The first time I met Leila Kopff was in front of a room full of students eager to learn French. That was about six years ago. When I saw her again it was in a much bigger room with a whole lot more people. She was one of the speakers at the monthly 24Slides inspirational talk event. This time she wasn’t giving French lessons but rather teaching us about dealing with loss.
Leila first registered experiencing loss at the age of 20. This marked a major turning point in her life. For two years her dad had suffered from cancer. After many operations her father’s appearance was much altered and he was deteriorating fast. Her family chose to deal with the situation by denying it. And no one was really willing or able to explain to Leila what was happening . . .
Before then she had led a generally happy childhood – one of innocence and fantasy. But from a young age she had experienced “leaving things behind” without good reason. Aged 5 she had had to leave Madagascar and her dog behind. To her child mind the reason given was insufficient. After that she moved again – Madagascar for Reunion, and Reunion for France.
However, no amount of dealing with leaving things behind could have prepared her for her father’s death. Suddenly her world came tumbling down. In many ways, her dad was the axis around which her world had turned. His death shocked her. Unfortunately her mother was in so much pain herself that she was unable to support and comfort her daughter. Leila was alone. Quickly her pain started to pull her into a downward spiral.
Unsupported and too young to know where to seek help, Leila dealt with the pain by numbing it with alcohol, sex and cutting. Cutting herself was a way to bleed away the pain. Yet she always knew when to stop. Somewhere inside her there was still a reason and need to live. Luckily a friend noticed and recommended a psychologist.
Her life took a turn for the better: she was appointed sales and marketing manager for Pacific Creation Parfums, travelling around France to market their well-known Lolita Lempicka perfume. On her travels she met a wonderful man who actually reminded her of her dad. Soon they were married and she decided to follow her husband to South Africa where she took a teaching position and became the director of the Alliance Franҫaise in Stellenbosch. She worked in Stellenbosch for three years and was promoted to course coordinator for the Alliance Franҫaise branch in Cape Town. She was happy.
And then tragedy struck again. 2013 started with the death of her two husky dogs. This was followed by her mother-in-law’s death in October. At that point Leila told herself: “Here it is again. Death. I need to get used to it.” But at least she had Arthur, her husband, and they could support each other. They made a point of not denying their pain and being supportive of each other. So, in January 2014, when Arthur died in a horrible freak hiking accident, Leila’s life was once again shattered. Within 10 months Leila had lost four beings that she had cared for.
For months on end Leila suffered unbearable pain – physical and emotional. She cried herself to sleep most nights. “But,” she says, “I made the decision. It took me 10 years to get over my father’s death. I didn’t want to spend another 10 years of my life healing from this. I needed to go forward.”
Something also kept telling Leila that Arthur and she needed to part. In many ways Leila had never learnt how to be on her own and independent, and have her own opinions and emotions. She had come to rely very much on her husband’s overprotectiveness. For a long time she had felt that her own growth had stagnated and although she would never have chosen the path her life had taken lately, somehow she knew that however terrible the experience of loss, it was going to “grow” her.
This time things were different. Firstly, she had support. She found a “brother” in a boss who allowed her to take time off whenever she needed to. She also had an angel of a flatmate who somehow just knew how to deal with her. If she saw Leila crying she would ask: “Would you like a hug?” or otherwise “Would you like some space?” This helped a great deal.
Leila also enrolled for a two-year coaching course based on encouraging a person to “feel” his or her feelings and allow them to be conscious no matter what they were. Leila realised that it is normal to experience feelings. Feelings are a gift: “They either say ‘yes, you are going in the right direction’ or ‘no, there is something we need to change’. But in this world we do not allow our feelings because we have to be ‘strong’.” While she still continued to work, at night she would allow herself time to experience (“feel”) her feelings and acknowledge whatever came up. She also found cycling to be a healthy way to release the energy and pain in her body.
After a while what had felt like lots of pain relieved by a little bit of happiness started to turn into alternating pain and happiness, so that by the time that she had to declare her husband’s death at the consulate, she could honestly say: “Wow, I have come a long way.” However, there was still something not quite right. Although she was feeling her feelings, she somehow felt disconnected from herself. She noticed that she was spending a lot more time on Facebook, as if the blue and white screen could somehow tell her who she was, what she wanted and what was true for her.
To try to reconnect with herself she decided to go to the Great Karoo. StoepZen is a farm in the middle of the veld, the closest town being 30 minutes away. Besides the owners, Leila was alone. Suddenly she had to face her own loneliness. This was a step even deeper than feeling her feelings. It was very tough. While out walking one day, she lay under a poplar tree and looked up at the sky. Then she screamed her heart out. Gradually, however, she started to enjoy the colours and the clouds, and took as many pictures as she possibly could. She felt connected with nature, and suddenly started enjoying being on her own. She learnt that she needed to embrace all of who she was: the darkness, the light, all of it. “Because,” she explains, “only by loving and accepting all of yourself can you truly learn what unconditional love is.”
Leila had found a new purpose: connecting with herself in order to connect with and love others. This is the beautiful reason that her journey of loss and healing brought her. “Life isn’t about relying on others for our needs, but about sharing the beauty of life with each other. We need to be able to be alone with ourselves. Go into nature. Walk, hike. Connect with the stones and the sky,” she says. “Life is constantly changing. No, rather embrace the uncertainty, the unknown. Be present in each and every moment. Joy, happiness, people, nature. Be aware of it. Allow it. Life is fragile. We are always walking on a string. We can fall any time. Whatever is alive, we need to connect with it. It is beautiful.”
Today Leila supports others going through loss as a qualified Connection and Zen coach. Leila also teaches French culture to the Congolese employers of a call centre in attempt to heal the collective consciousness of inferiority that most of these employers struggle with. More and more she is sharing her story with others on major talk platforms. If you’d like to connect with her, you can find her here.
[Main image credit: supplied by Leila Kopff]