The Power of Letting Go!
“Letting go” is the gold ring of positive change, releasing us from the chains of the past. Intuitively, to let go means immediate relief, being unburdened, relaxing into and passing through suffering into peace and possibility.
Mental action is modeled on physical behavior. Evolution, it is thought, borrows from basic brain systems in constructing sophisticated psychic life. Being close to someone physically equates with emotional intimacy, growing apart from someone means the relationship is changing, sitting with a thought or feeling rather than running away, moving through distress, basking in joy as one would light, and so on... there are countless examples, so basic as to often be invisible.
Letting go of trauma?
Holding onto trauma means holding onto old identities. Letting go is so important, and so elusive when people are inside of restrictive narratives of victimization.
Letting go implies we are holding on to something painful which we wish to but can’t easily relinquish. Cherished but unwanted, there is a paradoxical sense of terror at losing it.
Holding on is involuntary, not a conscious decision. Maybe at some point in the past it was purposeful, necessary, but no longer. Self-deception is adaptive, maintaining a sense of self-continuity, wholeness,
a view of the world and people which however imperfect nevertheless works when reality is too disruptive to accept. Survival is the first priority. There is time later to thrive.
Letting go of pathological narcissism
Letting go is threatening because—even if we’ve lived with the growing awareness that whatever we are holding on to is atavistic, out-grown—it feels as if letting go means reliving the original injury. When we are ready, letting go is cathartic, often sad but beautiful, and painful. Until then, time is partly frozen.
Because we don’t have a clear, integrated sense of what or why we are holding on, letting go is mystifying, impossible eve. When it is better to hold on to an inflated, brittle sense of self than to run the risk of having no self at all?
There is a way where letting go is simply part of grieving. If that grief is traumatic, then letting go will seem more abrupt and dangerous until our perspective has expanded. The frantic question of how to let go is supplanted by calmer acceptance. Breaking isn't the way to go
Rather than “breaking the pattern”, the pattern gradually softens and re-shapes itself. Letting go is more gentle, generous and self-compassionate than coercively ripping away something dear. Self-accord places letting go and holding on together. Rather than panicking and looking for an escape route, slow down and see what's what. It's useful to be less neurotic here.
The key moment of letting go is slippery at first, becoming more concrete with practice. Rather than holding onto something, later on letting go means that familiar temptations don’t hook on in the same way. They don't look so life-and-death, and in retrospect we may see ourselves with compassion, even gentle humor—though not dismissively or invalidating—for thinking things meant so much
What actually is the act of letting go?
There are many ways to contemplate the act of letting go. A key element of letting go is recognizing the presence of what might be called a pathological need. Many times pathological needs stem from traumatic experiences, efforts to negate or undo childhood maltreatment or deprivation.
In many cases, pathological needs stem from unhealthy narcissistic adaptations to unresolved developmental experiences with caregivers who did not meet basic needs required to develop a secure sense of self. Neurotic worry, emotionally hoarding every grievance and injury, reflects unhealthy attachment to the past, and often to hurt parts of oneself which require healing rather than obsessive picking at scabs.
These needs seem necessary for for self-protection, and may feel life-and-death. The details very but there is a common quality of alarm which typically feels normal, narrowing our view of situations without us even realizing it because it is so familiar.
We tend to misinterpret what others mean, twisting their words to confirm the mistrust we feel. We need enemies to make us strong. Rather than considering different angles, we only see things one way.
We listen in order to build arguments rather than to connect, leading to isolation and further strife. On an unconscious mission to bolster a fragile sense of self and reality, we are present with neither self nor others.
Letting go is a practice, requiring discipline. focus and embracing open vulnerability as a path to strength rather than shame. It takes time to get good at it, and there is no room for perfectionism.
Letting go requires learning how first to self-sooth emotionally—finding a place in between emotional storms and totally checking-out—to get perspective on the often misleading beliefs and viewpoints people repeat as if they were facts of life
High anxiety leaves no room for thinking. Grabbing onto the first idea which comes along in order to alleviate anxiety is exactly what leads to holding on in the first place. Being curious and calm allows us to try out other ideas first.
In that window of relative calm, we have more options. Letting go means recognizing what needs are most important and which are exaggerated or suffused with false importance. In order to let go, we may find that we forgive ourselves for not having done so sooner.
What do we really need in that moment of suffering? Is it to keep fighting, to maintain old views or deal with injury with potentially self-defeating behaviors? Or to find peace and possibly improve relations with others? Letting go is a choice which happens at that instant.
It is at first easier said than done, slipping by again and again until, if in a state of relative calm, we see the pathological need and where it will lead for what it is.
