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Letting Go of Disappointments and Painful Losses
By Pam Vredevelt
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 2001 Pam Vredevelt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRelax and Receive
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Try a little exercise with me. I'd like you to clench your fist into a ball, squeeze as hard as you possibly can, and count to ten. Study your hand as you do so.
Ready? Go. S-q-u-e-e-e-e-z-e.
Okay, now relax. How did your fist feel, gripping so tightly? What did it look like? Can you describe the sensations you felt? How did it feel to release your grip and open your hand after you counted to ten?
When your hand was clenched, it was uncomfortable, wasn't it? Tense. Bloodless. Unable to move freely. Not only that, but it wasn't able to do what it was designed to do. Your hand was closed, unable to receive. But when you let go and opened your hand, you could feel the blood returning to your fingers, couldn't you? Your hand became warm again. It relaxed, the discomfort left, and you felt relief. Your fingers moved naturally, and your hand was in a much better position to receive.
There are similarities between our physical bodies and our psyches. When we go through life grasping, clinging, clutching, and desperately trying to hang on to things that should naturally be released, we ache. We get tied up in knots. We become emotionally constricted and locked up in pain. We lose freedom of movement in our lives andfeel paralyzed.
None of us enjoys loss. The world teaches us to avoid it at all costs. We don't like to let go of something we treasure, love, value, or simply own. When we are forced to let go of something, it usually ends up with claw marks all over it.
Billy Graham tells a story about a small boy caught playing with an extremely valuable vase. The little guy had put his hand into the vase but couldn't take it out. His father tried his best to help him, but all his efforts were in vain.
They were thinking gloomily of breaking the beautiful vase when the father sighed and said, "Now, son, try one more time. Open your hand and hold your fingers out straight as you see me doing, and then pull."
To his dad's astonishment the little fellow said, "Oh no, Father. I couldn't put my fingers out like that. If I did, I'd drop my penny!"
Smile if you will, but truth be told, you and I are a lot like that little boy-so busy holding on to what we should be letting go of that we cannot accept freedom.
When Carl came to see me, his wife had just told him that she had found a lover and no longer wanted to be married. Looking at the floor and shaking his head in utter disbelief, he said, "I know I have my faults, but divorce? I just never thought it would come to this." As far as his wife was concerned, the relationship was over, and Carl wanted help in adjusting to the many losses that accompanied the divorce. At sixty-four, he thought that starting over was an impossible task.
During the months that followed, Carl and Nancy divided their assets, signed papers, and committed to parting amicably. Carl moved out, purchased another home, and tried to begin a new life. After the divorce was finalized, he dated off and on but continued to call Nancy on a regular basis. Whenever he came into my office after seeing her, Carl was in a downward spiral. Hanging on was killing him. Choosing my words carefully, I commented on the obvious pattern, but severing the connection was not his solution of choice.
Then, on the night of his sixty-fifth birthday, an interesting turn of events seemed to propel Carl forward in his healing. He invited a group of friends, including Nancy, over for dessert. After everyone else left, he and Nancy spent some quiet moments alone, reminiscing about old times. That night Carl went to bed feeling rather morose, and he had a series of distressing dreams with a repetitive theme. "In each dream I was lost," he said, "trying to find my way, unsuccessfully groping in the darkness for something to hang on to. I kept banging into things and getting hurt."
The following morning, Carl worked on some projects in his garage for a couple of hours. Shaking his head in exasperation, he said, "I was all fingers. It was as if everything I reached for was just beyond my grasp. I'd go to pick up a tool, miss it by an inch, and slam my hand into something else." The red marks on his knuckles told the story.
Carl was insightful, and I wondered aloud if he saw the thread woven throughout the incidents he had just described. He pondered the question, but nothing seemed to surface.
I offered a suggestion: "Could those dreams and your experience in the garage the next morning be expressions of the conflict you feel from trying to hang on to Nancy?"
Light dawned. After a few moments of quiet thought, he looked at me and said, "Yes. I believe that about hits the nail on the head."
