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Grief - Letting Go of What We Cannot Keep

When we lose something we care about, whether it be a pet, a job opportunity, a relationship or the life of someone we loved, we experience grief – an emotional reaction to our loss – in some way.

In his book Beyond Boundaries, Dr John Townsend says that ‘grief is letting go of what you cannot keep’. Throughout life, we may grieve a loss that we expected, one that we caused by our own choices, one that occurred through the fault of another, or one that came suddenly. Either way, as Dr Townsend says, ‘grief is what enables you to fully let go. It frees you, it clears your mind, and it helps heal the injuries’.

Some people delay grief because they are afraid that if they do let go, it is saying that what they lost wasn’t important, or that it will simply be forgotten. In fact, grief suggests the opposite. It is admitting to ourselves and the world that what we lost was so important that our lives will have to change to cope without it. Others fight grief because they are afraid of who they will become if they accept the loss, or worry that the emotional suffering might overwhelm them and/or render them powerless. Still others may not want to let go because someone else caused the loss and they don’t want them to get away with it. But in any case, without grief, ‘the wound never becomes a memory’ (Townsend, 2011, p. 91).

Grief takes time. Just because we lose something doesn’t mean we automatically lose our love for it. An attachment cannot be instantly undone, and those who say ‘it didn’t matter anyway’ are usually lying because they don’t know what to do with the longing they now have.

The Kubler-Ross model suggests that we actually go through five stages of grief: denial (refusing to believe that it has or is happening), anger (feeling that the loss is unfair and becoming angry with the situation, with others and with themselves), bargaining (wanting to do anything to avoid the worst), depression (feeling helpless and disconnected with others) and acceptance (realising that life can go on without what was lost). This model is useful in that it helps us realise that no matter what stage we are on, our feelings are normal and the process will eventually become easier.

People deal with grief in different ways. Some refuse to talk about it; others can’t stop crying. It may totally consume our thoughts and conversations, or shock may override all emotions at first. But as the saying goes, ‘grief denied is grief delayed’. Eventually we have to face what we lost and let ourselves experience the emotions that come with that. This may mean validating our own feelings, e.g. ‘it wasn’t fair’, ‘I made a mistake’, ‘I never wanted it to end that way’, while also accepting our helplessness to change the situation. ‘If onlys’ can compound the grief when in reality, after most losses there is little we can change. While we may feel guilty for the things we wished we had have said and done, at some point we also need to forgive ourselves and anyone else who may have been a part of it.

While it is always sad, even hurtful, to lose something or someone that we loved, it is also a loss to stop enjoying our lives. It will take time, but by being prepared to work through the tough emotions, to seek support from those who understand the impact of the loss, and letting go of the things we can’t change, we can soon come to think about who or what we lost without the weight of sadness.