"The human heart does not stay away too long from that which hurt it most. There is a return journey to anguish that few of us are released from making." - Lillian Smith, author, 1897-1966.
"A new set of experiences awaits me today. I can perceive them unfettered by the memories of the painful past. Self-pity need not cage me today." - Karen Casey, "Daily Meditations for Women"
"...When we learn how to say goodbye we truly learn how to say to ourselves and others: 'Go, God be with you. I entrust you to God. The God of strength, courage, comfort, hope, love, is with you. The God who promises to wipe away all tears will hold you close and will fill your emptiness. Let go and be free to move on." - Joyce Rupp from "Praying Our Goodbyes."
By JULIA ANDERSON
For years my grandmother's secretary-chest with a fold-out desk top has been with me. Into the deep drawers of this treasured piece of furniture I have stored miscellaneous boxes of greeting cards, photos, my children's school records, notebooks chronicling my work at the newspaper, divorce papers, mortgage refinance documents, my father's obituary and photo. You name it.
Compelled to hold on to things (OK, the past), I stashed a lot of stuff in this chest. A small box with annual Christmas gift lists from as far back as the early 1990s takes up space in a corner. Hey, I had the "list box" out just this month to plan my gift shopping this year.
But it's been years (maybe 25 years), since I seriously sorted through the flotsam and jetsam of my life stashed in my grandmother's chest. It was time for a cleaning out, a cleaning up and coming to terms with what lurked there.
Some of the items I came across when I started sorting this week would have been painful to see, to read, to handle, even a few years ago. Some still are. Here's what I learned from the sorting out experience.
After three years away from my full-time job, I can let go of it without much regret or sorrow. My years at work were rewarding for the service that we provided our community and the support we gave each other. Since leaving, everything has changed about where I worked...the people, the business model, the focus of the job. I can look back on a successful career, feel a sense of accomplishment. That's it. Don't want to be there any more. All those work files went to the trash.
My father has been dead for more than 20 years. I no longer can remember how his voice sounded. At this point, there's no real sadness at his going. He had a good and rewarding life. Yes, he was a hypochondriac and a worrier with both real and imagined health problems. He could be blunt in his comments. But God, I respected that man for his honesty, his wit and his commitment to the greater good. Maybe some day I'll have the resources to honor him by establishing a scholarship in his name or something else along those lines.
The photos from his days on the farm with my mother seem like another world. So much has happened since. My mother enjoyed a nine-year second marriage into her late 80s. In the past 10 years, my world has done a 180-degree spin into a new galaxy. My long-time marriage ended six years ago. I've remarried, retired, traveled, taken up new free-lance work. I've worked hard at moving on. Family photos, those vacations and treks to the Idaho mountains were sorted, labeled and stored. Maybe my kids will want them some day.
Holiday booby traps
During the holidays, the past, the present and the future can get all tangled up. I find myself not breathing deeply enough, not sleeping as well. Yes, I find myself getting nostalgic and even worse falling into self-pity.
Just before Christmas, two greeting cards caught me by surprise because both were intended for my former husband. One was labeled to him, his new partner and her son but with my mailing address. (Very sloppy addressing, this one.)
The other just assumed that we were still married. Both cards were jarring. Divorce does make things harder because you're cut off from people you came to care about in the larger family circle. People who are still alive but living in a new universe. With a divorce, these people and the lives they are leading are severed from your life, they drop off the radar out of awkwardness or loyalty or whatever.
On the plus side, this year, the daughter of my best friend, Sandra, from the second grade (who died seven years ago) has come back into my life through correspondence. She's married and now has a baby daughter. I won't let her slip away again.
Even as new people come into our lives, others slip away, drift off. Two close friends from 10 years ago are not in touch. I'm the one seeking them out despite their seeming indifference. I don't take it personally. They've both faced difficulties. Maybe old friends remind them of those difficulties.
So in my sorting, I ran across friends who are lost, friends who are dead, family who have moved on, a husband who left for his own new life. My father who's been gone a long time and my children who are no longer children but men with their own lives, their own challenges. Did I hold on to their grade school records? Yep. They can throw them away.
Saying a healthy goodbye
All the thinking, the literature about saying goodbye and moving on seems to focus on personal inner growth.
"Sometimes we need to break a relationship, to bid someone or something farewell," writes Joyce Rupp in her book, "Praying Our Goodbyes." "It may be a marriage that has died, a friendship that is no longer healthy, a job that has failed, an old memory that has haunted us long enough...when we learn how to say goodbye we truly learn how to say to ourselves and others: 'Go, God be with you.'"
In the burning pain of fresh loss this concept is tough to embrace. It certainly was for me. Forgiveness, letting go is difficult. Perfection has been part of my personal torment. Yikes, my life has been a lot less than perfect and boy do I beat myself up on that one. Maybe it's been a matter of "tasting the darkness" so I can see the real light, as Rupp puts it.
Year's end is a time for closing a book, for shutting a door and opening a new one.
Six years ago I sat outside with my dog, Coot, and toasted the New Year with him. Life now is filled with wonderful new family and friends, my grandson and I have our own relationship, some friends have become more important --- bonded over aging parents, over the loss of spouses from death and divorce and the challenges we face with our children and the people they've chosen to marry. The lives we thought we'd have were probably always an illusion. But wow what a life we DO have.
We've learned by now that life is all about change, haven't we? By now we should be prepared for that, right, even laugh about it? I'm up for continuing to move forward out of what Rupp calls "the prison of my past."
Four steps to Praying a Goodbye:
- Recognize and acknowledge a loss. Sometimes we're too busy to have that profound recognition.
- Reflect on the loss. Find silence within yourself or a place of solitude to do this. Reflection is a vital part of healing our grief.
- Conduct a Ritual: Light a candle or burn a goodbye letter to the lost person or relationship. Ritualize the goodbye.
- Reorient your life. Come to terms with the loss and move on with an open heart.
For me, sorting through the files and photos from my grandmother's desk seemed like ritual and reflection rolled into one. I took out each item of paper and each snapshot. I read each one, looked over each photo... remembering and savoring that memory. Then I put them either in the waste basket by my desk or away in a labeled folder for true safekeeping. A lot went into the wastebasket.
Tonight with a shot of tequila, I'll toast the end of a good year. A good year with Ken, a good year with my children and newly acquired step-children and greater family. And I will toast what may may be the last year with my darling mother who is fading away at the care center.
In a couple of nights, I will drink to the New Year 2014. I will welcome this new year for the full life it will bring with family, friends, with experiences, good ones and some sad. This will be my "forever hello" toast.
"After the Loss of a Spouse, There is No Right Amount of Time Before Moving On," WSJ click here.
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