As I continue to explore both the process and psychology of change, I find myself drawn back to the fact that all change involves some element of loss.
Even in welcome change, the former must pass away for the new to emerge. And it is this aspect of relinquishing the past—even a past that we did not like—that seems to most confound us as we make our way through life's major transitions.
Thanks to a very special teacher, I have always considered Earth as a schoolroom and my own life as a unique laboratory in which to both experience and observe the miracle of embodiment on this brilliant and troublesome world. Because of that foundational tenet, when my life turned upside down with the death of my beloved husband, I allowed myself to fully embrace the deep grief of that loss while chronicling my journey from heartbreak to healing.
I have quite literally written to the bottom of the worst thing that ever happened to me.1 And somewhere along the way, that experience became the most important event of my life. One reason for that transformation is what I want to suggest as a key to healing any type of loss.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the loss of a loved one from accident or illness or from the end of an important relationship through divorce. Both represent the death of a present we were living and a future that we had hoped and planned for. The exact emotions involved may be different, but I believe the path to healing is very similar.
We humans are social creatures who attach to each other. When some event takes a loved one from us, the separation is excruciating. We weep and mourn our loss—perhaps for years if can’t find a way through the sorrow, anger, disbelief, or loss of identity that are so much a part of being detached from someone who has become essential to our life.
When we choose to follow grief’s wise lead to the heart of surrender and acceptance of what has happened, we may find great comfort. But it takes time—and that necessary time is what we too often fail to embrace in the midst of pain that seems endless and cruelly random in its ability to unmoor us from all we have held dear.
Coming to an acceptance of the reality of loss is what most people call “letting go” or “moving on.” It is a sign to us and others that some normalcy is returning to the chaotic existence into which we had been thrust. Unfortunately, embracing the finality of such a major life transition is often urged upon those who mourn much sooner than they are able. To our great detriment, we may also do this to ourselves—trying to let go too soon and thereby complicating our grief and prolonging our suffering.
So, how do we move on when a loved one departs? From my own experience, true healing that facilitates the emergence of renewed life may depend more on holding on for a while than it does on immediately trying to let go.
A couple of weeks after my husband, Stephen, died from colon cancer, I began to forget what he looked like. I had never had to conjure a clear image of him because I could just look at him. As long as he was alive, he carried his own image and the essence of his being. But now his absence was so shockinly complete that I was frightened of losing his memory at a time when I desperately needed the feeling of his strength to go on without him.
My solution for creating a sort of visual life raft was to assemble a collage of photos of Stephen as a healthy, vibrant man and of us loving life together. I hung the collage in my dressing area and kept it there until I could call up at will any of those images.
The process took over three years. And then one day I knew the collage could come down because the images not only lived in my mind’s eye, they were indelibly etched on my heart. I had integrated the essence and energy the photos conveyed. I not only remembered them, I contained them.
So, I would like to suggest that “moving on” can more accurately be considered as first moving through the feelings of separation into a new type of union—of holding on until we can assimilate the essence of those we have lost. This is what we mean by “our loved ones living on in our hearts.” That statement is not a metaphor; it is a reality. And that reality is achieved by embracing the altered but ongoing presence of who we have loved as not only possible, but probable.
We hold on until separation lets go of us, preparing us to move into the future by planting us firmly in a present that both transcends and includes the past.2
Continued in How to Move on When Things Change, Part 2
Copyright © 2014 Cheryl Eckl Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Read more about Cheryl Eckl and The LIGHT Process in "The Author Speaks" by the Psychology Today Book Brigade