As a clinician and/or caring friend, we want to offer words of wisdom and support to those in bereavement. However, I'm suggesting as an author, speaker, writer, and licensed master's level social worker, to stop telling people to "let go" of their past, their loss, and their sorrow.
In November of 2007, my late husband died as the result of adrenal cancer. I was 33 then, and I spent the following years reading everything I could about grief. It didn't have to be an academic journal or memoir written by a widow, I was curious how people coped with loss. And time and time again, I saw these two words "let go" as words of advice to the bereaved. I tried to follow this advice but it seemed unnatural, like trying to write with your left hand when you favor your right hand.
Learning to live in a healthy relation to loss takes time, tweaking, self-compassion and deep self-discovery, but it is possible. The moment I told myself that there was no need to "let go", I began to rapidly heal. And that is also the moment that my life began on a path of wonder, tenderness and even joy. Nothing short of amazing things began to appear in my life. Most prominent was the writing of my book, "A Widow's Guide to Healing" and the publicity that followed.
Now don't get me wrong, thousands of hours went into my book. The words and interviews with widows and other experts didn't just magically appear. However, I also know that I was able to complete it, garner an interview with Katie Couric and obtain blurbs from Maria Shriver and my now dear friend Dr. Deepak Chopra because I'm able to accept life on life's terms. This is who I am and this is my story. A part of me is what I lost. I would be living an inauthentic life if I glossed over or deleted the chapters of my life that contained grief.
And if the situation were reversed, if my marriage ended because I had died from advanced cancer and not my husband I shudder to think that he would leave me behind both in words and in his heart. I would never expect him to "let go" of me, but I wouldn't want him to fall into a deep sadness either.
I would hope that he would be able to do what I've done in that I carry his presence with me, both literally and figuratively. And at times, I feel my late husband is still very much with me. I felt him on my trip to Kenya when I learned from widows how they survived on less than a dollar a day. And then when I was at the United Nations, sharing about how his illness became the impetus for my book, I knew I stood there because I had not let go of him. Most recently, I stood before many doctors at Harvard Medical School's writing conference sharing my story, and then too I was thankful that I had not let him go.
If I had followed popular advice and let him go, I know my life would be dimmer. My life is more luminous because I carry him with me in a healthy manner.
And yes, at times, it is dark. As you may know, death does collateral damage. The pain from my loss at times makes my body swarm with sadness and stress. This is when I crave time to be alone. I learned how to integrate the past and my losses (my father died in 1979) into my present life without harm.
However, I remain grateful to stay connected to the past because it helps to ground me. I was heartsick the other day when a woman whose husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer came to me and said, "I want to buy your book but I don't want my husband to think I gave up on him."
I gave my late husband a funeral, but never let go of the loss. It propels me to do what I do today: write, speak, teach and yes, still remember and carry the pain.
Kristin A. Meekhof is a licensed master's level social worker, and obtained her M.S.W. from the University of Michigan. She was a recent panelist at the Harvard Medical School's writing conference.Kristin will be offering a personalized 4 week "Mindful Coaching After Loss" series for anyone who is feeling stuck in their grief journey and longing to find purpose after loss. Registration is now open for a limited time. She is the co- author of the book "A Widow's Guide to Healing" with cover blurbs from Maria Shriver and Deepak Chorpa, MD.