Phantom Limb: (def.) A phantom limb is a vivid perception that a limb that has been removed or amputated is still present in the body and performing its normal functions.
I realize I’m very lucky. I have never actually lost a body part, though the little ones that took up temporary residence in my uterus still cause intense feelings in me (including the two I lost to miscarriage). But I’ve been fascinated by the phenomenon of the phantom limb, a perception that can sometimes last for years after the appendage is gone. In these cases, while the person can obviously see that the arm or leg is no longer attached, the nerves and brain are sending a different message. It is as if an amputee can’t quite accept such a permanent loss, and so hallucinates that it didn’t occur.
But there are other kinds of phantom limbs, I’ve learned, and mine haunt me.
What are my phantom limbs these days? As I prepare to wrap up 20 years at my job at Christ’s Lutheran in May, I recognize many, right in my place of worship and work. After all, I believe we are, collectively, members of the body of Christ. So it only makes sense that losing other “parts” hurts. Many of these losses involve death, including a large number of beloved elders, but also younger friends whose passings were untimely (accidents, cancer, suicide). Often, I walk into certain rooms in the church building, or sit in the sanctuary, and feel their presence still. The sweet brigade of older ladies who expertly provided luncheons and soup suppers and coffee hours. The deceased members of the group of cheery retired handymen (“Monday Morning Men.”) The amazing Sunday School teachers who doted on my children, even when my offspring were rather less than adorably behaved. A pastor, gone too soon.
But beyond those departures, I ache at times for the people who are no longer in my life for other reasons. In most cases, we drifted apart, either through geographical moves, or just the busy-ness of life. In a few, misunderstandings and hurtful actions (some, I readily acknowledge, caused by me) precipitated the rifts, and in many ways those separations are particularly painful because they seem so unnecessary now.
There is no simple way to recover a lost limb, and often it’s impossible. We travel on through life’s journey diminished a little, always missing people who helped make us feel whole. Yes, every day offers opportunities for new relationships, new connections, and that’s a beautiful thing. But there’s really no replacing the ones who are gone.
That is why, as I begin to pack up my books and transfer my files, in anticipation of my successor, I mourn. I also, truth be told, mourn the loss of 45 year old me, beginning a new career as spiritual formation director filled with energy and enthusiasm and hope. Where did she go? I hope that younger woman lives on in other people’s memories, occasionally causing a little pang, as if to say, “I’m still here, even though you don’t see me.”
Just as I remember my lost ones, who live on in my heart.