Losing a loved one has got to be at the top of practically everyone’s list of nightmares. It’s a heart-wrenching, life-changing event I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I’m no stranger to grief. In fact, I know it more intimately than I’d like to. In my teens, I lost my dad, then my grandpa. In my 20s, I lost my favorite cousin and my best friend, each only a year apart.
And just two years ago, I lost the woman who raised me and loved me unconditionally – my grandmother.
And every single time, I’m left with a hole in my heart that nothing seems to fill.
In many cases, loss can come in the form of a divorce or a breakup, which can be as painful as a death.
And it may all seem unfair. How can someone come into our lives, only to leave us?
Sadly, it’s a natural part of life – and there’s nothing we can do about it except try to move forward, as heavy as it feels.
That said, losing someone we love does teach us something, if we’re open to it. Here are 9 life lessons you learn when you lose someone you love.
1) Life is too short to waste on pretensions and negativity
In the “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying,” author and palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware mentions this as the first regret:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
The same is true for those who’ve been left behind, you know.
And I should add, life is too short for negativity.
I guess losing someone we love always gives us a sense of our own mortality. And it gives us perspective.
We start thinking about our own lives and we ask ourselves if we’re really doing what makes us happy or just what others expect from us.
We wonder if the anger and the grudges we hold inside us matter as much as we think they do.
This was particularly true for me when I lost both my best friend and my cousin. She was only 27; he was only 30.
Believe me when I say that nothing makes you think about the preciousness and brevity of life more than the untimely death of someone too young.
But there’s a good side to this. When we realize this, it gives us a chance to change. We can start living more intentionally and making choices that are right for us,
It’s a way to honor the person we lost – by living a life that rings true to who we are, a life that would make them proud of us.
2) Say what you mean, mean what you say
Like I mentioned earlier, life can be rudely short. So why waste it on meaningless words?
It’s a typical story that after we lose someone, we often wish we had said more. That we’d been more open and vulnerable. We think about the times we held back or didn’t say what we really felt.
So yes, life calls for honesty and eloquence, whatever that looks like for you. It calls for vulnerability. Say “I love you” more often, apologize when you’re wrong, and be honest about what you feel.
Even if it doesn’t end well, you’ll at least know you meant every word you said. You were real, you were generous, you were sincere. There’s absolutely no shame in that.
3) If not now, then when?
If it’s not clear yet, losing someone you love should give you a sense of urgency. It should remind you of how life is fleeting and how time is constantly ticking, ticking, ticking away…
So, how do you make each moment count, then? By being fully in the present. Just be here. Right here, right now.
When you’re with someone, give them your full attention – listen deeply, engage genuinely, and appreciate their presence. Make those beautiful memories that tell the world you were here.
Mindfulness is a huge part of what makes life meaningful. If you give yourself time to breathe and focus on what’s right in front of you, you get a deeper appreciation of your own life.
4) The small stuff doesn’t matter as much as you think they do
Do you often fret about the small stuff? Get annoyed, for example, when your partner doesn’t shoot their dirty clothes into the hamper? Or your kids keep leaving a mess in the living room?
I hear you; it’s all too easy to get irritated over the little things.
News flash: it’s not as dire as you think it is. The small stuff is rarely ever dire.
Losing someone you love puts all of that into perspective. I remember a friend who used to complain that her kid never cleaned up his room. Then, when she lost him to cancer, she sobbed, “I even miss his mess!”
So yeah, those minor irritations? I’m not saying you should ignore them and just accept crappy behavior. But a little grace would help too, so you don’t give it any more attention than it deserves.
That said, there’s a different kind of small stuff that matters – the joyful ones…
5) The small joys do matter
When you lose someone you love, how do you pick yourself back up? How do you get your world spinning again when a huge chunk of it is gone?
There’s no one right answer, really. Everyone grieves and heals in different ways.
But for me, it was the simple joys that helped me find little bits of light in the darkness. When you’re floundering around and feeling lost, the smallest things can offer some measure of comfort and grounding.
Nature, for instance, is especially healing. Simple acts of self-care like savoring a cup of hot cocoa or reading a good book can soothe your wounded soul.
And you don’t have to feel guilty about it either. You don’t have to let survivor’s guilt stop you from living a good life.
Because the truth is…
6) Grief and joy can exist together
Many of us tend to think in binaries – good vs bad, happiness vs sadness, sorrow vs joy.
But you know what? We’re not one-dimensional caricatures. We’re complex beings with a wide range of complex emotions.
So yes, it may be a paradox to hold both grief and joy in your hands. But it’s absolutely common and 100% human.
One moment you’re crying, then the next you’re okay and laughing at a silly show. It can be really confusing – and guilt-inducing – if you don’t accept this behavior as normal.
In this light, I urge you to practice self-compassion. Allow yourself to grieve, but also to find joy.
On that note, how long does it take to grieve anyway? Well, I hate to break it to you, but…
7) Grief doesn’t really ever go away completely
But it does ease up with time. All the same, you might find yourself overcome with pain many, many years later, long after you thought you’d gotten over it.
For instance, my mom unearthed an old fountain pen set of my dad’s when she moved out of their house 33 years after he died. She handed it to me because she knew I’m into fountain pens.
I was happy to receive it, but I was also surprised by how painful it felt. I felt all over again the loss of the decades we could still have spent together.
And I felt, as I described it to a friend, “the perpetual incompleteness of fatherless daughters.”
Yes, I think that’s what we feel when we lose someone we love dearly – a sense of perpetual incompleteness.
Because, as retired bereavement counselor Donna George puts it, “Grief isn’t something you get over. Grief is something you learn to live with.”
Don’t beat yourself up if you have those moments. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. On the contrary, it means you were brave enough to love deeply.
This brings me to my next point…
8) It hurts to love and lose someone…but the alternative is worse
By “alternative”, I mean that you’ve never loved someone enough to feel the intense pain of loss when they go.
Call me a romantic, but I believe that love is one of life’s greatest blessings, if not THE greatest.
Not experiencing that profound connection, not feeling that deep affection and bond, means missing out on one of the most essential aspects of the human experience.
Alfred Lord Tennyson was right – “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
9) You’re more resilient than you think
Finally, we get to the last important life lesson (at least on this list) that losing a loved one can teach you – that you are strong. That you may feel like you’ll break like a brittle shell, but you won’t.
You’ll bend under the weight of the loss and maybe stay that way for a long time. But you’ll get back to yourself, and maybe find your new shape without this person.
The “new normal” has always struck me as both a negative and positive term.
It’s something we say after an event has shaken up our lives so thoroughly that the old bits just don’t – or can’t – fall back in the same place anymore.
At the same time, it’s a chance for a new beginning.
The reality is, the world around us won’t stop spinning just because we’ve lost someone we love. While time has stopped for us, it hasn’t for everyone else.
Life continues to move forward, and so must we, in one way or another.
And you will. Because if there’s one thing that loss can teach you, it’s that you can adapt, rebuild and find joy again, even in a world that’s changed so dramatically for you.