Reflecting on a sense of loss & a loss of sense

Sonja Blignaut
6 min readAug 29, 2020
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

Presents/Presence by John O’Donohue

I give you an emptiness

I give you a plenitude

unwrap them carefully

-one’s as fragile as the other–

and when you thank me

I’ll pretend not to notice the doubt in your voice

when you say they’re just what you wanted.

Put them on the table by your bed.

When you wake in the morning

they’ll, have gone through the door of sleep

into your head. Wherever you go

they’ll go with you and

wherever you are you’ll wonder,

smiling about the fullness

you can’t add to and the emptiness

that you can fill.

2020 has been a year of polarities, of extremes. We feel a profound loss of connection, yet we feel over-connected. Our world has changed completely at a eye-watering pace, yet every day feels feels monotonous, like groundhog day. The very breath I need to stay alive, the human touch I crave, can kill me. Sometimes I still feel as if none of this is real: my body is in this new reality, but my soul needs to catch up.

I am struggling to stay present to the here and now. The temptation to escape into nostalgia or distraction and busyness is powerful. I have never been a binge-watcher, but I find myself drawn to watching simple stories set in beautiful places almost mindlessly. I know that escape and denial are not healthy in the long term, they are coping mechanisms, scaffolds. In order to move on, I need to allow myself to feel and acknowledge the trauma and loss of these times.

The notion of loss has come up in conversations and in my reading list a lot lately. Sometimes it is accompanied by anger and rebellion. Other times sadness. Mostly disorientation. Many of us have been avoiding dealing with the enormity of our loss. We cling to our denial that this is real and permanent. What makes it more complex is the asymmetry of it: For some, the loss has been extremely tangible: loved ones, livelihoods, homes, businesses, health. For others, like me, it is more intangible and nebulous.

I have been fortunate: I and everyone I love are still healthy. I still have meaningful work and an income. I am sheltering in a comfortable house with a husband and three dogs for company. I have food on the table and a warm bed. So who am I to complain about loss, when there are so many others who are far worse off than I am? It almost seems an insult to those who are dealing with “real loss.” Increasingly I find this split, this polarity between gratitude and grief unhelpful. I need to permit myself to grieve, acknowledge the loss, and let go: gratitude and grief are not mutually exclusive.

Articulating what has been lost

While I miss hugs, and leisurely dinners and trips to exotic places, the losses I find myself preoccupied with are deeper, perhaps more existential …

  • Loss of a sense of real human connection: Beyond missing being in others’ physical presence, I miss a sense of humanity. People have become objects, disembodied faces on a screen that can be switched off or muted at will. Again, a polarity: I miss people and feel “peopled out” at the same time. And linked to this, I am experiencing a …
  • Loss of a sense of security and trust: I wonder when I will ever feel secure again in a crowded space. People have become potential disease vectors that I need to keep at a distance. It feels like a form of innocence has been lost, and I don’t know if it can be recovered. I am concerned that the way I view others and how others view me will be permanently changed.
  • Loss of a sense of expectancy around the future. A friend of mine recently said, “I am exhausted by the future.” That effervescent sense of a tomorrow that will be better than today is fading. Hope becomes a struggle, something that requires energy to maintain.
  • Loss of freedom and agency. Like many other countries, South Africa has been in various stages of lockdown now for over four months. At its strictest, we were not allowed to leave our homes except for grocery shopping or emergencies. Freedoms I took for granted, gone. Now, while many of these restrictions have been lifted, I still find my freedom curtailed. Not by external authority but by my own values and fears. Just because I’m allowed to see my elderly mother doesn’t mean I should. Just because I am allowed to have a drink in a pub doesn’t make it safe.
  • Probably the most profound loss of all is a pervasive loss of sense itself. The old stories and meanings that helped us make sense of the world are no longer relevant. More often than not, I find myself at a complete loss to make sense of the news, of people’s behaviour, of reality itself. It is as if my brain cannot make sense of what I am seeing, like it cannot accept that it is fact, not fiction: seemingly rational people believing and advocating that a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of people is a hoax; multitudes willfully congregating without masks or distancing and then insisting on medical treatment when they inevitably get sick; police officers, our supposed protectors, murdering innocent people; corrupt officials stealing food from the hungry people they are supposed to serve; the continued and willful destruction of our planet even while viruses, fires and cyclones are screaming final warnings at us. And in the midst of it all, leaders who overtly put profit and short term gains first and actively steal elections, sow division and hate. It is as if someone plucked me out of the world I semi-understood and unceremoniously dumped me in a place that looks more or less the same but makes no sense at all.

It is mostly because of this that I have written so little in the last few months. I want to write, but I don’t have words. Amy Sackville articulates this so eloquently: “And what can I possibly offer, in writing, by way of tonic or solace? This isn’t about writer’s block, because I’m not even trying (unless that’s what writer’s block is, really — the not trying). The intention to write, the possibility of writing, recedes endlessly into the same incomprehensible future. Writing is speaking across time, across space. And space and time are making little sense to me. How can I calibrate myself to the world without being out in it? What is the future I am speaking to? I am struggling to make connections, to do the work of sentences, to find words. I can’t go anywhere, can’t get anywhere. I can only languish in the present, because the past is a warren of nostalgia and forgetting and the future is too much to contemplate for long. By “for long”, I mean for the space of a minute, or a protracted hour in the early 4am light, or constantly, at all times, on a level that’s not quite subliminal.” (1)

In times like these, I find solace in art and poetry. When reality defies logic and rationality, poetry illuminates new meanings. In the words of David White, poetry is a language against which we have no defenses.

WINTER GRIEF by David Whyte

Let the rest

in this rested place

rest for you.

Let the birds sing

and the geese call

and the sky race

from west to east

when you cannot raise

a wing to fly.

Let evening

trace your loss

in the stonework

against a fading sky.

So that

you can give up

and give in

and be given back to,

so that you can let


come and live

fully inside you,

so that

you can


the loving path

of heartbreak

that brought you here.

So you can cry alone

and be alone

so you can let

yourself alone

to be lost,

so you can

let the one

you have lost

alone, so that

you can let

the one

you have lost

have their

own life

and even

their own


without you.

So the world

and everyone

who has ever lived

and ever died

can come and go

as they please.

So you can

let yourself

not know, what

not knowing


So that

you can be

even more generous

in your letting go

than they


in their leaving.

So that you can

let winter

be winter.

So that you can let

the world alone

to think of spring.

From THE BELL AND THE BLACKBIRD, Poetry by David Whyte

APRIL 2018 © David Whyte and Many Rivers Press





Sonja Blignaut

Exploring our relationship with uncertainty. Enabling future fitness. Complexity nerd, Waysfinder, Artist, Scientist.