Letting Go

In February of 2011, I began a series on the topic of alchemy, the medieval science and philosophy used metaphorically by depth psychologists to explain the intentions of the psyche. I most recently wrote about dissolution, the corrosive process whereby what is unnecessary to the work is systematically dissolved away. The application of the effects of this alchemical stage to our own experiences in life is straightforward: Whenever we experience a significant loss or change, additional changes accompany the larger loss like ladies’ maids.

Separation

Life changes, and what is no longer necessary or supportive to a new way of life must be sundered. One change begets another, a process the alchemists called separation. In City of God, Saint Augustine wrote that bereavement and calamity are fuels for the fire that burns away all that is not essential. The deaths of my daughter and husband, for example, caused other losses and changes in my life. One of the most obvious immediate changes following a death are those that arise from dealing with your loved one’s things, so changes to my physical environment had to be worked through. The size and shape of my social networks changed, too. Relationships that had once been of importance were corroded by the impact of my losses, and over time came to be less important. Other relationships grew, becoming more influential.

When large changes occur in our lives, the habit patterns we’ve built around the person, place, or circumstances that have changed must, of necessity, change. Creatures of habit, we are anchored in days, weeks, and months that go by with dependability because of them. When the basis of one or more habits decays or disappears, though, we discover we don’t know who we are any more. The widow, so accustomed to her role as a wife, is left standing alone, clothed with the tattered habits that served her only when her husband was alive. The father and husband whose wife leaves with the children finds himself suddenly a bachelor again, clueless about how to handle a life in which he sees his own children only by schedule. Elderly suburban householders sell the home in which they raised their children and move to a condo or retirement community, then feel like exiles in their own lives. All these are examples of what occurs when big changes beget numerous offspring that demand to be fed and kept in order. We are as overwhelmed as new parents, for the squalling demands of this new way of life keep us up nights.

You Can’t Go Home

In his fascinating book, Surviving Survival: the Art and Science of Resilience, Laurence Gonzalez writes that

The bigger the trauma, the more dramatic the requirement for change. In many cases, the necessary adaptation is so extreme that an entirely new self emerges from the experience. In most cases, there is no easy return to the old environment. Sometimes you can’t go home at all (p. 5).

We cross ourselves and pray as we drive by a nasty accident on the freeway. We take a casserole, and write a sympathy card to the bereaved co-worker. We listen sympathetically to the friend whose husband just cheated on her and left with a younger woman. We murmur our distress when a colleague discloses that his business partner embezzled money and left him bankrupt. But most observed losses don’t have much impact for long, because the life-changing impact of loss and dissolution belongs to the person experiencing it. Until we’ve experienced first-hand what it means to be rendered psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, or physically homeless, we don’t understand. Perhaps this is why Solomon wrote that “the heart knows its own bitterness; and a stranger does not share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10).

The past two years since my husband’s death have been impossibly painful. One of my sons remarked afterward on my utter brokenness. This brokenness is what the medieval alchemist would call a dissolution, the second stage in the alchemical process. Following on the heels of dissolution is separation, a sifting and filtering of what elements remain after a great sundering. One is already broken and divided, but more cutting and separation remain to be done. We know this truth instinctively, for it’s integrated into our everyday language. After a great change, we “re-group.” When dissolved by crisis, we try to “get our acts together.” Trauma that upsets daily or even life-long routines makes us “scatter-brained.” We strive to “come to our senses” after feeling we’ve “lost our minds.”

To come to our senses and get our acts together means to recognize what belongs, and what does not. One moves to a new home, and finds that the old furniture doesn’t fit, so out it goes. Larger losses require larger realizations about what fits, and what has to be left behind. Even when we want to waste energy and time on what no longer fits, it’s impossible to continue with hands full of broken bits that can’t be fitted back together, and are of no further use. To attempt to carry what is irreparably broken is to prolong suffering that is unnecessary. Separation gently but firmly urges us to let go.

Letting Go

Others want us to get on with our lives after a great loss. To get on with our lives means to integrate our losses and the changes they require. We can’t fully integrate a loss without also separating out what rightly belonged to the way of life associated with the lost person, job, home, era, or circumstance. Put another way, we can’t keep wearing our mini-skirts into our 60s—right, ladies?

Separation allows us to let go of ideals, attitudes, and habits that no longer fit. To find peace is to find the place where nothing remains that is not essential. We are then “redeemed from the constant effort to achieve something in the wrong direction” (von Franz, 257).

References

Gonzalez, Laurence. (2012). Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

von Franz, Marie-Louise. (1980). Alchemy. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

My Alchemy Series

  1. Tending of the Flame
  2. The Affliction of the Soul
  3. From the Darkness
  4. Doing the Work
  5. The Hidden Seed
  6. Slime of the Small World
  7. Hour of Lead
  8. Things Fall Apart

9 responses

  1. Losing a parent doesn’t have to be “devastating”. My father died when he was almost 80. I miss him, and wish he could see how his grandchildren have grown. But he died as he wanted, at home and without suffering.

    Was I devastated when he died?- No. Sad, yes. We can’t hold on to everyone forever.

  2. My mum died yesterday Eve. She was an elderly woman who was in chronic mental and physical pain. She was also a tough old bird. As I was going to bed last night, I thought, I must call her and check on her and then remembered, she’s dead. I’m okay and then I’m crying and then I’m okay. It will get better I know. It’s just so strange that I come here this morning to read your post. Thank you Eve and I hope life is getting better? Except that’s not really what I mean. Sending hugs.

