On Love and Loss by Susannah Southgate

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On Love and Loss by Susannah Southgate

Susannah Southgate wrote this wise and tender piece on love and loss in my Monday ongoing writing class. "Better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all," the poet Tennyson wrote. Susannah explores this idea in a brave and beautiful fusion of her own personal experience with wider reflections on this universal theme. Comments welcome at susannahsouthgate@gmail.com.

"I sat last night on the doorstep of a dear friend, relating my latest heart woe in the early evening sunshine. His garden gleamed confidently in the forgiving light, the towering sunflowers, who’s seeds I had helped plant only months earlier, seem to gently reassure and for a fleeting moment my hot tender heart and busy head relaxed. “Better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all”, my companion reminded me. And maybe both he and Tennyson are right; but easier said than felt when hurt, grief, disappointment and loss have you by the throat. I don’t believe Tennyson wrote that in the ripe and painful aftermath of a relationship ending, this is the wisdom of distance, of a heart already on it’s way to healing. Mine, in contrast, is wide open and burning. I feel like a wounded animal, and each time I get up to do something, I find myself needing to retreat back to bed, wanting only to roll myself up into a ball, duvet around me, eyes shut, hoping to block out the pain and forget for a while the reality of my current existence. The dance of love, so tantalising, so alluring, and yet so painful, it’s a miracle any of us ever go back in for the next round.

The unfamiliar restaurant of our first date was long, narrow, and dimly lit, tall stools lined a dark wood bar that dominated most of the room’s front half. There was a welcoming vibe that night, the buzz of after-work Friday relief, people relaxing in anticipation of the weekend’s commence. I remember semi-consciously ticking the first box with approval: choice of venue good. I instantly spotted him, tucked right at the back of the restaurant, at the end table, my anxiety about not recognising him quickly assuaged. A waitress was formally attending to him, and as I slowly walked the long distance to the rear of the room, I was able to take in the scene and found myself internally wincing: a bottle of wine being decanted, not the casual after work drink I had suggested and how do I explain I don’t drink red wine. He stood up to greet me and we clumsily kissed cheeks whilst surreptitiously taking each other in. Strangers but for the fact that a week earlier we had spent ten hours squashed next to each other on BA flight 285, from San Francisco to London Heathrow. I sat down, took a breath and with as much charm as I could muster said “I’m afraid this is not a great start but I don’t drink red wine”.

Perhaps it was the best of starts, certainly from there on in, we seemed to find nothing amiss. A glass of white wine was hastily ordered, the first of many, a drink turned into dinner, conversation flowed, and when the restaurant demanded our table back instead of ending the evening we simply moved to the bar for more enthused exchanges. Hours of delight later he walked me back arm in arm to my hotel, chastely kissed my drunken cheek and said how much he would love to see me again. Romance began. A whirlwind of expensive dinners out, meals cooked at home, flowers sent and romantic weekends in luxurious hotels. Histories were shared, dreams explored, bodies learnt. He whispered tender things in my ear, declared love before sex, promised me the world and never missed an occasion to tell me how beautiful and amazing I was. Slowly and gently the layers of my guarded heart began to soften. I could feel the identity I had so painstakingly created piece by piece in the years following my divorce now carefully being removed. It felt terrifying and yet necessary. Under his soft love I started to anticipate a life with support and found myself weeping in pain at how hard it had all been; with his gentle tutelage I found myself ever so slowly opening to the possibility that I could be loved and love again: so tentative, so wary and yet just within my grasp.

Until, out of the blue, with no warning, and less explanation he ended it. There in my kitchen. The love removed as quickly as it had been offered. A brutal reminder of the sharp edge of loss that is inevitably love’s companion. And, so here I am, under the duvet, bruised, bewildered and bereft. Who was this man I had given myself to? How am I to equate the harshness of this ending with the tenderness and sweetness of his love?

Who knows what conscious or unconscious motives led him to that decision. Perhaps it was meeting my children, perhaps he just couldn’t commit, maybe I just couldn’t give him what he needed, the torture is in trying to work it out. But surely any of the explanations we grasp for in the face of love’s withdrawal can only ever be ephemeral narratives, making sense of something far less defined. In my more expansive moments, all I see is two people painfully scrabbling around within the complexities of love. Who doesn’t yearn to be loved, it is every human being’s most basic longing and yet what a mess we so often seem to make of it. How often do we lament that love eludes us but perhaps the real truth is we so frequently fail to recognise love’s deep call or know how best to sustain it. The tantalising excitement and intoxicating promise of early dates, is fuelled by outlandish hopes distorted by our confused pasts: the pressure to be love’s answer, leaves little room for human flaws, our own or our Beloved’s. Fear creeps in fast, the fear of love and of the Other. Trust flounders, if we ever even possessed it, and all too often, in the grip of unconscious beliefs, demands and expectations the easiest choice seems to be to reject the very thing we thought we wanted, to revert to the very aloneness we say we long to escape. The Universe so generously presents us with offerings of love, in all sorts of unexpected places, BA flights included; what we choose to do with it is up to us.

And, so, in this latest painful aftermath of love, with my heart still raw, regretful and tender, I have made a decision. I determine not to have this be a cause for shut down, another excuse to not trust or love again. Instead I choose to use it to open further. It is the pain that breaks us open, and in response we may decide to stop, to armour and name it self preservation. But I no longer want my heart preserved, a perfect whole specimen in a glass jar, what use is that to me or anyone else. I want my heart to feel and if it is to feel, if it is to really love, it must risk, in fact expect, pain, heart-break, loss. Those very things we studiously seek to avoid are the price of a feeling heart, essential ingredients for true love, life and passion. And what other option is there really? My heart in response to past loss has felt so battered it chose d to withdraw completely and I have spent years safely investing in half hearted affairs that have brought me rationed joy and less love. Our ability to dance in the acceptance of loss directly correlates with the intensity of the love we can endure. And so a part of me wants to celebrate this heart-ache, the barometer of my thawing heart. At least I am feeling again. At least I have loved again. My remorse may lie in the fact that this time it seems to have taken the loss to really feel the love; but I know that it is this poignant mixture of both love and loss that is directing me towards a trajectory of healing that is long over-due. It is precisely this experience of loss that will lead me to the love and belonging my deepest heart is truly calling for. And so, despite the current pain, I trust that Tennyson is right; and I am starting to trust that in a few days or weeks I may not need to eat ice cream each night to salve my broken spirit. I may actually be able to peel myself away from my duvet and may slowly feel my wobbly feet touching the earth again and find joy in life once more. With a little more time, I trust I will start believing in the possibility of love again and feel the seeds of willingness to take the next dance. And, in the meanwhile, until then, there are those fleeting moments of respite in the evening sun amongst the sunflowers, there is Strauss’s organic mint choc chip, and there is the sturdy reminder that it really is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all."