ERP 353: The Connection Between Love & Loss — An Interview With Dr. Jordana Jacobs

By Posted in - Podcast January 3rd, 2023 0 Comments

Death is a natural and inevitable part of life. It is a reminder of our own mortality and the impermanence of things. While it can be a difficult and painful experience, it is believed that consciousness about death brings people closer to each other.

In this episode, Dr. Jordana Jacobs talks about the importance of mortality awareness and how denial of this fundamental human experience can lead to greater suffering and isolation. This awareness can also inspire us to prioritize our relationships, make the most of the time we have together, and find a deeper sense of purpose and meaning in life.

Dr. Jordana Jacobs is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. Her approach is integrative, combining psychodynamic and existential therapy in her treatment of patients. Dr. Jacobs’ training at Memorial Sloan Kettering working with terminally ill cancer patients, her studies in Northern India, and her Vipassana meditation practice inspired her work exploring the complex relationship between death and love.

In this Episode

10:31 Dr. Jacobs’ unwavering faith in the power of love and connection to bring meaning and resilience in the face of trauma and loss.

14:09 Exploring the complex interplay between love and death in long-term relationships.

16:56 How the power of mortality awareness can deepen love and meaning in life.

25:56 How denying or avoiding this fundamental human experience can lead to greater suffering and isolation.

35:27 How surrendering to difficult emotions and experiences can help us move forward.

37:33 Actionable steps you can take to gently bring mortality into awareness.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Write an essay about what happens to the body after death or create a timeline of your life.
  • Take some time to reflect on your own values and priorities. What is most important to you?
  • Practice the “last breath meditation” by focusing on each breath as if it could be your last, and allowing love to come to the forefront of your consciousness.
  • Consider talking to a therapist about your feelings on mortality and how it impacts your life.
  • Practice a meditation on love and death with a romantic partner or friend to help you confront your own mortality.
  • Consider trying a meditation on heartbreak to help you surrender to grief and process it in a healthier way.

Mentioned

Ram Dass Fierce Grace (book)

Love & Death Meditation (*Youtube video)

Love & Letting Go Meditation (*Youtube video)

WeCroak

Sharing Resources (*Google form)

Connect with Dr. Jordana Jacobs

Websites: drjordanajacobs.com

Instagram: instagram.com/drjordanajacobs/?hl=en

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Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Dr. Jordana Jacobs, thank you for joining us today.

Thank you for having me.

Yeah, and we were just talking a moment ago that actually you were mentioned by my husband who is in the grief space, and with the app of Grief Refuge. But he mentioned you as a potential guest, and when I looked at your work, and really looking at the sense of contemplating one’s own mortality, and how that relates to relationship and love, I was like, this is a fantastic topic, and unusual for the more mainstream. So such a gift to have your presence here.

Thank you. I mean, this is sort of an aside. But it’s a nice feeling when you hear that someone has heard about your work. Because you sort of put something out there, and I have no idea who’s listening or who’s reading. So I really appreciate that, thank your husband for me.

I will, I will. You’re right. I’m in this same kind of wondering around not always knowing who’s listening or who it’s impacting, and to have feedback can be really helpful to know that it’s landing and building awareness somewhere. 

Totally. 

So talk to us, if you will. Oftentimes I’m asking people who are on the show, how did they come to start focusing on a particular topic, or how are they coming to helping others and offering teachings and support? How did this emerge for you?

There are two ways I talk about it. The first is historical, I believe it’s part of my legacy, if you will, and what’s been passed down from my grandparents. Because they were Holocaust survivors, and I grew up hearing endless stories about the war and surviving war, and trauma and death, and about how to love and create meaning out of that suffering. More specifically, my great aunt, whose name was Sandra, fell in love with a German officer. He didn’t know she was Jewish at the time; she was pretending she was Catholic. And when she did tell him she was Jewish, about two years into their relationship, she was in hiding, he decided to save her life and my grandmother’s life, who was her younger sister, and actually dozens of other Jews from being sent to the death camps. So I quite literally grew up hearing stories about how love can save you from death. So that’s been part of my schema or my template around love and death, since I was a kid.

I know you said you had a second version or second story. But before I ask that, I also wonder, in this lineage, it’s so present. It’s been so much a part of the stories and the fabric of your ancestors and just very close relatives. It’s not further, further back. It’s very close. You’re hearing, and it’s very much a part of the fabric. I can imagine that a sense of love and connection is such a source of resource or sense of resilience in such traumatic, horrific circumstances. But I don’t know, I’m making that up.