The session ended shortly thereafter, and a month later Carl scheduled another appointment with me. This time he looked rested and stood an inch taller. I sensed his grief, but I also detected less agitation and a more forward focus. I commented on this and asked if he could identify what had made the difference.
He said, "I've quit grasping."
An infant is born with a clenched fist, but an old man dies with an open hand. Life has a way of prying loose our grasp on all that seems so important.
If we want to move successfully from one season of life to the next, at times we will have to release our grip on things past. And when we do, we must expect at first to experience intense and complex emotions. As endings, empty spaces, rifts, separations, and little deaths come our way, so do feelings of grief. When we are grieving such losses, it helps to know that God has good counsel for us. He hasn't left us hanging. Solomon penned these lovely lines, which are so much more than poetry:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.... [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 11
God has made everything beautiful in its time. Even the empty spaces. Even the holes. I admit that it's a hard concept for me to believe when I'm frantically grasping the last few strands of whatever is trying to escape my clutches. The pain involved in letting go doesn't feel "beautiful" to me; it feels downright miserable.
Yet in God's economy, new life springs forth from death. Jesus tried to help His followers understand this. His disciples had seen His triumphs. They had witnessed His miracles and experienced His power in their midst. They thought He was going to establish His kingdom on earth. Then one afternoon Jesus sat down on a hillside and told them that the time had come for Him to be glorified, but not in the manner in which they expected. Instead, it was to be by His death. And with tenderness and feeling, Jesus comforted them with an illustration:
"The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal.
"Right now I am storm-tossed. And what am I going to say? 'Father, get me out of this?' No, this is why I came in the first place. I'll say, 'Father, put your glory on display.'" John 12:23-25, 27-28, The Message, emphasis mine
Jesus bids us turn our eyes on the fields and observe the mature grain ready for harvest. He explains the process: no loss, no gain; no death, no new life. For Christ the analogy was very personal: His death was to become the gateway to life. Without His death, there would be no resurrection-for any of us.
The message is for you and me as well. It's a message of hope when life steals from us and leaves us with empty arms. It's a message of strength when we've been stripped bare and feel as though we're facing the future empty-handed. It's a message of substance that can fill the holes in our soul with a promise. God says to us:
When you are letting go, remember that I am planting seeds of new life in you. Your grief is only for a season. My end is not death. It is always life. I am the author of life.
These are the promises we have to hang on to when we are doing the hard work of letting go. Did you catch that? Letting go is hard work. It is often very bewildering. To break away from someone or something we have been bonded to rips at our emotions. It goes against our natural instincts. The parting cannot happen without inward bleeding. The greater the bond, the greater the pain.
Our head and our heart are usually in conflict. Our head says, I need to do this for my own good. I need to let go because it's right. I need to let go because God is telling me to let go. I need to let go for the sake of my kids or my spouse or my friendship or my own growth and development. But our heart says, Oh, no you don't! It hurts too much. I can't do it. I won't do it! Our logic and our emotions war with each other.
But there are some things we can do to cooperate with God in the process of letting go. We can take certain steps to help us move down life's path with a sense of curiosity and adventure, minus the claw marks. In the next chapter we will look at some of these steps.
God does not leave us comfortless, but we have to be in dire need of comfort to know the truth of His promise. It is in time of calamity ... in days and nights of sorrow and trouble that the presence, the sufficiency, and the sympathy of God grow very sure and very wonderful. Then we find out that the grace of God is sufficient for all our needs, for every problem, and for every difficulty, for every broken heart, and for every human sorrow.
Chapter TwoRecognize that what Is, Is
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LETTING GO IS A PROCESS, NOT AN INSTANTANEOUS EVENT. It starts with an awareness of a difficult reality, and as our awareness increases, so does our pain. I once saw a poster that described the process perfectly. It was a cartoon of a woman whose head and arms were being squeezed through the wringers of an old washing machine. Beneath her anguished face the caption read, "The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable."
Facing the truth can be very difficult. Like surgery, acknowledging our disappointments and losses may hurt, but it can help move us toward wholeness. If we deny, block, stuff, or numb the pain, we end up camping out in our grief and never progressing beyond it. We cut ourselves off from the treasures God has hidden for us in the empty spaces, and we lock ourselves up emotionally.
