“We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.” Rainer Maria Rilke, Austrian poet and mystical writer

I am reading a book, Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life by Megory Anderson as part of my celebrant certification studies. The book is a collection of compelling stories told by the author, a former nun in a monastic order, whose own life story includes an illness that brought her to the brink of death and changed her irrevocably after having come back to life. Wise and compassionate, she attends to dying people and their families.

In the context of this beautiful book, “letting go” refers to a dying person letting go of earthly experience and moving toward the light of the world beyond, and to family members who must emotionally and physically release their loved one. The experience is one of the hardest we human beings face.
But some form of letting go is part of any life transition, whether it’s turning 60, retiring from a career, getting married, or divorced, or having a child. Why is it so hard for us to learn to let go? Here are some things that make it challenging:

Not realizing that what we are going through is a life transition, not simply a change. Life is full of changes; they often happen suddenly and when they do, it’s our circumstances that are altered. Transition, however, refers to the psychological process we undergo when we leave an old life behind and orient ourselves to a new one. For example, giving birth to a child takes 9 months, but becoming a mother can take years.

Transitions start with what an ending. Transitions have three stages: an ending, a neutral zone or middle land, and a new beginning. The ending comes first, not last. That is the opposite of our usual way of looking at things and that’s why it can be difficult to remember that an old life has to end before a new one can begin. Thus, letting go is essential to being able to move ahead. We all know people who cling to the past, refusing to move on because they cannot let go of a previous self-image and way of relating to others that keeps hiding their real nature from themselves.

Unfinished or unresolved issues with ourselves or others, including anger, remorse or sadness, need to be put in order before we can focus on release. In many faith practices, confession and reconciliation serve such needs. We derive great benefit from talking things out, making amends, forgiving ourselves and others, and realizing that it’s never too late to make a new choice in our life story. For instance, one of the most powerful techniques in forgiveness coaching is to teach clients how to tell “the story for the last time.”

What are some ways we can learn to let go?

There are many things we can do and, if we choose to, can share with others. We can let go by talking it out, writing it out, dancing it out; we can engage in scrapbooking, writing poems, journaling and singing. The creative arts all help us give expression to letting go and acknowledging the myriad of feelings that accompany the process.

Powerful tools can be found in enacting rites of passage, blessing rituals, and sacred ceremonies that clarify the issues involved and support successful transitions by:

  • Honoring the past; before we can look ahead, we must be able to look back with joy and appreciation, as well as our sorrow.
  • Acknowledging that letting go is a necessary symbolic “death” of some part of our selves or our former life; facing this enables us to approach the future with new courage and hope.
  • Recognizing that the journey of transition is the archetypal “hero’s journey” in which we live through an exciting and adventurous passage that transforms and empowers us.
  • Appreciating that letting go is more than a survival skill; it helps us grow stronger and wiser as we incorporate it into our overall life skills.
  • Understanding that one phase of our lives seldom prepares us properly for the next. We have to unlearn/let go of old things and learn new ones, or to unlearn/let go of old ways of being in order to adopt new ways of being. It’s an unending cycle of growth and expansion that repeats over and over, as we go through life.