Yeah, I think you’re right on. That there are horrible aspects of being alive, one of which is that mortality is inevitable. There are very traumatic ways in which we can die, and then there are far less painful and horrific ways. But death is inevitable, and it’s coming for all of us. I did grow up hearing about how death was inevitable and it could happen at any time, sometimes in ways that are terrifying, which, as a kid, is sometimes hard to hear about. But I do think because it was sort of in the water in my family and talked about so often, it was present. 

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“I became very aware that love and meaning and connection is the best antidote we have to that truth, that inevitable truth, no matter how we go.”

Does that answer your question? 

Yes, an antidote. It couldn’t be more clear.

So I think I started thinking a lot about love and death. But I didn’t have the words for it until I thought about writing my dissertation in grad school. I imagine you wrote one as well, because you’re a clinical psychologist, and you know how it goes. It’s like, what am I going to spend two or three years researching? I have to care about it a lot. I had been reading Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity. She’s actually one of my supervisors now, so I’m very grateful I’m continuing to learn from her. But I was very struck by what she wrote about it in terms of how to make long-term relationships last. She says, fire needs air. I’m sure you’ve heard this. 

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“In order to keep passion alive, you need to give it room to breathe. The way that that translates for romantic partners is, you have to realize that you don’t actually have anyone. That you could lose them at any time, to divorce or to separation, whatever it might be. But it’s that feeling of having that creates a sense of complacency, and passion then often dies.”

So when it came to my dissertation, I thought: Okay, well, fire needs air, what’s the ultimate air? So I thought to myself, I think the ultimate air or the best I can do to operationalize that is mortality, recognizing that you could lose anyone at any time. I designed a study to look at how priming for mortality can increase contentment in romantic relationships. Since then, I still think that’s a core component of the work, but I’ve moved to thinking about love and death much more broadly and much more spiritually than just that, and have been able to connect it in my life, to my ancestors, my childhood, and all throughout. I just think it’s sort of my line of inquiry.

I love that. I’d love to dive into that if you’re open. Also, are you willing to share any of what came out of your dissertation research around complacency? 

Totally. So I did find that in long-term relationships, if you make people aware of mortality, that they rate their intimacy in partnership as higher than in the control group. So priming for mortality makes you feel more intimately connected to your partner.

Just for people listening who might not understand what that priming might look like, or the awareness of one’s mortality, or everyone’s mortality. For the average person listening, what would you invite them to contemplate or consider around mortality?

Yeah. So the idea of the prime, just for anyone who doesn’t know, is that you’re bringing something that’s typically unconscious into conscious awareness. There’s so many different ways you can do that around mortality. I use the standard mortality question. There were actually two questions, it’s valid and reliable. But the two questions were something like, what do you think happens to your body when you die? So you write sort of an essay response around what you think happens as your body decays? That brings mortality to conscious awareness. The second question was somewhat similar to that, but really just has you focus on the inevitability of death. 

What I would suggest, though, for anyone that’s listening, if they want to do a prime, this is my favorite mortality prime. It was too complicated to do for my study. But in talks that I give, I often do this. Again, I tell people to just get out a piece of paper and to draw a horizontal line, where the beginning of the line symbolizes your birth, and the end of the line symbolizes your death. So for whoever’s doing that, you can take a second and do it. Make a slash mark where you are right now. Yeah, I love that. Because I think it brings into acute awareness that life is finite. You have a pictorial representation of it. So I’ve gone to people’s houses, I see them put it on their fridge or by their bed, or some people keep it in their wallet, almost as a memento mori object. I ask people in that moment to reflect on where they think they are right now, and how much time they think they have left. With that time, what do they want to do, who do they want to be, what’s most important to them? Inevitably, people don’t say I want to work more hours, or people don’t even say I want to travel more. At the top of the list is almost always love and relationships; not just romantic love, love in general. But that relationships are, and having deep, meaningful loving relationships are really the most important thing.

Right. I think we’ve heard studies or stories referenced that on someone’s deathbed, they’re not wishing they worked more or did certain things, that it’s spending time with loved ones. That that’s at the heart, the most significant and meaningful. It doesn’t mean that somebody’s purpose, or even as you’re referring to, a legacy, or what’s living in them or the song that they need to sing and purpose, that doesn’t have meaning. But you’re saying, at the top, in the top three, or even at the very, very top are these meaningful, deep connected bonds.