    • Deb, I’m so very sorry for your loss. There really aren’t enough words to convey my sympathies. It’s a long road ahead, but especially without a mum.

      Life is life. It’s both good and bad, better and worse. I bring it all here, eventually, and the word is healing. Hugs back to you, my friend. You’re in my thoughts and prayers.

  3. I agree with Sensitivestorm about your ability to “eloquently piece together the things I think but cannot conceptualize”. What I find most difficult in the process of letting go is time. I find myself mentally deciding how much time letting go “should” take and even though i know this is wrong, the expectations are deeply ingrained. Not only towards myself, but towards others (such as my boyfriend, who is still having moments in which he mourns the loss of the structure of his ex-family as he knew it and was so used to — his wife left him and even though he is happy with his present situation, it is still hard at times). I find, over and over again, that I have to let go of the impatience and expectations.

    Thank you for this piece and I admire your patience and willingness to share your pain and lessons with others.

    • Michele, what you wrote about time is so true. I find in myself an impatience to get on with things, as if I am the one doing the “getting on.” A useful concept that came to me a year or so ago was that a process (such as grief, or letting go) “does” us as much as we do it. Though we’re not exactly victims of a process, we’re not entirely in the driver’s seat, either. To imagine we are is like the ego thinking it’s in charge of the whole person–or it IS the whole person. The Self, in truth, is doing the “selving.”

      My priest told me once that his observation of how people grieve is that there’s a timing to it that’s beyond the control of the bereaved. One person suddenly walks out into the light, as if from a tomb; another gradually crawls out. Some wobble and teeter out. Some don’t come out.

      I think any process is much the same, and dependent on who we are, our experiences, temperament, etc. It’s so individual. Thus, when I move into a new home, often a joyous occasion, there’s still going to be a sort of letting go of the past. If my old place was gloomy and I hated it, and the new place is dreamy, it will take time for me to let go of the parts of myself that grew accustomed to living in the gloom. Hopefully the gratitude I feel over the blessings of newness is something I cultivate.

      In the book I mentioned by Laurence Gonzalez, he reports that most trauma survivors turn the corner after about two years. I think this is a good, if rough, measure of how grief works. The trauma of the loss is great, and we go reeling for a few years. After the trauma begins to subside and we don’t have as many PTSD type reactions to new psychological wounds or the hint of them, then we grieve in new ways. The mourning process can be as long as 3-7 years, but generally one is able to have some kind of perspective, if only a sad one, after at least two years (speaking of timetables). Then, after the trauma reactions begin to subside, there is just the grief. There will probably always be a wound there, particularly if it’s kept fresh because your boyfriend had children with his ex. In that case, I highly recommend you read Wednesday Martin’s book, “Stepmonster.” It’s fabulous.

      Good journeys to you, Michele.

  4. Synchronicity. I love it. I’ve been thinking about this very topic (letting go) for two weeks now.

    An old piece of clothing that one suddenly becomes conscious of. It was worn for good reason once, perhaps I needed the warmth of it’s protection. Now, suddenly, it has become restrictive in some way, too tight, too warm, and it no longer serves the purpose it once did. It has to be taken off.

    With big changes in my life, and now a major shift in living overseas for some time, I have been brought to address old habits that no longer serve me, that are actually damaging to my creative process. But fear is a powerful enforcer of restrictions. I am surprised, shocked and excited by the surreptitious power it has over me, like there is a stranger living within, controlling my decisions without my awareness, and I have been feeding him with my anger and fear.

    Eve, your last quote from von Franz is exactly the point, isn’t it? To recoup the wasted energy and redirect it to our new growth. Wonderful.

    • Irene, how I know fear as an enforcer! It messes with my creative process all the time! Daily accusing me, then whispering and insinuating. It’s so golem-esque. (We’ve been re-watching the Lord of the Rings series around here). The writer in me greets the artist in you, my friend. I admire so much that you’ve kept on with your art, in spite of your fear. I expect to do the same as a writer, returning to my first love, so to speak–but, oh, it’s difficult!

  5. Such beautiful words. My father also died 2 years ago and the journey has been painful and enlightening. Mostly painful. Dreams are difficult to deal with and spur a release of emotion when they arise. I appreciate how
    eloquently you piece together the things I think but cannot conceptualize. Grief is fascinating and somehow it feels like a rite of passage to have say I’ve experienced it…and have somehow managed to make it through.

    • I’m so sorry for your loss. My parents are still living, so losing a parent is something I have yet to experience. I dread it, because my observation of all who lose a parent is that it’s devastating in yet another way than losing a child or a spouse. One is orphaned in a way that isn’t experienced another way, and it’s just so final. The death of a parent catapults a person into being the “next in line,” even if you’re young. My children’s grief has felt more devastating to me than my own, sometimes, because of what I can see it’s done, being rendered fatherless. You have my deepest sympathies.

      You mentioned dreams. I recently read that dreams are healing by making new pathways in the brain where trauma has laid a person low, so to speak. This was in the Gonzalez book I mentioned above. So many can’t sleep after the death of a loved one; then they take medication and can’t dream. Dreaming can heal us if we can sleep; Carl Jung had that right and didn’t even know how right he had it.

      Anyway, if you can draw your dreams or conceptualize them a bit by showing them to yourself in waking moments (drawing or painting them, recording them, bringing up the images and sticking to them, etc.) perhaps you’ll sometime find a treasure that’s buried in that darkness. I hope so.

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