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Letting Go: Wisdom From Our Grief

We must get good at grief, because change — both the kind we want and the kind we dread — requires a letting go.

A boy with a face mask looks the Christmas lights during the winter in Granada, Spain, amid the coronavirus pandemic on December 20, 2021.

This certainly wasn’t the 2021 I imagined, long ago, when I thought the whole future would be in effect by 2020 — I grew up expecting flying cars and space travel any minute now. But instead of negotiating black hole etiquette with aliens, I spent the year in often overwhelming grief cycles. I cried so much more than I thought was possible in one year. Part of me wants to write you a column that is just a list of the people who we lost this year, lost to COVID-19, lost to cancer, or other fatal illnesses, or police-perpetrated killing, or overdose, or suicide, or mysterious circumstances. Some even made it to a death from old age, can you imagine?

And when we weren’t dying, we were going through the tumult of trying to decide if it is safe to go outside of our homes. Many of us were tired of practicing collective safety practices in defense of those who won’t or can’t. We were moving cities, or to the country, tired of the same walls and landscapes. We were breaking up, tired of the same arguments. We were learning how differently we all define “safety,” and what some of us are willing to risk our lives for. We were learning the depths to which paranoia and mistrust are rooted into our collective psyche. We lost friendships; not everyone could handle the distance or the differences in our survival strategies. We lost organizations; not everyone could pivot their existence into something relevant and accessible for Zoom; not every group could weather the emotional storm of so much loss.

And, quietly, with no shortage of survivor’s guilt, some of us were devastated by the loss of what we had planned for these years. The journeys we were going to take, the love we were going to discover, the school we planned to attend in person, the friends we were going to go on girls/boys/theys’ trips with, the freedom from our parents or kids we were going to celebrate, the kid we were going to have, how we were going to get lost in new cities, the sabbatical we were crawling toward.

There is grief on grief, on top of grief, filled with grief, shaped by grief, held by grieving people.

But I have some good news… I think.

I lost my certainty somewhere in this journey and I am flying by the seat of my feelings and experiences. But that is the good news — we are more clear about how little we know, and how uncertain everything is, and how constant change is, than we have ever collectively been before.

And we are learning so much about how grief moves in us individually and collectively. We know we must get good at grief, because change — both the kind we want and the kind we dread — requires a letting go.

When we really sit with the truth of change, and how much of it is beyond our control, and how much we try to control, we can begin to let go of the misguided idea that we are in control, or that control should even be our goal.

When we sit with the work of grief — the nonlinear emotional journey of facing undeniable loss, a journey which is somehow recognizable even though it looks different in every iteration, in every face — we have to recognize that one day we will be the one who is grieved. And in every one of our current and future relationships, for everyone we love, know, or ever will know, an element of grief will someday enter — one of us will die before the other, leaving the other to grieve.

For me, this all culminates into an overwhelming sense of how precious life is, how precious this life, on this planet, at this moment, is. And how, in order to be in a relationship with life, I, we, have to be willing to let go of the practices and beliefs aligned with premature death.

We have to let go of capitalism, and the accumulation drive and supremacy posturing that it produces in us.

We have to let go of our destructive tendencies toward each other and the planet. We extract from each other, destroy each other — we do the same to this precious and only Earth we know.

We have to let go of thinking there is one way to do everything. I was recently given the gift of these words from Ojibwe ancestor Walter Bresette: “Thinking there is one way to do everything is the most European way to approach life.” We have to let go of that colonizer-thinking, which is at odds with the complex biodiversity of all life. We have to let go of trying to make everyone think the same way and act the same way, and begin learning real strategies for sharing a planet where we will never be fully aligned.

And along the way, we have to learn, with grace, to let go of the parts of ourselves that were socialized by capitalism and oppressive systems of unjust power. As those harmful patterns and behaviors become markers of our past selves, we become more curious, more complex and more compatible with the future. Ultimately, I believe we have to let go of anything that isn’t love.

I wrote a little spell for this particular release, inspired by my late grandfather. I share it here with you for your use, or to inspire your own spells and articulations of letting go:

papa’s prayer

let it go
you will not be here forever
let it go
let it be dust blown from your palm
let it go
the mistake was made
let it go
don’t build that wall of disappointment
let it go
that was your best, this is theirs
let it go
you cannot force anything real
let it go
keep only the lessons
let it go
your hands are smaller than godhands
let it go
you cannot even fully comprehend it – what a gift
let it go
be generous, you have enough
let it go
keep moving towards your joy
let it go
you can still be happy
let it go
live like a river, a long spill home
let it go
this is the only moment, the dream
let it go
with your next exhale
let it go

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