Letting Go, This Time For Real

June 26, 2012 at 11:32 am (Death and Dying, Living, Spiritual) (, , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve been away for two weeks and therefore I apologize for not having an update recently. However, while I was away, I was inspired to write down some ideas that will be shaped and formed into the blog post you are about to read.

I have lost people I cared about to death. For a long time, Death avoiding touching my heart directly. I had lost friends-of-friends, or people I had met but not loved, but as time moves forward your chances of losing someone you love to the reality of endings gets incrementally larger until it’s impossible to avoid. You wake up one morning, or awake in the middle of the night, or get a phone call at work, and someone you cared deeply for is no longer conscious on this planet in any functional sense.

During the immediate grieving process, mourners are frequently implored to “keep them (or their memory) alive in your heart”. This is supposed to bring solace by saying that the person is not erased, but that through the act of loving them beyond the veil and telling their stories to future generations we can keep a part of them with us, to comfort us when we’d rather reach out and feel the warmth of their hand or the wisdom of their unique perspective. When we look at the moon and think about his love, or when we eat candy and think about his childlike wonder, a little piece of him sits with us still.

However, there is a time and a place for this. And like everything else in life, there is a time and a place for it to end. There must come the transition from keeping your favorite jeans that bust a seam irreperably to admitting that they are now just tatters and are meant to go back to the soil. There comes a time where our grief is resolved, our lives have moved forward, and to keep someone so prevalent in our thoughts and hearts becomes more of a burden than a comfort. As someone who works with the dead, I have also heard this from them.

There is something beyond this place, they say, but I cannot get there. I am held here by all the people. They speak my name with longing. They call out to me in times of distress. They hold yearly rememberances for me in the same place. I feel as though I cannot leave, that I cannot progress to the next place, the place I am meant to be, because their need is a chain that binds me here.

Let me be clear, here: I am not saying that once someone dies, we should quickly kick dirt on their grave and move on as though something momentous didn’t just happen. We should not take time to speak the names of our beloved dead in a time and space that is appropriate for them. We should make room on our ancestral altars for those who have shaped our lives and made us the people we are. What the dead are telling me is about energy, about the difference between desire and need.

This difference, and learning to discern it, was a unifying theme for me these past two weeks. (Although I was in the same physical location, I was at two events run by two very different organizations with very different foci.) In the context of this entry, desire is good. Desire is an ephemeral thing, a thing of the spirit, of energy. It lets someone (alive or dead) know that their existence matters to another person, that they have made an impact on the world around them. Desire is something that can exist with or without cultivation -that is, I can harbor my desire for an ice cream sandwich for decades without actually having one, and no one will be harmed by my desire. Desire is good for people – it reminds them of that which connects us, and makes being a human a pleasurable thing.

Need is different. Need is not inherently bad, in and of itself; we all need things. However, it’s when desire turns to need – when the ephemeral becomes physical – that it gets complicated. I don’t want anyone in my life to need me, because that implies that if I cannot meet that need (for whatever reason), their quality of life is absolutely dependent on me in some small way. I look at this difference a lot when I ask for help – is it that I just don’t want to do a thing because it is undesirable for me to do so, or am I physically unable to perform said task? There is a world of difference, both in the mere determination of which is which, but also with what one can reasonably expect assistance with over time. But I digress a little.

For some people, the act of “keeping a memory alive” becomes aneed. They feel they cannot move on in life without constantly talking to the person who has passed, even if that person cannot respond. They cannot experience something once shared with them as a solo experience, even in a reclamation sort of way. In the dark, quiet moments of sadness, they call out to the one who has left, and pull them a little closer. Tie them a little harder. Keep them in their hearts in a way that doesn’t allow for growth and change.

