<< Back to Article Listing

Love, Loss, and Longing


Today love performed a miracle. I watched it happen.


I was sitting with a mother who lost her child to a terrible illness. Her pain and despair filled the room. 


Tears of profound grief can be torrential. Heartbreak can also be expressed in railing against the injustice of life, or a dreadful sorrow for the beauty and delight that was taken away, or a disturbing confusion about “why her?” Worse still is when the tears don’t flow. The pain becomes like a rain-swollen river that has become dammed, building pressure like a backflow of all-consuming floodwaters and threatening to engulf anything that still has life in it, rendering it pointless, arid, and empty.


But today this woman made a courageous choice.  She did not recoil from her pain and longing.


One of the most challenging but powerful experiences of love is the feeling of longing. We all know it in some form: Yearning for connection, perhaps with a partner, parent, or child. Thirsting for love. Wishing to be emotionally met.  It drives us to seek relationship a with a partner, to try to reconnect after a fight with a friend or lover, or to bond with our children.


When our longings go unmet we risk becoming dry land. A child, partner, parent, or friend who is taken from us is no longer an oasis, no longer a source of shade, no longer the quenching of our thirst. Though death brings the final loss, it is not the only thief. Parents who could not be what we needed them to be, partners that repeatedly and severely disappoint, adult children who go astray—all relationships can fall short of being the refuge we desire and can rob us of the life connections for which we long.


Most of us only know longing as pain and many of us have elaborate ways of avoiding longing and pain. Too often we end up seeing ourselves as victims of our losses, of our unmet longings.


It is a rare person who uncovers the hidden treasure imbedded in unmet longing.  It is difficult to recognize that longing is a form of love that is inherently powerful and fundamentally transformative.


The woman before me was able to recognize something within her longing. Underneath the emptiness of absence and the torrent of pain, she caught a glimpse of what is so easily over looked. There, just beneath the longing and love she felt for her child is another, subtler sense of love. It is a love that holds the beneficial desire inherent in longing.


Some describe this beneficial desire as love yearning for love itself, a recognition that what we most desire is an ultimate love, an enduring sense of connectedness, a feeling of being at home in ourselves, in spite and because of the circumstances of life.  Finding the love within our longing gives us the fuel that bridges all separations, including the distance of death, bringing us back to the heart of all love. Love at this level is capable of opening us beyond our limits and transporting us to a greater sense of ourselves.


Today, in spite of immeasurable grief and loss, I witnessed a mother’s great courage to turn her longing back inside and come home to live in the boundless love that endures in her heart.  Though hard to describe, love that brings us back home to our deepest self is undeniable when witnessed and felt.


None of us need recoil from the pain of longing. Instead, each of us can recognize this pain as a sign of our hearts desire to open more fully and feel love more deeply. By enduring the pain of unmet desire without closing down we go beyond our limits to greater depths of compassion and love. This is the miracle of love: by opening to love in our own hearts, we no longer feel separated and alone. We in fact feel our connectedness to all that we love.


And when your eyesfreeze behindthe grey windowand the ghost of lossgets in to you,may a flock of colours,indigo, red, green,and azure bluecome to awaken in youa meadow of delight.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,may the clarity of light be yours,may the fluency of the ocean be yours,may the protection of the ancestors be yours.And so may a slowwind work these wordsof love around you,an invisible cloakto mind your life.


~ John O'Donohue ~


(Excerpts from Echoes of Memory)