The Alchemy of Loss


Twenty-two years ago, someone I was deeply in love with and was engaged to marry, lay down on his bed, put a shotgun to his mouth, and pulled the trigger. He might as well have shot me too because I died then also. My body didn’t shut down; nobody came and took it to a funeral home and had it cremated while my spirit went off to Summerland or some other place in the afterlife. Instead my spirit itself was shattered, broken down to the tiniest metaphysical particles it’s possible for a spirit to be reduced to. After that I had to reassemble myself, slowly, painstakingly, over the next seven or so years. It wasn’t any fun at all, but when I look back on it now – on that entire experience, from the moment of my fiancé’s death until whenever the healing, the putting back together of myself, the transformation through fire, as in an alchemical process, could be said to have been complete, whenever that was, maybe right up until this very moment – I can see that it was a good thing, maybe even the best thing that ever happened to me. It was both the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me, like the best and the worst of times in The Tale of Two Cities.
I’m a completely different person now than I was back then. Back then I was falling apart and I hadn’t even begun to think about putting myself together, I didn’t even have any idea that I could put myself together. I was consumed by loss and grief, and by a whole bunch of other miseries, like minor demons stabbing their pointy little pitchforks into the edges of my big gaping loss from hell: self-hatred, codependency, depression, fear of rejection, love addiction, even cigarette smoking.
Today, twenty-two years later, I no longer feel the pain of that old loss, the loss of my boyfriend who committed suicide. The deafening sound of my shattering grew less and less audible over the years as I got farther and farther away from it, until it was finally just a faint echo and then no sound at all. It’s been a while since I heard it, felt it, on this day of the year or on my fiancé’s birthday (another anniversary that used to torment me) or any other day. Instead on this day I celebrate the fact that I no longer feel that unbearable pain; I try to pause and take note of how much progress I’ve made, how much hard-won happiness and sanity I’ve got compared to what I had back then. How different things are for me now, as a result of the alchemical process I’ve gone through in grief, and the gradual abatement of grief, and the long slow healing of all those minor demons.
Today, on the twenty-second anniversary of my fiancé’s death, what’s on my mind is mostly work. I’m meeting with a new coaching client at four, I want to finish at least one blog post and get ready for a spiritual writing class I’m going to teach. At six I’m going to attend a yoga class, the first one I’ve taken in years. And today I got my phone put back into my own name. The phone change marks another big ending in my life.
About ten years ago, a couple of years past the midpoint between my fiancé’s death and now, a new man, B, came into my life. I believed B was, I still believe he was, the second great love of my life. We were together for a long time and now we’re not. For quite a while after we split up our lives continued to be entwined; he had to get all of his stuff out of my house, I had to turn over the bookkeeping I had helped him with and he had to stop paying half my mortgage. We accomplished all of that over several months, but the last thing to go was putting the telephone in my name. (When we moved to my house from his house a number of years ago we ordered the phone service in his name and now when I call people his name still comes up on their caller ID.)
I kept putting off changing the phone over to my name because I was worried about losing the phone number. But finally I called the phone company and arranged for the technician to come. And today, at the exact moment when my fiancé would have been killing himself twenty-two years ago, and a few days before the anniversary of the day I met B in 2003, there was a Mediacom technician crouching down under my desk restarting my router, making it so that my phone is back my own name.
The only thing is, I didn’t get to hang onto my phone number. When I put in the order with the phone company on December 21st, the customer service woman said that there were certain gyrations we’d have to go through so I wouldn’t lose the number; I’d have to get a new temporary phone number because of blah blah blah but I would never have to use that phone number because of blah blah blah. But now, it turns out, that temporary number is my new phone number. At least for now. When I called the company to complain they said that I would have to wait another 48 hours and then I might be able to get my old/regular phone number back because of blah blah blah. I hate this new phone number. And there were a few hours when I wasn’t getting my email either because my email address still belonged to B’s email address and that had to be changed too and blah blah blah.
This is the level my problems have sunk to – risen to – now. This is what my losses are all about now, here, twenty-two years after my fiancé died. I’m not suffering any more because I lost my fiancé, the first great love of my life. I’m not even suffering because I lost B, the second great love of my life. (How I managed to achieve not suffering over the much more recent loss of B is another story for another day; suffice it to say that I did suffer some, of course, but it’s the mark and the triumph of all my years of slow gradual minor-demon healing that I’m not suffering now.) Now I’m suffering because I’ve lost a phone number – and the loss is probably even only temporary. I should be grateful instead of irritated that this is my current loss. I am mostly grateful and only a little irritated. And the phone, whatever the number is, is in my name.

Mary Allen is the author The Rooms of Heaven, published by Alfred A. Knopf and Vintage Books.

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