when crossing the street. Better that we don't realise that it will be the last time we talk to someone we were once best friends with, before the friendship faded away over time and distance. Better we don't realise it will be the last time we dance all night.

But every now and then, for whatever reason, we become aware of a last time, of a tiny loss. What to do then with the stinging heart?

The same thing we would do for any of the "little deaths".

Grieve it, whether for 30 seconds on the bed sitting in a pile of clean towels and socks, or for months in the midst of a job search, or for years after the loss of a loved one. And then think about why that ending was also a loss.

Not all endings are losses, you see. Something is a loss because we loved it. The love is what makes it a loss.

So acknowledging the last of the Legos, letting the loss of it sink in, forced me to become aware of just how much I had loved and had taken for granted that stage of his life. And that, in turn, made me aware of how much I actually love the stage he's in right now. For how much longer will he ask me to jump on the trampoline with him and his sister? Will I know it's the last time when that day comes?

What a gift that is, becoming more aware of what you love while you have it, becoming more aware of what you love right now.

This is what the little deaths, the litany of lasts, the million endings teach us, if we let them: How to love your life while you're living it, as much as you can.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'Losses teach people to embrace life while living it'. Print Edition | Subscribe