The Mystery of Letting Go
Yes, he was dead but the grief I was experiencing was very present. For a long time it was also my future as I worked to integrate the past I had shared with my beloved with a new relationship we were both exploring on opposite sides of the veil between worlds.
What I did commence mere days after his passing was a cycle of change that is ongoing. Actually, that's called living. Our illusion of stability is a very helpful myth that allows us to function in the chaotic plain of time and space. It's really all about change. And sometimes that means releasing things that no longer fit with our current reality. It also means releasing people who are finished here.
But releasing people we have loved is not like taking them to the drop-off bin at Goodwill. In fact, I think it's much healthier to not think about letting go at all. Because—even in the best of circumstance—it carries a subtle message of, "You should be getting on with things now" or "I just want the pain to stop."
I saw this so clearly last weekend. I attended the first of a series of half-day sessions on "Death as a Spiritual Teacher." There are about 25 people in the group and most of them are in the deep pain of recent and dramatic loss.
One woman lost her husband, her father, her cat, and her job in the last three months. She also moved from out of state during the same time frame. I do not know how she is functioning. She has a battered look of a tornado survivor and is concentrating on simply taking one painful step at a time. What courage she shows in seeking out a group of strangers to hold her in a safe space of unconditional acceptance.
I think that safe space is what we need most—especially in the early days of grief. My friend Kathleen and I did that for each other because our losses were so close together in time. We had also shared a spiritual path for years. So we were able to grieve in a similar context—even as we honored the differences as well as the similarities in our journey.
But what exactly do we hold?
In order for holding not to be grasping we must also hold (or conduct) a conversation with the Unknown that begins with what we think we know and journeys into the misty realms of the present and future that do not readily identify themselves.
In the midst of that gentle conversation that can whisper its comfort in a heart that is open to learning, I held on to many things. Or perhaps they held me. Photos of Stephen and me together. The precious portrait that a friend drew for his memorial service. Some of his clothes. For a year, his woodworking equipment. His books.
So many things that he had touched and used and loved. I held them gently because they created a sort of surrogate structure in which my grieving could feel safe to unfold. They reminded me of ways in which Stephen grounded me. And by holding them in honor and love, I somehow assimilated them. And then they began to fall away on their own.
I think if I had consciously worked to let them go I would have broken into a thousand pieces. Instead, I now feel solid from the inside out. I have simplified my life as things have let me go. I have allowed life to become more complex as new treasures have taken the place of old ones.
But I am not wounded from letting go too soon. I let nature take its course. Which it will do in its own lovely, mysterious way—if we allow ourselves to be held in the embrace of that which we do yet not know but that knows us and our needs very, very well.
Navigating Loss: Dealing with the Pain and Letting Go
It’s a challenge for many people when it comes to letting go of loss. There can be resistance as letting go is viewed as letting go of your loved one. This misunderstanding causes people to stay stuck in the pain of grief.
What is misunderstood is that letting go of loss actually means moving away from the pain so that you are able to create a new and stronger connection to your loved one that will support you as you move forward.
Many people, including myself in the past, feel that the pain they experience after the death of a loved one is a way of representing how much they loved them. Therefore if you loved them deeply it logically follows that you must also grieve them deeply.
What ends up happening though is that the pain of this grief blocks the love we actually feel for them. We can struggle to remember the good times we had with them. Their death overshadows everything.
No matter what people say or believe grief and love are never two sides of the same coin. Love is the answer and the solution to grief because love never dies. The love we feel for our loved one remains unchanged after death.
If anything it can deepen as we realise truly what our loved one meant to us. By leaning into this love we can let go of grief and create a new connection to our loved one.
This is not easy. If it were, more people would be doing it! To let go of grief you have to be able to be capable of being in the pain and consciously bringing the love you have for your loved one into the grief. At times the pain of grief can be so overwhelming that we can find ourselves blocked by it and unable to tap into the love.
In order to help facilitate a move into love, take some time when the pain of grief has subsided. Take a pen and paper and write about your happiest memories with your loved one. Write about what you love about them the most. This can be challenging as it can trigger sadness over what you have lost.
If this happens, become present and bring yourself back to the happy memories and what you love about them. Become aware of how these moments make you feel.
Focus on the love that is present there and realise that this love is still present now, even without your loved one’s physical presence. The more you are aware of this, the more you can lean into it during moments of grief, let go of the pain and invite love in.
Questions for Self-Reflection:
What are you holding onto in grief that you could let go of?
How is this stopping your from moving forward?
In what ways do you still maintain a connection to your loved one?
How can you deepen this connection?
