We all experience varying degrees of loss, nobody is immune. We lose pets, friends, and family. We lose relationships and marriages. We lose entire houses to fires, floods, and tornados.
Life is incredibly unpredictable and impossible to navigate without that changing wind we know as loss.
Some are crippled by the sudden upheaval. We see this in the eyes of the homeless looking back at us through years of pain and loss. Some go on, only to develop unhealthy coping habits. Others find a way to bounce back, to be resilient, despite it all.
I am one of the lucky ones.
I know a thing or two (or ten) about loss. I have started over more times than one would think is humanly possible. I lost everything I owned at the age of 19 in a monumental flood after a hurricane. I lost nearly everything when my decade plus long relationship ended at the age of 30.
And, a few years later, I found myself homeless and in a shelter for women and children survivors of domestic violence.
The only belongings I had were those that I tossed into my car in a panicked hurry. Each time I clenched my teeth, searched for hope, and found a way to start again.
When I was 19 and a sophomore in college I got my first taste of what it is like to lose everything you own. A hurricane ripped through my town like many before. I thought it was minor and not that big of a deal or cause for concern. Nobody thought much of it and didn’t think to prepare for flooding, which is relatively simple and explained in detail here. Flood preparedness is something everyone should know but at the time I was clueless and assumed it could never happen to me.
The problem was that our state had received massive amounts of rain in the few weeks prior to the hurricane. This left the rivers swollen and the ground unable to absorb the rain from the hurricane. The next day I woke up to flood waters inside of my apartment.
My front door was swollen shut. I had no power, no phone, and the only way I could call for help was to scream out of my second floor window.
People waded through the waist high water and helped me get the door open. I carried my dogs and cats out over my head and took them to the nearest vet for boarding. The dams around the state began to burst and the flood waters continued to rise as I waded through them hauling bags of clothes and anything I could save. Some people in a canoe came by and saved my computer. At the end of the day the water was up to my chin. I had to walk away, not knowing how high the water would rise.
In the following weeks I stayed with friends, family, and in a hotel room while I searched for a new place to live. The college shut down, the entire town shut down, and things like water and ice were airlifted to us. The water rose a total of 18 feet on my building alone. I was terrified and devastated but determined to start over and finish my college degree. I stood in line at food banks and applied for help from the Red Cross and FEMA. My building was condemned and later demolished.
I simply refused to sink.
After I graduated college, my long-term boyfriend and I moved together so that I could attend graduate school. I hoped that the move would rekindle our relationship and give him a chance to change his abusive and cheating ways. I, of course, was naïve and wrong. Nothing changed, the cycle of abuse continued, and after living together for over twelve years we finally broke up.
Again, I was terrified and devastated. I had grown up with this person and was now suddenly 30 years old and single. We divided our belongings and pets. I left graduate school and moved back home to put some distance between us. I searched desperately for healing and a way to start over.
The emotional pain was so great that my chest physically ached. There were many dark days but I reached for laughter and clung to the hope that I would find love, healthy love, in the future. I relied on family and friends to remind me over and over that I had done the right thing and that I shouldn’t go back. Eventually, I believed it.
A few years later I found myself in a short lived abusive marriage. It ended a week before Christmas with police and criminal investigators putting me in a safe house.
The only belongings I had with me were the ones that I packed in about thirty frantic minutes. But I was thankful to be safe, to be away from him. I was thankful for those frantic minutes I had to pack – many women out of the two to four million victims of domestic violence every year get none at all. I was thankful for food to eat and a place to sleep. I was thankful I was alive.
I won’t sugar coat those months of living in a safe house. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But somehow, despite it all, I had many moments of laughter with the other women and children there and with the advocates keeping us safe. I learned their stories and felt grateful that I didn’t endure what they had endured. I’m sure many of them felt the same when they heard mine. I was not alone and I was safe but I had never felt so alone in my entire life. I clung to the donated quilts people gave me and fresh clothes with gratitude.
When my ex was released from jail I had to move far away to be safe. I took what little was in my car and I drove those miles alone. I left family, friends, and everything I owned and had ever known. I found a place to live in a foreign place where I didn’t know a soul or even the name of the towns and cities. I slept on a donated mattress on the floor for almost 2 years. But, you know what? Despite the debilitating grief, I had never been more filled with gratitude. My place wasn’t that nice but it was mine, all mine.
I had these moments of beauty and bliss that let me know if I could just make it through the grief my life would start again and be anything I wanted it to be. I recognized that grief was, as this article beautifully states,
“more of a journey, and everyone’s journey is individual”.
My journey didn’t look like anyone else’s and that was perfectly okay. Grief and the subsequent healing have no time limit and I allowed myself as much time as I needed.
Starting over is far from easy and the loss of belongings is nothing to scoff at. Many people say “things are just things” but to the person that lost it all this rings insensitive and untrue. Professor Rosellina Ferraro explains in her study that
“Material possessions are often much more than their function properties; for example, possessions may be used to construct one’s self and thus become a symbolic manifestation of who one is”.
She elaborates this point by stating that the loss of such possessions are equivalent to a “symbolic form of death of self”. This tiny death is something only those that have experienced it can truly understand.
These incidents – the flood, the long-term relationship ending, the time spent in safe houses and shelters are only a few of my experiences with loss. Like you, I have lost people and pets that have passed away. I have lost and lost and lost some more. And every single time that I wondered if I could start over again, life gave me a little window of hope to keep my perspective from going completely dark.
I reminded myself after each abrupt ending that I had started over before. I looked for laughter, for hope, and found angels that gifted me with food or blankets or a bed to sleep on. I found angels that gifted me with the kindness of words of support or a hug. I looked within me, and found an endless supply of new beginnings.
Stephanie is a writer, survivor, and advocate.
You can find her on Twitter.
Read more on her blog.