Absolutely. Yeah, not to undervalue our purpose in life at all. But I do think part of our purpose in life is to love richly and deeply. That if we’re not doing that, in addition to fulfilling maybe our more career-driven purpose, we end up, I think, really feeling like we missed out on some of the most meaningful parts of life.

I definitely resonate with that. As I’m listening to you describe this exercise, and the visual, it feels like it offers an opportunity to bring into perspective what we might not be cognizant of. Even I will say, in Western culture, more modern living, it’s almost this sense of hidden or denial often, it’s not really discussed or talked about. Obviously, that wasn’t your experience, that it was very much a part of the awareness, and a reminder to not take these things for granted, or to know how impermanent life is, how finite it is. But yeah, I think the average person doesn’t necessarily come into contact with that on an intentional level or mindful level on a frequent basis. So this invitation just feels so special, because it is so real. Yet, I think many of us, and I’ll raise my hand, I don’t contemplate it much. It’s not a place that I spend a lot of time in. 

The other thing I’ll share as far as like a prime, I noticed for me, if I come into contact, whether or not it’s a client, or someone I care about, and they’re telling me a story of loss or death, or something that’s unforeseen or tragic, I can feel immediately. Not necessarily in session, but very soon thereafter. It puts into perspective how fragile life it, in the sense of not guaranteed and uncertain, and how much I want to turn to my husband and just appreciate him, love him, and embrace him. Just it brings into question, I can feel even the emotions arising, of like, if he wasn’t here anymore, the impact of that. Just to be aware, the air that that brings into the relationship. It’s not taking him for granted, it’s not expecting that he’s going to forever be here.

That’s exactly right, that’s exactly what I’m trying to convey. I think in long-term relationships, not only do we get so used to our lives and we think it’s going to be like this with our partner forever. But I think we’re actually pretty invested in the idea of forever with our partner. Because the concept of not having them is so terrifying that we don’t want to contemplate it, just like the concept of not existing anymore or of dying is so terrifying we don’t want to contemplate it. But part of my work and my work with patients is really encouraging them to step towards that rather than away, because there’s so much beauty there. That when you step towards, and you step into it, and you do it gently, and in a way that feels safe enough, you reap so many benefits, including getting in touch with that feeling that you just mentioned: “Oh my God, this person is so precious to me. I see them every day, but they’re so precious, and I’m not always going to have them.” 

I met somebody who was sick with cancer at one of my talks, and she said: “Death has been, for me, the great clarifier. It has completely rearranged all of my priorities.” When we think we’re going to live forever. 

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“I mean, I know we know we’re going to die. But when on a day-to-day basis, we’re not reminded of it, we’re not thinking about it, we’re not contemplating it, our priorities can get really out of whack. We don’t appreciate who we’re with necessarily, and the deep love that’s there. Also, I think we lose a sense of what’s most important to us.”

Even as I’m saying it, I’m like, whoof, yeah! I mean, it’s helpful for me to do a podcast like this and to remind myself. I think the third reason I got into this work is because I was like, I need to do this work.

It’s powerful. I will say, I imagine you would concur, that there is a human tendency to seek comfort. That as we are looking at growth and development, it’s not always comfortable, it’s not always pleasurable. Being awake and aware isn’t always easy. To hold dissonance, to hold something that’s painful. Yet, you’re also speaking to, if we can have a balance. We’re not necessarily talking about let’s go jump into trauma and horrifying, shocking things. We’re talking about, can we, in a doable way, confront the realities that bring more breath, more air into the room? It also reminds me, too. Before I go to the second point, do you want to comment on that, just the human tendency to seek comfort and the impact of that?

I just think it’s such a good point. My thought in addition to that is, it’s inevitable. So we can only stay comfortable and hide from this truth for so long. If we remain in a place of avoidance rather than approach, I think it does us much more of a disservice. Because then we get to what existential psychologists call a boundary situation, which is a situation that brings us into a confrontation with that. Let’s say, cancer, or a natural disaster, COVID, for example. And we are in a state of total terror at the confrontation of what has always been inevitable.

Because we’ve been sheltering, and avoiding, and denying perhaps even. It reminds me too of stories that I’ve heard. I even have a family member right now that is diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer and it’s metastasized, and I think she’s trying to protect people. Like, there’s this sense of: “Oh, I’m not going to tell a lot of people, or I don’t want to traumatize anybody or bring them into this tragedy.” So it’s almost like they don’t tell anybody. Yet, that can be really painful for loved ones, and actually create a lot of resentment and trauma, to not have had the opportunity to connect and show up.

Absolutely, it’s so isolating for people who are indeed in the front row in an experience like that. 