Letting Go Of “Stuff” After a Loss
One persistent and ongoing issue that grievers deal with is letting go of a lifetime of accumulated possessions following the death of a family member. The thought of this can be another overwhelming element to grieving a loss.
I remember a story that one woman shared with me, many years ago. When she returned home from her husband’s funeral, she was shocked and horrified that two of her friends had systematically gone through her house and disposed of all of her husband’s clothing and personal possessions, in an effort to “make it easier for her.” She was devastated!
While these friends had good intentions, they failed to take into account that she was not even close to wanting to say goodbye to these things. They thought that by eliminating these things from her sight, she would have an easier time moving forward.
Instead, it only intensified her grief. She told me that when she walked into the house, it was as though he had never been there. The cleaning had been so thorough that she could no longer even smell him.
While friends might call this “stuff,” to the griever these may be items filled with memories. Many are far too special to ever consider selling or giving away. We fully understand that feeling and would never suggest any such thing! The reality,
however, is that mixed in with those special items are other things that may have less importance. The big question is, how do you decide which is which?
For many people, just the thought of going through all of these things is more than they can handle. That is why we would like to offer you an approach to make this task less overwhelming.
The reason that I feel so confident in offering this suggestion is that I have not only seen many people use it successfully, following a death, but I also followed it myself, when I was breaking up my parent’s home. A year and a half after my father died, my mother’s doctor told us that my mother needed more care to deal with her Alzheimer’s than we could provide her at home.
Even though we lived next door and maintained a full time assistant for her in her home, we were told she needed more skilled assistance and mental stimulation. Her doctor invited us to visit an Alzheimer’s unit that was ahead of its time in design and support and we reluctantly agreed to explore that option on a 30 day trial.
Mom loved it there and eventually was convinced that she owned the place and had invited all of her friends to live there with her! Her “apartment” was decorated with her own furniture, paintings and knick-knacks and felt like home.
The task after that was to deal with the lifetime of things that my parents had accumulated. This was a very emotional challenge! In truth, I was grieving. It was a home filled with not only their lifetime of memories, but mine as well.
Rather than taking an “all or nothing approach,” I employed a technique I had learned from Chapter 13 in “The Grief Recovery Handbook,” called the “The Pile Plan.”
This is not something that you should do alone! It always works best when you have a family member or friend assist you. Many of those things will have personal stories attached to them that you will want to share.
In truth, these are stories that you "need” to share as part of the grieving process. It is about letting out those feelings that you have stuffed deep down inside. It is about sharing the special memories you have with someone else, rather than isolating and doing this alone.
The concept of the Pile Plan is fairly simple. You pick a place to start. You can begin with a single drawer in a dresser. Open that drawer and start sorting its contents into three piles: the one with items you know you want to keep; the second with those items you know in your heart you are ready to let go; and, what is often the bigger pile, those items about which you are unsure.
Now you can take those things you know you want to save and put them back in the drawer or some place you can enjoy seeing them to remind you of the fond memories they bring to mind. You can let go of those things to which you are not attached. And, you can set aside those things about which you have made no decision, and when you are ready, take them out and sort them into three piles.
You will keep doing this until everything in that drawer has been divided into those things you want to keep and those things you can discard. Then, once again with the help of a friend or family member, tackle the next drawer or closet.
This is obviously not a quick solution, but it is one that will ensure that you do not let go of things with later regrets. Do not be surprised if you find yourself getting emotional as you do this. That is a very normal reaction to going through these personal possessions.
Rather than keeping that emotion bottled up insider, express it! That is why it is never suggested that you try this process alone. At least at the beginning. You may find that you will feel like doing more sorting with each further attempt at following this process.
Do not be surprised if you choose to keep one or two items of clothing that still “smell” like the person you lost. Some people find this comforting. You may, or may not, choose to let go of these items later. My personal experience in using this method for dealing with my parent’s house was that it took about a month to do this, working at it a little each day, as I was emotionally ready to do the work.
By the time we had, what I refer to as the “dreaded garage sale,” there was nothing that we were offering to which I had any emotional attachment. What was left after the sorting process was just “stuff,” and held no meaning for me related to my parents or my lifetime with them.
In a sense, I found this to be an added gift to all of the other things that I learned from using “The Grief Recovery Handbook” to deal with the emotional pain of loss in my life. It not only helped me to do the necessary work to be in a better place after dealing with deaths and even the smallest of issues in ongoing relationships,
but it also helped me to better deal with the emotional pain of letting go of the material things related to those relationships as well. Those many things that I have saved to remind me of those relationships are now out where I can enjoy them,
and those things that had no meaning have now been discarded, just as I have let go of the sadness and sometimes painful memories I once carried!
M I Ro