July 30th through September 8th, 2016. 39 days of summer. About one-tenth of a year. Less than a season, hardly more than a month.
In that time, I lost 7 loved ones. Seven. That is one person every 5 days.
Impermanence is the reality of life, but so much at once felt almost unbearable. I knew I needed space to integrate all of the loss and grief I was feeling. I remembered back to when I worked a 40-hour a week job and we had bereavement leave – you were given 5 paid days of vacation for the loss of a close loved one. As an entrepreneur, the luxury of “paid time off” has been a thing of the past for me for a long, long time.
At first, I tried to push on. I took hours off for the funerals and viewings and then went right back into coaching my clients, performing weddings, and running my businesses. But after the fifth loss, I knew I needed more space. I initiated my “emergency plan,” which every entrepreneur should have, and made the necessary arrangements. My partner graciously agreed to take over my parenting duties, my assistant managed the office, my clients were moved to a date after my return, and I headed off the grid for two days.
I went on retreat. I retreated into myself. My inner compass was telling me: “Laura, you can handle this; but sister, you need some SPACE.” Grieving isn’t something that you just squeeze in between appointments. “I have an opening at 2:30pm, I’ll pencil in grieving.” No.
We need space to be able to process our emotions. We need space to be able to breathe, cry, and come home to our own inner wisdom. There is a place inside of each of us that knows that impermanence is more true than all of the things we pretend are totally solid: our businesses, our marriages, our families, our own life. Businesses fail. Divorce happens. Loved ones die. We die.
Bummer, I know.
But creating the space to simply be with the reality of impermanence serves a very important function: it moves us toward acceptance. It reminds us to be present and grateful. It asks us to let love come and let it fill us and then to let it leave, as mysteriously and magically as it came. As one of my favorite teachers, Pema Chödrön says, “Things are always either coming together or falling apart.”
During contemplation on my retreat the saying returned to my mind, “If you love something, let it go.” I saw the places inside myself that were still holding on to those I loved. What would it really mean to let them go? How does one take on the important task of letting someone you love go?
It begins with realizing the gift that their presence brought to your life, the gift of love, is not a gift given only by them. It is a gift given to you as your divine birthright. A gift that was being delivered to you through them. Every single one of us is worthy and deserving of love. Let us be grateful for the blessing of all of the love in our lives and for the period of time that love came through that person. Let us be grateful that while people die, love does not.
Three Tips For Letting Go (When All You Want To Do is Hold On:
1. Stay Open
I once had an incredibly vivid dream where a vicious dog was about to attack me. My entire body was tight and clenching as the feeling of fear filled every cell. This dog wanted to tear me to shreds. I could feel that my face was about to be mauled, and every part of me wanted to resist in terror. I didn’t want to feel ANY of this. In that moment I heard a clear voice say, “Let the dog eat your face. Surrender.”
It felt unnatural, how could I not try to protect myself? Then the realization hit me like a ton of bricks. I could continue to resist and exist in absolute terror and pain and get my face ripped off, or I could surrender. The voice, ominous but wise, had struck a chord. Some part of me did want to stop fighting and just let the pain happen. In a moment, I exhaled. All my cells released as I faced what I thought was my impending death. The dog knocked me over and pounced on top of me, and just as he was about to indeed eat my face, he stopped. A whistle had blown in the distance and his attention was redirected – then he ran away. It was through my surrender that I was saved.
Sometimes we don’t realize how we are keeping ourselves from moving through grief, and resisting the feels (all of them) is a major way we stay stuck in a state of suffering.
When we are suffering with pain or fear, we shut down. We try to protect our hearts from more pain. It’s natural, but when you stay open and “let the dog eat your face,” you may find that things aren’t as painful as you anticipate them to be. Or they might be, but the pain only lasts a while and then it’s gone. The truth is that the only way out is through. Let all of the feelings come, and they will pass.
2. Adopt this mantra: “I don’t know shit about shit.”
I thought the dog was going to eat my face. I was SURE the dog was going to eat my face. I was wrong. I was sure I would never get over the pain of my cat dying when I was 9. I remember saying to my mother, “Will the pain ever stop?” I sure didn’t think so, and guess what, wrong again. My marriage? That was definitely going to last forever. Nope. The universe has a special way of making us eat our words. It’s a reminder to be humble and to have faith.
Constantly remind yourself, “I don’t know shit about shit.” This mantra can be especially helpful to remember when we are in the process of surrender. We make up so many stories in our mind about the way things are in our lives. When we are dealing with loss, fear, pain, or grief, we don’t realize how many assumptions we have that are actually making it harder on us to let go. It’s much more helpful to take an attitude of humility.
We really don’t know shit about shit. I mean honestly. We think we do, but do we? We think we will be here tomorrow, but do you know that for sure? “This too shall pass” cuts both ways. Surrender to the unknown. Stop trying to manage and control every aspect of your experience – including (and especially) your suffering. The realization that we really don’t know anything for sure can be very liberating. If we don’t know, then we also can’t know how to control, or what would be best. It requires us to shift our mental attitude from solidity to fluidity. That fluidity begins to open the doorway for our next important task: Forgiveness.
Another thing that makes loss of any kind difficult is that we often have conflicted emotions. Relationships are complicated. Anger is a natural stage of grief. It seems crazy to be mad at someone for dying, but guess what? We often are. Then, because we know we “shouldn’t be” angry, we then start a war within ourselves. The best antidote for the pain of loss is the soothing salve of forgiveness. Start with yourself. Forgive yourself for EVERYTHING. Easier said than done, I get it. But we have to start somewhere, and we can’t possibly forgive anyone else until we forgive ourselves. Here’s a place to start: The Ho’O’pono’pono prayer. This is a traditional Hawaiian healing technique that instructs that you repeat the following four phrases to yourself with your hand on your heart. “I am sorry.” “I love you.” “Please forgive me.” “Thank You.” Say it over and over again until you really feel it.
Practice this first for yourself and then with the loved one/situation you need healing with in mind. You will likely need to do this many times. Don’t just rush through it. Intention is everything with this practice. Come to this prayer with the attitude of openness and vulnerability acquired from the first two steps. Then sit back and watch things begin to shift in your heart.
Staying open, remembering that you actually don’t know shit about shit, and forgiving yourself and others will start to do the real work of letting go that must be done in order to heal.
As Igor Stravinsky said:
I am in the present. I cannot know what tomorrow will bring forth. I can know only what the truth is for me today. That is what I am called upon to serve, and I serve it in all lucidity.”
The truth is that death and loss area part of life, not separate from it. This wisdom surrounds us always, but it’s always most salient for me in fall. As you go walking through nature this autumn, pay attention to those dead leaves crunching beneath your feet. Notice how they become part of the forest floor, which feeds the same tree from which they fell. That same tree will become a home for birds this winter, will be reborn next spring, and will shade us next summer before we meet the fall again.
While loss can feel isolating when we are going through it, it is important to remember that loss and impermanence really are an essential part of life. Seasons end. Things come and go. We’re coming together and falling apart. Learning how to be present with these changes, to see them for what they are – part of the beautiful miracle that is life – gives us peace in times of sorrow. Get outside and take a lesson from nature. She doesn’t waste time fretting over what is gone or anticipating what’s to come. She rests in this present moment and when it is the perfect time she knows exactly how to surrender and let go. And so do you.
In the wise words of one of my favorite musicians, Jarah Tree, “We’re letting go, letting God, letting love, letting flow, letting go.”