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“Our culture has created, or we’ve collectively created, an environment in which people feel they have to shield each other from this process of death that will happen to all of us.”

Right now, it’s so isolating and alienating. But another iteration of this, or in another culture, you see it’s what actually brings people together. Oher than love, it is the most common fundamental human experience that brings us all together, because we all go through it. 

My husband and I just took a road trip. Many of my listeners know, my husband and I have been displaced for the last few months due to toxic mould. I think we’re in like the 12th place in the last three or four months, it’s been nuts. We were driving. It was like a nine-hour day trip, and we were in stage one of this road trip from California up to the Pacific Northwest. We had been listening to the audio I was recommended by someone who does my skincare line. Her name is Danny, she runs the Skin Harmonics. But she was referencing, I was just in Tulum, and she was talking about an indigenous healer that was leading a ceremony there. We did a Temazcal, which is like a indigenous Mayan sweat lodge that’s similar to like a Native American sweat lodge. Anyway, she’s like, you have to know this author, his name is Martín. I’ll have to put that on the show notes. But he wrote this book about grief and praise, and how interconnected they are. That actually, in that kind of orientation that he’s coming from, in this collective in a lineage, that grieving is a way of actually praising and loving.

It just brought that connection up for me. Because as you’re talking about perhaps in other cultures, it’s a way of coming into connection, it’s a way of coming into honor. It’s a way of mourning and being in the experience, how even painful, but genuine. That’s the part of the healing, perhaps even. As a collective, we need to grieve, and we need to be in the process of praising and honoring life, and it includes death.

Absolutely. You’re reminding me of this quote that I love, I think she’s an author, by Jamie Anderson. I’ll just read it if that’s okay. But she says: “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in the hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

Wow, that’s beautiful!

You and I were talking about this a little bit before recording. Just about the importance of surrendering to grief, allowing it to be there, recognizing it as part of the process. I mean, surrendering to grief, I think, is much like surrendering to death. It’s surrendering to a loss. 

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“Grief is the price we pay for love, it’s part of the experience of love. If you’re not grieving, then you’re not fully loving. I think it would be horribly sad to live a life without grief. If you don’t die, then you’re not living. We can’t cut out half of the equation here.”

Talk about being comfortable. We will actually be much more comfortable if we accept it all, rather than cut out half of it and spend much of our emotional resources trying to shut out that darker half.

Resisting, avoiding, denying, and essentially cutting off parts of ourselves even, in an attempt to block it. 

Exactly. There’s a quote I heard, I think it was in a Ram Das podcast, I don’t know if he said it or someone else said it. But he said: “We call holy men or women holy, because they’re whole. They incorporate the entirety of an experience, and they don’t resist any of it.” The biggest thing, I think, that we all resist collectively as a whole is death.

I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s so funny you brought up Ram Das. I was thinking about this documentary he did, I watched it years ago. I think it’s called Fierce Grace. Did you see it?

Yes. I’m a Ram Das fan, for sure.

I love it, I’ll make sure to put the link on today’s show notes as well. And what I really took from that, and what resonated so strongly for me in my own personal experience with grief surrender, as you’re describing, is how it was so closely connected to the experience for me of grace. I’m remembering a time I’ve referenced on the podcast; I won’t go into the whole story here. But in grieving a relationship, I legitimately thought it was going to kill me. I didn’t think rationally like I was going to physically be harmed. But I thought the emotional intensity was so great that I couldn’t tolerate it, and it was going to be a death of some sort. I remember making a conscious choice of like, I’m not going to resist this. I remember lying back in my bed and surrendering. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was like jumping off this abyss of like, this probably is going to kill me! I know I’m saying it’s silly now, but it was a lot of intensity.

It resonates. I’ve been there, I know. 

Yes, I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. For me, it was like, as soon as I said Yes, and I surrendered, and I leaned into that, I felt this enveloping of something that felt so spiritual, that felt so warm and loving and graceful, that it was so closely linked. I don’t know that I would have been able to access that had I not leaned in. This references what I think you were speaking to a little bit ago about when we cut off or block or deny, there’s so much realm and beauty and so much access that we have to something so profound, that we don’t even know what we’re cutting off from, that we’re limiting ourselves. That if we do lean in, there’s so much there that’s available to us.

Absolutely. I mean, I can hear that I keep saying absolutely, but I just really agree with what you’re saying. 

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“There’s actually a bliss in surrender, even to excruciating pain. Actually, the pain changes when you surrender to it. When you resist it, it intensifies. That’s the case with emotional pain, it’s also the case with physical pain.”