As a counselor, I see this regularly in people like you and me. I'm talking about typical, get-up-in-the-morning-and-go-to-work, raise-the-kids kinds of people. Moms who help with PTA. Dads who coach Little League. Brothers. Sisters. Aunts. Uncles. Folks who seem normal on the outside but who are locked up on the inside.
Among them was Lori, a forty-six-year-old woman who told me about Matthew, the baby she had lost fourteen years earlier in stillbirth. "It's over," her family told her. "Forget it. Don't talk about it. We have to move on." And that's exactly what she did. She moved on, stayed busy, got involved in things, and kept her mind occupied. But Lori didn't move on emotionally. Her heart was tightly wedged in an incident long past. She was frozen in time, arrested in grief.
Matthew's name hadn't been mentioned since the day Lori left the hospital. There was no funeral, no memorial, no pictures, no discussion. Lori and her family treated the incident as if it had never happened. Cards sent by friends were burned unopened. The family thought that erasing the evidence would erase the pain.
But it didn't. It couldn't.
So now there were fourteen years of stockpiled pain. This was the way Lori handled other losses too. No wonder she was depressed. No wonder she felt as if she were about to burst. The human heart was never designed to bury feelings alive.
When Lori came to see me, she found the courage to recognize and face reality for the first time in fourteen years. Behind closed doors she gave herself permission to recognize her loss and talk about it-an important step in her healing. The denial was broken, and so was the power of the pain.
There is no power or earth more formidable than the truth.
Margaret Lee Runbeck
Then there was Marissa, who was skilled at keeping secrets-not because she wanted to, but because it was how she had learned to survive. Her father had sexually abused her from the time she was a little girl, and she didn't dare tell anyone. If she did, her father said, he would put her in jail and kill her mother. Little girls believe their big, strong daddies. In Marissa's innocent mind, there were no options. She had to be a good little girl. And part of being good was keeping the secret.
But the terrible secret, buried for so many years and landscaped with neat shrubbery and little flowers, became like a hidden toxic-waste dump. The poison seeped into the very soil of her life, gradually numbing and warping her soul, even the good parts. I saw evidence of the hidden toxins in her words:
"I want to enjoy my husband and kids, but I have no feelings." "It's as if I'm numb. Flat. I can't tell the difference between happy and sad." "Nothing matters to me, even though I want it to matter." "I used to be passionate and sensitive. I used to care. It's not like me not to care."
Again, we weren't built to bury our feelings alive. We weren't designed to deny our pain or to live by a "no talking" rule. The mind has limitations built into its defense system. If we block the bad, we also block the good. The result?
No sorrow ... but no joy either. No heartache ... but no passion for life. No grief ... but no capacity for laughter. It all gets locked up together.
The good news is that there are keys to unlocking our pain, and they are right in our pocket. The first key is to recognize that what is, is. It is the essence of being brutally honest with ourselves and looking our painful truths in the face.
Openness is to wholeness as secrets are to sickness.
Sarah is a wonderful example of someone who courageously acknowledged her losses and let them go. Sarah came to our sessions impeccably dressed in the latest vogue, her makeup applied to perfection. But the eyes that stared at me were as cold and hard as chiseled marble. Sarah had struggled with an eating disorder for nearly twenty years, and she was one of the most bitter and controlling people I had ever worked with.
As we talked, I expected to uncover the source of Sarah's bitterness. But the account of her childhood was rather typical and uneventful. No great traumas. No major heartbreaks. Her parents had a good marriage, and she spoke of a close relationship with both them and her two brothers. She butted heads with the boys now and then, as most kids do in the healthiest of families, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Besides being blessed with parents who loved each other, she had the support of grandparents who lived next door. Her grandmother was like a second mom and confidante, especially during Sarah's teen years.
Excerpted from Letting Go of Disappointments and Painful Losses by Pam Vredevelt Copyright © 2001 by Pam Vredevelt
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.