I'm taking a class in writing creative nonfiction. I printed out an article, posted September 22nd ("Bliss: wanting what you've got") about my husband's death and its effect on my life, and took it to read as my first offering. While much of the criticism was standard and involved encouraging more detail or restructuring, one critique was a bit more personal."I imagine this essay fit the bill for what that particular audience was expecting. I read it as a way to avoid pain and grief rather than as a way to work through it to acceptance. This may be because I simply have a different philosophy about loss and grief and see detachment as a potentially harmful defense." Indeed?
What had I written or left out that allowed the reader to equate detachment with avoidance of emotions? I can only assume that my inexperience as a writer had permitted this conflation of ideas. Let me try again.
When I was a kid growing up in Florida, I remember being sent to my room for some infraction. I was desperate to be outside playing with my friends, and I immediately ran to the window to maintain contact with the ongoing hide and seek game in the surrounding yards. I leaned on the wooden sill and pressed my forehead against the fine metal screening. I then did what anyone would have done. I looked out the window.
I discovered the secret of the universe at that moment. Looking out a window seems like a simple act but actually involves several choices. How wide should I open my eyes? Where should I look? What should I focus on? I discovered a little trick that many people learn as kids, then forget. When looking out a window, you can either look through the screen, or directly at it. Which you choose makes all the difference in the world.
Just as I could then choose to see either the world beyond the window or the wire mesh screen, so I can choose what aspects of my life to bring into focus. I can not change the facts, in this case the death of my husband. I will always love and miss him. Immediately after his death, I experienced a great deal of pain and grief - no avoidance possible there. I can still be brought to tears over the loss. I don't know that one ever "gets over" the loss of a loved one anymore than one "gets over" the loss of an arm or leg. In each case, a part of you is permanently missing.
Detachment is similar to learning to live with phantom limb. Phantom limb is the sensation that an arm or leg that has been amputated is still there. Someone experiencing phantom limb may try to calm an itch by scratching a leg that is no longer attached. Someone experiencing the loss of a loved one may continue to act as though that person will soon be returning or hold on to old behaviors that don't fit a life without that loved one. In either case, acting effectively in the present to get a much needed prosthetic limb or to create a new fulfilling life as a single person requires acknowledging the loss so you can move on.
Some think that detachment implies a coldness of personality and a distancing from life. And some mistakenly apply the practice of detachment by holding back from life, but the useful implementation of the technique seems clear. Like a veteran rock climber, I find myself moving along the path of my life by attaching firmly to each new anchor before detaching from the previous. The skillful application of attaching and detaching provides some safety and allows me to move about freely. Detachment is a skillful tool in a world of constant change.
Detachment is recognizing and experiencing what is real and not fooling ourselves with what is unreal. No matter how much I want it to be otherwise, my husband is dead. Acceptance of loss. I can not have a relationship with a phantom husband any more than I can scratch a phantom limb. Letting go. This doesn't mean that I don't experience phantom pain from time to time. It means I can name the pain for what it is. And calling reality by its true name is a very powerful tool.