"What is 'Letting Go'?" by Carol Schoneberg, former HSM Bereavement Services Manager
Letting go is a phrase that one hears over and over again in the bereavement support group setting, and many find themselves asking, “What does this mean?” While I think it’s one of those questions that can ultimately best be answered by the one who asks it, I know what it means to me to grieve and lose.
I find it impossible to give a dictionary definition to letting go. All things that are bigger than I am—God, Spirituality, Nature, Love, Death—are hard to give words to, and I place letting go in this category. I feel it, and instinctively I know it, but I can’t give it words that truly do it justice.
To me, letting go is a positive thing. It does not come early on in my grieving process, and it does not appear all at once—it takes time to develop and become a part of the new normal I will eventually find as I move closer and closer to healing in the months and years after my loved one has died. It does not mean that I am letting go in the sense of forgetting about or giving up my connection to my loved one who has died. On the contrary, once I have reached the place of letting go, I know they will never be forgotten and that my connection is permanent. I can no longer touch or see my mother standing before me, but I remember the feeling of her arms around me and can unmistakably feel her presence in my life. She is with me. Letting go does not mean I will ever stop loving or missing her.
I can’t let go just because I know it would be good for me. I might have friends or family who think I am holding on to or obsessing on one particular aspect of my loved one’s death—perhaps the fact that he died too young, that she was misdiagnosed and might not have died if her cancer had been found sooner, or that we had cross words before he left the house that morning and was killed in a car accident on his way to work. My well-meaning friends or family tell me, “You need to let go of that, you can’t change that now,” as if I could wave a magic wand and no longer wrestle with these feelings. They tell me this because they suffer at the sight of my suffering. They want me to look and act like the person I was before my loved one died, but I simply no longer am that person. They don’t understand that I’ll wrestle with these feelings as long as I need to, until I have worked through them at my own pace, and only then will I be able to move on to the next phase of my grief journey. It is my timetable, not anyone else’s.
Because I am committed to facing my grief head-on rather than trying to go around it, I will eventually be blessed with letting go—with knowing and understanding I can’t change what happened, but that I can influence what will be in the future. Losing someone dearly loved means that life will never be the same—I will never be the same because this person who occupied so much of my heart can no longer sit next to me—but it doesn’t mean life will never again be worth living. I am incapable of understanding this when I’m newly bereaved. If I’m lucky, I will one day be a wiser and stronger version of myself because of what I am choosing to face today. If I have grown through my grief, I have the possibility of eventually becoming stronger, more certain of who I am, more compassionate, less judgmental, and more appreciative of all forms of life. Life once again can bring meaning and joy. There is a feeling of liberation from the intensity of my suffering, and I suddenly find myself understanding at my core what letting go means.
By Carol Schoneberg, former Bereavement Services Manager at Hospice of Southern Maine
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