Can you say that again? I agree with you, and I’ve talked about this with emotional. But in the realm of grief and contemplating death and mortality, can you repeat that again and just spell that out for us?

I think another way to say it is that the resistance is futile. I don’t know if Spock said it or the Terminator said it, it’s something from the 90s that resonates for me, which is that resistance is futile. That the more you resist, the more something persists, whether emotional pain or physical pain. I’ve dealt with some chronic pain issues in my life. It was really only through doing 10-day silent meditation retreats, where I spent 10 hours a day focused on fully accepting pain and sitting with it, and not trying to change it or fix it. Being with it as it was, and giving up this sort of internal battle within myself. I do think when you do that, there’s such emotional and physical freedom when you’re no longer fighting, that there’s a healing element to that process.

Thank you for sharing a little bit more. I know in psychology, they sometimes talk about, from the neurological perspective, like name it to tame it. It sounds like it’s related. Just how important it is for us to be in a practice of doing this. For people who are listening, and you mentioned a while ago more of the modern Western world, there might not be a lot of space that supports this practice. You’re doing such beautiful work, I’m so grateful that you’re offering guidance in this. So before we turn to how people can get in touch with you, I just wonder, is there anything here that you want to speak to? I mean, you mentioned the priming, and that in of itself is something, right?

If anybody is listening and wants to do a few things so that they can bring mortality into their awareness in a way that’s gentle, I do suggest getting a piece of paper and doing that exercise, and putting it up somewhere where you see it, just to remind you. Or an index card or something, some people even frame it. That I recommend. For something else that’s quick, there’s something called the Last Breath Meditation, where if you just sit and you focus on each outbreath as if it could be your last. I mean, it’ll certainly bring up some fear, you don’t have to do it for very long. But just as a technique that you can do almost daily, to feel into that transience, that impermanence, and then let love float to the top of your consciousness, as I think it typically does, if you can do so without tremendous fear. 

There’s an app called WeCroak that is based on a Bhutanese concept that you need to think about death five times a day in order to live life fully. I don’t think it’s the best app. But conceptually, if you want reminders on your phone, I think that can be great too. Those would be my sort of more structured ideas. But a lot of the work that I do around this happens with patients that I see one-on-one, and I encourage them to bring up existential issues, and I nudge them in that direction if they’re not going there themselves. So if this is something that resonates for people, and they’re in therapy, go there with your therapist and see what comes up.

Yes. Because ideally, the practitioner therapist or psychotherapist would be providing a safe container to hold that, as a safe beginning step perhaps.

One more thing I will say, I know we’re about to wrap up. But I’ve been doing a few meditations at retreats that I have spoken at, and I just put them up online on my website. There’s one about love and death that could help you get into contact with mortality. It’s a partnered experience, though. So you can do it with a romantic partner, or you could also do it with just a friend. It doesn’t have to be someone that you’re romantically involved with. But that might be helpful. Then I have another meditation that’s about heartbreak. It’s sort of like what you were talking about helping people lie down and surrender to that grief, and be able to hold it in a different way.

I will make sure to have those links on today’s show notes. Also, what else would you like to invite people to? I know you offer many other things in the way of writing and the teachings that you’re doing.

I don’t have anything concrete coming up. If people want to follow my professional Instagram, which is Dr. Jordana Jacobs, I post on there if there’s any talk I’m giving or a retreat that’s coming up, or a picture or a quote that feels like it’s related to this work.

So it sounds like that would be a great place to follow. Also going to your website for the videos. Is it a video or an audio for the meditations?

They’re YouTube videos. But there’s no real visual, it’s just meditations you do lying down or sitting up with headphones. But you can find them for free on YouTube.

Perfect, I will make sure to do that. Is there anything else that you want to say that people could find on their website? It sounds like if they’re in New York, they could perhaps reach out to you. I don’t know if your schedule is full, but sounds like you have patients that you work with one-on-one. Anything else you want to mention?

Sure, feel free to reach out. I have a waitlist right now. But there’s often turnover at the beginning of the new year. I don’t know if you experience that. But the highest rate of turnover for therapists is typically September or January, people want to start therapy or feel like they’re ready. So feel free to reach out if this feels aligned.

Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. It’s such a gift for you to spend time with us here today. I’ll make sure to have all of the links that you’ve mentioned, including your website, on today’s show notes.

Okay, thank you so much for having me, and for helping remind me to do this. This is my mortality prime of the day, so I appreciate it. 

Mine too! 

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