Wow, “letting go” is such a heavy topic, particularly at this time of year when we head straight into the joy of the holiday season. I need to go out and buy Halloween candy, I’m trying to figure out which side of the family will be here with us for Thanksgiving and I just had my vacation days for Christmas week approved at work. I want to think about sharing my great-niece’s first Christmas. I want to think about what we’ll do for my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary, which is coming up on Christmas Eve. I want to think about drawing family close to me and showing them how much I appreciate them. So no, I do not want to think about loss, letting go, the steps of the grieving process or anything of that ilk.
And that, of course, is how it happens. Back in the Eocene era, when I was in high school, we used to say that life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans. I have found that death happens that way, too.
About the scariest thing that can happen to us (aside from earthquakes, now that I live in southern California and have had a taste) is receiving that phone call in the middle of the night. It happened to us in February of this year. It was about 3 a.m. and I thought I felt my wife’s cell phone vibrate. I didn’t want to wake her up, so I turned over and tried to go back to sleep. That’s when my own cell phone went off. And then we had to run about like crazed chickens, throwing clothes into suitcases, making more phone calls and trying to decide who would do the crying and who would do the driving for the eleven- hour trip to my wife’s family in northern California.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some handy dandy, magic words we could use to comfort someone close to us who is in so much pain in their time of loss? We get Psalm 23’d to death and nothing seems to help. After all, your mother and father do not teach you how to do this while you are growing up. Nor is it taught in high school. A part of our “adult education” is when we discover that being there for support is all you can really do. Hug everyone, sit down and eat Aunt Mathilda’s casserole. Find a kid to entertain. Offer to make a pot of coffee. Don’t answer that text from work.
As bad as the days immediately following a loss are, still harder is saying and doing the right things after that, when the wife, become a widow, has to deal with an empty house, when the parents can’t bear to walk by the bedroom of their departed daughter or son, when the vacant chair is matched only by the vacant hole in our hearts.
I think about all the ways this scenario has played out in my own family, as well as what we may be facing in the next few years as our loved ones, reaching their seventies and eighties, seem to age before our eyes. There was one who collapsed in the bathroom while visiting friends. Another who was found by neighbors who had not heard from him in a few days. Another who fell and broke her hip when no one else was home and never recovered. Some met their ends in hospitals, others in nursing homes. Some were taken from us suddenly, some were taken in their sleep, some were taken by ambulance, screaming siren piercing the night. Others endured a slow decline.
Aside from letting go of those who have passed on and helping others to do the same, there is also the matter of helping others to let go of themselves when “quality of life” wanes. The biologists will tell you that clinging tightly to life, even in extremis, is a matter of instinct. The medicos say there isn’t much they can do other than to keep him as comfortable as possible. It becomes harder and harder to drag ourselves to the nursing home or hospice. That’s not the person we know and love. That’s an empty shell. There seems to be no connection between the good memories we have and the fourth floor, north wing, room 258, bed 2. “Sometimes I just wish the Lord would take her,” I hear. I try not to show that I am horrified, instead putting myself in their shoes for a minute. What if it were my own parent? Don’t be so quick to judge. Think of those who can never seem to let go, who leave everything in the house just as it was for decades. Perhaps it is healthy, not horrible, that she is ready to let her loved one go.
But what of the patient in the aforementioned bed 2? We may be ready to let go of her, but is she ready to let go of us? I have heard over and over again of family members standing over hospital beds, holding a loved one’s hand and saying “It’s okay to let go.”
The cynical part of me thinks there is something very wrong with this. Let me be that person in the hospital bed for a moment. Did I ask for your permission? Did I raise my hand and say “Mother, may I?” I’ll go when I’m good and ready, thank you, or when the Lord sees fit to take me.
Whoa! Now I’m told that I’m being insensitive. Some say that giving a family member nearing the end “permission” to let go is an act of love. Perhaps it is. (Warning: Get ready for me to be even more insensitive.) But I wonder how I would feel about it if I were the one in that bed. Relieved? Maybe, if I felt that I had to hang on to the bitter end because my spouse or children needed me. But could it be that the family would simply find it more convenient to achieve some “closure?” (I hate that word). After all, he’s never going to get better and this is costing a fortune (that I could be inheriting). Why should he continue to be in pain for nothing? (I feel bad. When he’s gone, I’ll say “at least he’s not in pain anymore.”) I wouldn’t want to go on living like that. (I’m tired of getting calls from doctors and running back and forth to the hospital when I have a full-time job and a family to take care of.)
Now that I’ve offended everyone, think about the fact that helping someone to let go is intimately tied up with our own ability to let go of that person. Indeed, those who are preparing to exit this world often find themselves in the role of the comforter rather than comforted. It is not unusual for them to try to assuage the hurt of those who are about to be left behind. Being a fan of country music, I think of the lyrics of the Patty Loveless song from the ‘90s, “How Can I Help You to Say Goodbye?”
Sitting with Mama alone in her bedroom
She opened her eyes and then squeezed my hand
She said “I have to go now, my time here is over”
And with her final word she tried to help me understand
Mama whispered softly “Time will ease your pain,
Life’s about changing, nothing ever stays the same.
How can I help you to say goodbye?
It’s okay to hurt and it’s okay to cry
Come, let me hold you and I will try
How can I help you to say goodbye?”
