THE BLOG

Lessons Learned in Loss: How to Prepare for the Unpreparable

02/06/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

"We are never prepared for what we expect." -- James Michener

I've spent most of my life preparing for things. Rehearsing countless hours to land that lead in the musical, studying late into the night to get that "A," juggling academics, extracurriculars, and volunteer work to assure I would get into a top college. In graduate school, I wrote all of my papers two weeks before they were due. I was always early (or at least right on time) to all dates or social engagements with my friends. My anxiety drove me to be overly, unnecessarily prepared for most things in my world. Sometimes it paid off. Sometimes, all I got was a super-sized helping of needless stress. But in the end I was just a dog chasing my own tail, attempting to sooth my fear of the inevitable uncertainty of life by preparing for all the things I thought I could control.

And then, one week before my 34th birthday, my mom passed away. Did I know my mom would die? Of course I did... someday. But I never anticipated that I might have to live the majority of my adult life without her. Not even a little. For the first time in my life I found myself completely and utterly unprepared.

After my mom passed I began to question just about everything, but in particular I wondered how much we can really prepare for anything, even the things we expect. Things never turn out quite the way we think they will. You could be as prepared as a boy scout who's earned all his badges, but you might get that flat tire on your way to the interview, the wrong linens might show up on your wedding day, you could get to the airport just in time to realize that your passport expired yesterday... you could lose someone you love long before their time.

When it comes thinking about death, I've noticed that we tend to do a very funny dance. This usually involves never entering the dance floor at all. We circle it, we might peek at it, but rarely do we feel the courage to step out onto the floor and clumsily move through the complicated steps that require our feet to move faster than our minds. Our toes will get blistered. Our muscles will be sore. It will be overwhelming. We'll feel lost and confused. So instead we defer rehearsal for another day, another time. And it's understandable, going around practicing for the inevitable death of those we love, or even for our own, would be a rather unpleasant way to move through the world.

Yet... yet, there must be a sweet spot somewhere in between the avoidance and the preparation. A place where acceptance lives. Where we can sit with the knowing just long enough for it to benefit us, but without it drowning us.

I wish I had found that tender place of acknowledgement before my mom passed. I had the chance to try. Ten years ago my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Though it was successfully treated and she was deemed to have only a 12 percent chance of reoccurrence, she had battled something that kills people. Cancer. Hello mortality reality check! But the thought of living without her was too terrifying to touch, so I locked it away somewhere inside my psyche and never thought about it again. In my mind, the dance studio was a mental danger zone, circled with yellow police tape. "She's better now. The doctors say she is in the clear" I told myself, to rationalize my avoidance.

Then, in August of 2014, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She died less than two months later. During the weeks that followed her diagnosis I had no time to "prepare" -- we were in a constant state of crisis. It was too late for us to take that "girls trip" we had talked about, for me to ask about her adventures in the San Francisco music scene in the '60s and '70s, for her to teach me how to cook. She was too sick and all of my attention went to caregiving.

Loss makes you ache in places you didn't even know existed. Familiar landscapes become unrecognizable. No matter how hard you try, there is no way to fully prepare for the emotional wreckage it leaves behind. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try, just a little. I never took my mom for granted, I was grateful everyday that I had been blessed with such a spectacular parent. But I did take her being there for the long haul for granted. And I wish I hadn't.

So while it may be the last thing on earth you want to do today, I encourage you to try to find the soft spot between acknowledgement and denial. Contemplate stepping onto the dance floor just long enough to learn a few steps. Think about those you hold most dear and what you want those relationships to be like -- the questions you want to ask, the things you need say, the experiences you want to share, what they have yet to teach you and what you have yet to learn. And then, gently, one foot in front of the other -- one breath in front of the other -- slip on your dancing shoes and walk towards the floor. There is nothing to lose. Best case scenario, you have your loved one around for a very long time and you've carved out a relationship of greater depth. Worst case, you lose your loved one sooner than you'd hoped, but you have incredible memories to hold onto and a whole lot less regret. Either way, when that inevitable day comes, hopefully you'll feel like you have a move or two, rather than two left feet.