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Cheryl Eckl

The Art of Letting Go, Part 1

Why the "shoulds" have no place in my grieving

Several months ago my mother-in-law (her middle son was my late husband) said, "I think I may be getting ready to let go of Stephen's ashes, but I'm just not sure." It was as if she considered herself weak and clingy for not having scattered his ashes sooner than the nearly three-year anniversary of his death. As if she were forcing herself to let go of something that would break her heart if she did.

"There are no 'shoulds' in grief," I told her. "If you want to keep his ashes forever, you have permission to do so. Just because I was ready to release Stephen's remains last fall doesn't mean that you have to. Don't do anything unless it really feels right to you."

When Stephen died in 2008, I had had a sense that my grief process and that of his family would not follow the same timetable, so I had asked the funeral home to provide two sets of cremains—one for me and one for his parents. It was one of my better decisions.

Another good decision was to give myself permission to mourn however I chose, in whatever manner appealed to me, at whatever time grief should arise. I really don't know how I came to be so adamant about not following anybody's rules, but it has been my guiding principle since 2006 when we learned that Stephen's colon cancer was terminal.

In a way, I've always lived on the edge of tradition. I think being a writer and musical theater actor does that. Accessing the creative impulse always takes me to what poet David Whyte calls the "cliff edge" of life—to that place where logic fails and intuition rules.

For as long as I can remember, I have listened for direction, taking often-dramatic action when something "felt right." Sometimes that dedication to spontaneity has gotten me into trouble—but mostly when my impatient outer mind decided to act before my more patient intuitive mind said the time was right.

Following authentic guidance led me to a path of spiritual discovery and soul growth that has been rich, supportive, and my life's ongoing great adventure. It also led me to Stephen and gave me the courage to marry him three weeks after our first date. (When you know, you know.) And throughout his illness and dying process, that guidance continually helped me let go of the life we had planned, expectations of how the process would unfold, and, ultimately, of the one person I loved more than life itself.

So, even though we think of grief as dissolution, my sense is that the mourning process is actually one of great creative potential and that being in the midst of it is a bit like creating a Tibetan sand painting. Just like actors working long hours in rehearsal for a show that evaporates into the ethers after every performance, Tibetan monks spend days creating an exquisitely intricate and geometrically perfect sand painting—only to destroy it shortly after completion.

To the clinging mind, this seems a travesty. But, in reality, a saved sand painting doesn't stay perfect for long. The elements and disruptions in its environment soon erode the edges or spoil the surface. It's the same with a musical. One of the greatest challenges in a long run is to keep the show fresh—as if every performance were the first.

The way to do it, of course, is to be fully present in the moment because many elements are changing. The audience is new—sometimes radically so, depending on the day of the week. The cultural climate has been affected by the day's events. Each performer brings a unique mood and energy level to the event. Allowing these subtle differences to inform how the performance unfolds is the key to resilience—and, for me, that is also the key to the art of letting go.

It may be that there is a detectable, even predictable, path to healing from great loss. But timing is everything, and only the present moment can reveal where we are on that path.

So, a couple of weeks ago, Stephen's mom began to feel that her continuing to keep his ashes was a burden to her and even to him. She felt that he needed to be free—that, in a way, his ashes were letting go of her. So she, Stephen's dad, younger brother and his wife, and the family dog took a hike up a beautiful mountain path to a place overlooking a lake, not unlike the view from the Maroon Bells where I had taken my portion of cremains last fall.

Later, Stephen's mom told me that as they released the final portion of ashes to the earth, she had felt a remarkable lightness, a sense of release, and a deep knowing that waiting had been right and letting go was now also right. That was how it had been for me a year earlier.

What impresses me from her experience and mine is how delicate and precise is the timing of these outward expressions of grief. And how gentle we must be with our own process—especially if we are predisposed to putting other people's feelings or opinions ahead of our own.

As a dear friend whose mother just passed away said to me last evening at dinner, "If you don't let yourself feel the grief, you also block the joy." And our dinner companion added, "I have even discovered that allowing grief to surface from an old wound can be a source of surprising joy because of the freedom that arises from letting go of ancient hurt or guilt."

I have to agree. One of my great joys this past year has been allowing grief to unfold naturally. And in that attitude I have found that what is finished has let go of me in its own time, in its own way. I still cry at the separation because that's what humans do. The comfort comes from letting go, not in prematurely forcing something to go away because society's rule said that I should.

There's a lot of letting go happening right now as I approach the third anniversary of Stephen's death. More about that next week.