NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald.  Click here for the original article…

“What does it really mean to ‘let something go’?” via Twitter

Few things define being human more than our ability to love, and form lasting relationships. Yet when loss strikes, it can feel impossible to let go.

Saturday September 10 marked World Suicide Prevention Day and with it came the very painful stories of loss endured those left behind by suicide.

“Letting something go” is the idea that when we’re hurt, or in grief, we should just be able to move on. It’s also true that people often feel stuck and unable to stop hurting about loss or past hurts and injustices.

Being told to “let it go” never helps, yet we’re told that letting things go and moving on is what we “should do”. But how do you let go, and how is it possible to let go of the pain that the avoidable loss of a loved one causes?

The attachment system is arguably the most powerful motivator of human behaviour we possess. Quite apart from all the research on attachment, you only have to look at how many songs have been written about love to see its importance.

Love and attachment by their very nature create holding on. The behaviour of love is to not let go, to seek out, to be with. And any parent who has ever lost, even momentarily, their toddler in a mall can tell you about how quickly and powerfully attachment motivates behaviour.

Letting go then involves dissolving our attachment, to ideas, things, arguments or, most painfully, loved ones.

Many have heard of the idea that there are stages to grief, five to be precise: denial, anger; bargaining; depression; acceptance. I’ve never particularly liked the idea, it may be useful in research, but it suggests that grief is linear, predictable.

It also says that grief comes to a clear and definable end.

When we grieve, we adjust and adjusting causes pain. It requires our mind to become used to a new reality that we don’t want to accept. Although it is true that at various times people in the process of grief can be in denial, feel anger, and sadness they don’t arrive in a ordered set of stages. Sometimes they happen all at the same time.

It’s also true that if we don’t, or can’t, allow ourselves to feel the pain, we don’t adjust, and in doing so we can get stuck. Grief takes time, and letting go is a process, but over time the pain dulls and the length of time between the sharp biting pain of loss gets longer.

But do we ever let go? I don’t know about that.

Ultimately, at least when it comes to grief, we learn to live with the absence. We maintain a relationship with the person that has gone. We might not let go, but we keep going, the best we can.

And although it gets easier I’m not sure some grief ever ends, nor is it meant to.

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