This morning I found out my uncle’s house burned down due to wildfires in Oklahoma. Bam! Just like that. A life built, semi-destroyed. He was able to get a good bit of stuff out luckily, but still lost a lot. A retired research botanist, who cares deeply about nature, had his house stolen from him by nature. It all seems so unfair.
My family has been emailing back and forth about it, attempting to offer support and perspective. But I wonder at what more has been shattered for him and his wife than the loss of things. I wonder at how we trivialize “things” so quickly, dismissing them as “just stuff.” I wonder how we treat these “things” in our lives. I wonder what my uncle and his wife are thinking and feeling. I wonder why this is making my own uncertain situation seem much less bearable today.
The things in our lives are extensions of us. Our space and place help make up who we are. Sure, we have become a materialistic society, but this is not all bad. We should not trivialize or pathologize the attachment we have to our surroundings. Attachment does not just work within human relationships, but also to one’s surroundings. Ecology utilizes the concept “goodness of fit” to speak to the relationship between our environment and our personality. Our environment is an important element of our holistic health and identity. So when we lose “things,” we lose parts of our selves.
There is a trauma that has occurred for my uncle and his wife—their home is gone, taken tragically. He was able to get some important things out but didn’t have time for everything. What was forgotten? What small things did he overlook? Treasures in boxes, packed away for grandchildren and great-grandchildren. History. Stories. There are so many stories in our kept “things.” The stories still exist, but the accompanying physical materials conjuring those stories are gone.
It is the gone-ness of loss that is so hard. Gone and not coming back. It’s final. Deep loss is impossible. Losing a loved one, the most impossible. But losing a home that one has built seems a close second. In the finality of loss, we find an emptiness, a powerlessness, which cannot just be filled back up immediately. I have not personally known this but have spent time with it in my clients. It is deep. It is profound. And we are not prepared for it.
My uncle wanted to leave his home at some point in the future. He’s worked hard on it but it has gradually become a burden. So have some of his things. But the difference in slowly moving through these types of decisions, executing them on his terms, and having them traumatically made for him, is big. My family is partially excited and jealous that he doesn’t have to be tied down to all his stuff. They are seeing the positive. I’m sure he sees some of that, but it doesn’t negate the deep loss.
From an existential perspective, we hold onto our stuff and our comfort structures as ways to shield ourselves from the reality of finality, of our own death, of uncertainty (Becker, 1997). This doesn’t mean we should just rid our lives of things and structures, but it is helpful to realize how powerful our drive away from death can be. It is helpful to understand why we need attachment to people, places, and things, for the raw exposure to finality is unbearable. But it can also help us find perspective when these structures are lost.
My uncle’s loss has brought up more anxiety about my own situation today. As I continue into deeper financial uncertainty, my bones become more and more frozen with fear. I slowly creep toward the reality that much of what I try to create in order to feel secure is often weak and out of my control. It is often something that can change quickly. More and more, I feel exposed. I feel the reverberations of my uncle and his wife’s exposure thousands of miles away, reminding me of my own.
I hope my uncle and his family can move through this, both allowing the deep grief of loss to be expressed and validated, as well as being able to face some of the realities of human existence, coming out on top and healthier in the process.
Becker, E. (1997). The denial of death. New York: The Free Press.
— Jason McCarty
Today’s guest contributor, Jason McCarty, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Kelowna, BC, Canada. His website is https://jasonmccarty.ca.