In this day and age, however, much of the “letting go” that we find ourselves faced with has nothing to do with the death of a person. Often, it’s the death of a relationship. Divorce is so common that no one gives it a second thought anymore. Well, since I started working in the court system, I guess I do. At least on family law day when the judge stands out in the hall to talk to the children and all of them are crying because they can’t go live with their drug addict mother. It’s strange how I can watch the most badass criminals march into court in shackles for felony sentencing and not flinch. But the kids, man, they get me every time.
Letting go in the face of divorce is a tough one. At least when a family member dies, we are not offended; we know he didn’t do this to hurt us and that he would have lived on if he could have (suicide being a notable exception). Sure, there are times when divorce is a mutually desirable parting of ways, but it seems that most often it is the result of one party behaving badly. And that party is usually (but not always) the man. There are the beaters and the cheaters. One woman is shocked when her husband comes home from a business trip and announces that he doesn’t want to be married anymore. Another woman has finally had enough of the verbal, emotional and physical abuse she may have been suffering for years. However the story goes, the formerly married parties have to make new lives for themselves. The woman usually ends up with (I almost wrote “gets stuck with,” but that’s my own prejudice) the children and the result is often dire poverty. Letting go is a difficult proposition indeed when juggling a combination of done-me-wrong rage and too much month at the end of the money. So let’s make it even harder. Let’s add joint custody or visitation arrangements to the mix so that you have to see “that man” when he picks up and drops off the kids every other week. I am reminded of the scene in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire where Robin Williams is trying to feed his kids take-out Chinese food when his ex-wife shows up early to pick them up. The bile in the bickering is enough to make one vomit. I suppose there is no real letting go until the kids turn 18, at least not if there is visitation and child support involved.
There is another type of letting go that does not involve the severing of families, at least not directly. In the current economy, there are those who find themselves laid off from their jobs after working for the same company for 20 years or more. Even if it hasn’t been that long, losing one’s job often results in a loss of identity as well as of income. If I’m not a (fill in the blank) anymore, what am I? With the speedup of globalization in the past fifteen years, if your job takes off for China, India or Mexico, well it ain’t comin’ back, son. Oh, and unless you live in New York or Los Angeles, good luck finding another job in your field nearby. You may have to move hundreds or thousands of miles away, or, if family or financial considerations preclude a move, you may be out of work for a long time and then find that you have to reinvent yourself entirely if you ever hope to be employed again. Meanwhile, you may harbor anger at your former employer, anger at the economy, anger at your helplessness to support your family or even yourself. We know of one divorced mother and her three kids who recently lost their home and are now living out of their car rather than move and force the children to change schools. What would that be, letting go of one’s lifestyle? Turning in your membership card in the middle class and embracing homelessness? Some things I cannot come up with the right words to describe.
There are, of course, some lifestyles that we are much better off letting go of. I am thinking of illegal drugs, hateful substances that kill our children and have become such a scourge in my hometown. I want to take a big pair of clippers and cut down all those pairs of sneakers hanging from the power lines. And what do you say, can we start a big bonfire and burn all the methamphetamine in the world? Well, I can dream, and yes, Lord, I pray to You on this one, because it is going to take a lot more than my pair of clippers to cut us loose from the destructive habits that have been allowed to encroach on our society. But we are human, now aren’t we? The flesh is willing but the spirit is weak. Those caught in the web of drugs seem to have an awfully hard time letting go even when they commit themselves to regaining clean lives. No struggle with evil is ever easy. It really is true when we say that old habits “die” hard, as a little piece of us does die when we let go of modes of daily living that have helped to define our lives. Whether it’s giving up smoking, climbing on the wagon with friends of Bill W. or breaking ties with habits unrelated to substance abuse (such as committing ourselves to avoiding gossip or to speaking more kindly to our families), letting go of something to which we are used to clinging represents a sea change in how we view ourselves and how others view us. Habits quickly become crutches that at first appear helpful, then comfortable, then essential. Letting go means exiting our comfort zones; falling backward and knowing that someone will be right behind to catch us is truly a matter of faith.
Another reason to “let go” is the unnecessary stress that is added to our lives by the pursuit of foolishness. True, foolishness is in the eyes of the beholder, yet, as the Bible points out, we have run after folly and it has profited it us not. We have to keep up with the Joneses, run in the rat race to climb the corporate ladder so we can buy our kids the latest and the greatest instead of spending time with them. We can’t seem to let go of things, mere things, inanimate objects. Things become status symbols and we have increasing difficulty in distinguishing between wants and needs. Back in the 80s, I never put any stock in Reagan’s drivel about Welfare queens driving Cadillacs, but today I encounter very poor people sporting the latest iPhone. We have allowed our possessions, like our jobs, to define who we are. This makes it all the more difficult to let go and pursue instead things that are real, like family and community. In my teenage years, when frozen waffles were increasing in popularity, I used to laugh at a TV commercial in which family fights over the toaster ended with the refrain “Leggo my Eggo!” Even at the breakfast table, family harmony cannot prevail, for we must fight for what is rightfully ours, even down to a lousy frozen waffle.
I have heard it said that everyone lives in his or her own private hell. I believe this thinking reflects our culture of individuality and fails to acknowledge that, at bottom, we are all the same, all God’s children. All of us have basic needs and all of us want to be able to provide for our families. Another thing common to all of us is that every type of bondage can be broken, as difficult as it may seem. I don’t know if I will ever find the inner strength to finally bid adieu to my own bad habits. But I do dream of the day that I let them go like so many balloons and watch them float away into the sky until they fade out of sight among the clouds.