I mean, it’s not all that dissimilar from relationships between living peoples. Part of what’s great about the human experience is that it is one of constant change. Today I am afraid of talking to strangers, tonight I talk to a stranger and find it is not a scary thing, and tomorrow I am less afraid. When I look at forming a long term relationship with someone, I do my best to commit to the journey, not the person. The idea is that I like them so much that I’m willing to ride the tides of change with them, to be open to not only little expected changes (they grow older, their boobs sag, they start wearing plaid pants, they want to move to Florida) but the big unexpected ones, too (they want to change genders, they want to reframe the relationship in a different way, they want to change jobs, they want to take on a new lover). I’m in the boat, through smooth sailing and rough waters.

But for me, and for my specific experience of the dead in the last two weeks,  part of committing to that journey is recognizing when that journey has ended, or at least when the part of the journey that includes the other person is over. It is just as sacred to say a final goodbye and release a lover to a life without you, as it is to release the memories of a dead beloved and do your best to fill that void with new and interesting memories of your own.

Here’s the woo section. I promise it will be short. I spoke to some dead people in the last two weeks. And this is the lesson they wanted me to learn. That desire and need are different, and have different physical manifestations on the other side of the veil. That journeys end, and that’s okay, and sometimes letting go and moving on is the right thing to do, even with your beloved dead. That holding too tightly to someone means that they feel they cannot fully bloom and blossom, and when desire becomes need that need can sometimes strangle and kill.

I challenge you to think about your beloved dead, those recently passed and those who died decades ago. Make a list of them. Include celebrities whose lives and/or art shaped you in formative ways. Find out if teachers who were foundational to your development are alive or dead, and if they have passed add them to your list. Create a space in your life (an altar, a painting/sculpture, a story or collection of stories, an act [like fixing a car or smoking a cigarette]) and do it for your dead. But don’t do it every day. Don’t do it to fill the holes in your living life. Do it when it is appropriate – maybe on their birthdays, or on Samhain (look it up)  or even on New Year’s Day.

But when that is over, move on. The best thing you can do for your dead is to set them free. Then they can make the choice to come to you when they feel they can, rather because they are forced to. They can teach you valuable lessons when they are free to be themselves, when they can move on to this place “beyond” that they keep telling me about. It isn’t a thing to be done while their bodies are still warm or your grief is still fresh, but it is a thing to be done.



  1. Eric S said,

    Can this apply to more than dead people? The loss of a dream, for instance?

    • Amy said,

      I don’t know what Del’s answer will be, but from my perspective, I think it applies to any loss felt greatly within your soul. If you have nurtured a dream for many years, in a lot of ways it becomes a part of who you are, so when that dream is no longer possible, dead as the colloquialism goes, then yes, it is safe to say that a part of you that gave life to that dream has died and could be mourned.

  2. Wendy Lightheart said,

    So much this. I have on more than one occasion been called callous by my family for this approach to honoring the dead; or at least the current dead that I have lost. I mourn relatively quickly and quitely, light a candle until its gone, and then wish them well on their journey. I spent so, so long watching people grieve and firmly hold on to their dead and their grief in very old world Italian ways both in my family and in the funeral home. I understand the desire to want to hold someone close, but I gotta say, I feel better knowing my loved ones are moving on.

    Such a timely post. Several people in and around my world have passed away in the past few weeks.

  3. Amy said,

    There are so many people I wish I could give this message to. I’ve seen so much death in my life the last 15 years that on an instinctive level, unable to really verbalize it properly, I’ve known this all along. Even on a non-woo level, eventually you have to move on, or the grief will kill you – either physically when your grief manifests as physical symptoms, or spiritually when you become dead inside for being unable to let the dead be dead.

    The closer you are to the person, the more entwined your lives, the longer it takes to let go completely, and every single person does it in their own time. But I would also add, that once you have truly let them go and you are no longer in what I tend to call “active mourning”, I’m also learning that there is a fine balance in some cases that needs to be maintained once you’ve moved into passive mourning, otherwise you risk stuffing your feelings of loss into the rest of your emotional baggage.

  4. Renee said,

    Thank you.

  5. Divine Twin Diversions said,

    A terrific post and full of good information. Thank you so much for posting it.

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