Tonight I am having a hard time getting my thoughts to “gel.” There are pieces of creativity, phrases, melodies, images that are passing through my mind but none of them seem to rest long enough for me to make sense of them. It’s like trying to catch the wind and hold it in your hands. You can’t hold it; you can only feel it, and those two things are very different. Holding something and feeling something require different things. One requires energy and activity, while the other simply requires a willingness to be open. One is achieved through effort and endurance, while the other is achieved through being still and present. I know it may seem like I’m just rambling, but tonight, I feel a little entitled to do so.
It seems lately my life has been filled with different aspects of death and grief. Some of it has been people I know who have lost loved ones. Some of it has been the loss of people in my own world or people who have been seriously ill. Today I attended the funeral of a cousin-in-law that I never met. In doing so, I got to meet the rest of that branch of the family tree and immediately felt a connection to them. I sat in the service, moved to tears both for the beauty of her life and the loss I felt in never having known her personally. It made me remember all the losses I’ve had over the course of my own life.
After the service, I went to another cemetery to pay my respects to someone I loved very dearly. I hadn’t gone to this particular grave because it is quite a distance from my home, and I’m not one to hang out in cemeteries. After all, burial places hold nothing more than the earthly shell of the people we love. Today I was not too far from the final resting place of my loved one’s remains, so I felt compelled to make the trip. Upon my arrival at the mausoleum, I searched and searched but to no avail. I finally asked for help from the cemetery in locating my loved one. It took much longer than I expected, and then the response hit me like a ton of bricks. My loved one’s remains had been placed in a community crypt without any identification to the outside world. It bothered me. It sat in my heart like a lead weight as I stood in front of the unmarked crypt. It hurt, and I struggled deeply with trying to square what I believe about death with what I was feeling at the moment. That isn’t always an easy thing to do.
We all lose people we love at one point or another. We feel the sting of death and the pain that comes with being separated from the physical presence of the ones we love. We attend funerals and memorial services to honor their lives, and then we each find our own ways of navigating through the subsequent grief process. I have found, no matter what the process looks like for each of us, there is one common thing we experience: the struggle between holding on and letting go. It seems to be an ebb and flow, but even after many years, we find ourselves still faced with moments of trying to decide when to hold on and when to let go. When we lose someone we love, our instinct is to hold on. We hold onto physical items such as clothing, gifts or other items that he/she touched, or things that smell like them. Our longing for that person to still be with us makes us grasp at whatever we can to keep them here in some way. We don’t just hold on, we cling. We sometimes hold so tightly that our knuckles turn white and we lose feeling in our hands, and yet we still can’t find the strength to let go. Letting go seems like it will only magnify our loss, and we will be left with nothing at all. There’s nothing wrong with trying to hold on, but we must remember there are some things that just can’t be held.
Letting go usually comes with a sense of fear and apprehension for some people. When we lose something, we naturally want to hold tighter to what we have left. If we lose money, we tend to get tighter with what we have because it feels like if we don’t, we might lose it all. We can become so hyper-focused on protecting our “stash” that we can no longer enjoy our lives. The same is true with losing a loved one to death. If we become so hyper-focused on protecting what remains of their lives here, we can become crippled and no longer enjoy our own lives. Letting go is a process that occurs in stages, but we have to be careful to not mistake what it means to “let go.” Letting go does NOT mean forgetting; It means loosening your grip. Remember what I said about the wind in the opening paragraph? You can feel it but you cannot hold it. Think about standing somewhere beautiful and suddenly a perfect breeze comes blowing through. You have two choices: You can start grasping like crazy, trying to capture it in your hands, or you can stand still and experience its touch completely. If your focus is on trying to hold it, all you will feel is the lack of being able to do so. You will grasp tighter and quicker, but all you will feel is the emptiness of your own hands. However, if you focus on standing still and opening your hands, you will feel nothing but the breeze itself. Letting go is what enables you to feel! Letting go is what enables you to remember. Letting go is what frees you to be present.
Today was difficult, and the unexpected situation in which I found myself made it extremely difficult to keep from tightening my grasp after many years of loosening it. The pain, anger, disgust and sadness that I felt standing in the corner of an empty mausoleum overcame me and brought me literally to my knees. It crippled me physically and emotionally in a single moment. I felt lost. I suddenly felt like I had no footing. Everything inside me was screaming as it was the day my loved one actually died, and I found myself unable to walk away from that spot. My emotional hands closed tightly, and all I could do was sob. And then I remembered what I believe. I remembered what I know to be true, and slowly I started reconnecting the dots until I could pull myself away physically from that spot. I stood with my hand on the wall and prayed. I stood and talked to my loved one. I knelt and kissed the wall of the tomb in which the remains were sealed, and then I walked out a different door because it was the only way I could make myself leave.
And then something wonderful happened. I got my shorts out of the car and went back into the restroom inside the mausoleum to change out of my suit and into my comfy clothes for traveling back home. I forgot to grab my other shoes, so I had to walk out in my shorts, athletic shirt and black knee high trouser socks.I had taken off my dress heels because I didn’t want to look THAT stupid, but I had to laugh at what I looked like. All I needed was some sandals to complete my “old man” outfit. I started for the exit, but then thought of how much my loved one would have found my appearance to be hysterical, so I turned and ran back into the mausoleum, into the hallway of the unmarked crypt. I waited until the security guard walked away from the area and then leapt around, danced and laughed right there in that hallway. I then whispered out loud, “I knew you’d get a kick out of that so that one is for you! I love you. ” To some, that may seem inappropriate or even ridiculous, but for me, it was a reminder of the difference between holding on and letting go.
Loss of any kind is never easy, whether through death or some other means. It is painful, and we scramble to protect whatever we have left. But loss does not have to cripple us forever, and death is not the end. Yes, it is excruciating at times. It can be debilitating in those moments it hits us so hard we can hardly breathe, let alone function. Grief does not have a timetable, and sometimes it jumps up and grabs us unexpectedly. And when it does, we need to just step back, be still and open our hands instead of closing them into fists. If it hurts, let it hurt. If tears come, let them fall. Whatever it is you feel, just take a breath and be still. Open the hands of your spirit so that you can be touched, instead of grasping tightly to what you cannot contain. Because in the end, the best way we can keep our loved ones with us is to let them go.