It’s a weird time, this – the bleak limbo plunged into after graduation. Summer has always felt vast and hazy, the seasonal equivalent of mid-afternoon, but before now there was the comfort of a plan which would kick start once again in September. Some of us were prepared with full-time jobs ready to walk into the second we handed back the grad robes, while some of us haven’t been so lucky (or competent). The end of academia, for a lot of us, means the end of our time in a system in which it was always clear what would come next. It’s unfamiliar, and it’s difficult, and I still struggle not to sugarcoat when speaking of it – but it really, really sucks.
In all honesty, though, I seem to have taken it a lot harder than most of my peers. I realised something might’ve been off when instead of sharing in the overwhelming relief of my fellow worn out fourth years the morning we submitted our dissertations, I felt a twinge of sadness. It was the beginning of the end, and I knew it, and I felt it. I became pre-occupied with ‘lasts’; last seminar, last lecture, last Tuesday morning spent in the QMU between classes, last time in the library, last publications meeting as an undergrad, last times in certain buildings, last exam. I really knew something was off when I spent the evening before my final exam watching promotional videos put together by the university and weeping to myself instead of studying. It was like I was going through a painful break up and was torturing myself with sad songs. I was about to be handed a degree from an internationally respected institution, and I was grieving.
Thankfully, I don’t intend for this article to focus on the pain of graduating from a university you loved – quite frankly, I am nowhere near ‘over it’ enough for that. It was the realisation that despite the fact that nothing bad had happened (I still have to remind myself that it was actually an achievement on my part), I was mourning a loss: the loss of a lifestyle, a community, an identity and a purpose. Five years of my life all wrapped up within one campus, and moving on from it felt like a punishment. I had to ask why it was affecting me so deeply, and why my peers seemed to bear just a touch of sentimentality but were otherwise unfazed by the milestone.
There are some parts of the human experience which will always be around to humble us. We can send people into space, we can use 3D printing to produce affordable artificial limbs, we can buy a pair of headphones from Amazon and have them arrive the same day (the most sobering of all) – but no advancement is going to protect us from loss. From truly world-shattering losses like the death of a loved one, to less extreme yet still bitterly painful losses like that of a relationship, or a career, or anything else which could be of value to someone. Loss is a universal and eternal phenomenon because it is the byproduct of caring.
It’s fair to say that loss changes a person – nothing particularly insightful about that. But the way it affects our reaction to future losses, I believe, is of interest.
I don’t think we experience something painful, recover fully, and move on with no noticeable trace of ever having fought emotion from the trenches. Scars are left. Scars accumulate. If we break our ankle, that joint will always be a little more vulnerable even once healed. When we experience a loss, we develop a weakness.
And maybe have you a sentimental mess of a woman, years down the line, watching UofG on YouTube insist that world changers welcome.
This shouldn’t be mistaken for some kind of defeatist attitude. A lot of us spend too much time trying to appear as though we are alien to weakness, like it makes us lesser. I reject that line of thinking, and would be the first to insist that the biggest challenges we face are usually the most valuable lessons. But there are some kinds of loss which don’t do much other than leave us more susceptible to emotional injury down the line. As time goes on, each loss is an echo of another, and wildly different experiences can ignite bizarrely similar feelings of helplessness. It’s not poetic or particularly helpful, but it’s real – and it certainly shouldn’t make us afraid.
If we want to live our fullest lives, we must do nothing but set ourselves up to lose something. That’s the essence of being a person – investing in the people around you, the opportunities you create, the pleasures of being around which aren’t gonna earn you any money but will enrich you in every other way. Not allowing yourself to truly care about things means that you’ve already lost before you had the pleasure of knowing what there was to have.
Loss can leave you feeling thrown on the floor of a cold, empty warehouse for weeks at a time; disorientated, hopeless and lonely. We’re all in there at some point, though, and most of us are forced to make returning visits. While in the grip of something painful, it’s tempting to believe that what we are feeling is unique. No one has ever felt this specific combination of negative emotions, and thus there’s no evidence that anyone has ever survived it. So why isn’t the sky caving in?
Luckily – but also, at times, frustratingly – nothing we feel as a result of loss is special. The pain that circles our inner worlds connects us to other people, just like the things we once cared about and once lost. So yes, with each loss there’s a chance we’re also forced to deal with those which came before it. It also means that we can know, with increasing confidence, that things become more manageable with time – even if you have to write a blog post to remind yourself of that.