On Letting Go

Portrait of me in Burgundy just after I left my old life, but still hanging on, 2014. ©Geoffrey Guillin

As I write this my heart is lead. I am heavy with the weight of attachment. I wrapped my life around an idea, threw myself headlong into something destined to end tragically. I knew it would, and I fought to keep myself detached, to self-protect. But finally I said yes because I believe you should say yes to whatever the universe hands you. I said yes because it had to be that way. And as soon as I did, it all unraveled.

My hands are fists fighting to hold on to what is already gone. Or maybe it was never really mine. But my fists won’t let go. I have trouble letting go.

There are two expensive storage facilities filled with the cherished belongings from my mother’s house, and my grandmother’s house—one in New Jersey, one in Buffalo, NY. The moment these things were stored away, I never visited them again. I have no room for any of it in my small apartment, yet I can’t let go. I have trouble letting go.

I’ve always surrounded myself with things, mementos. The stuff in my life was akin to family. But safer. Things couldn’t hurt me. The stuff brought me comfort, joy, a sense of self. The stuff was a cocoon that kept me warm and protected. Attachment to things was easier. Attachment to people always brought me pain.

And even though I thought I had evolved, it seems in this way, I have not. My hands are still fists, just as they were when I was born—hanging on, banging hard against cold reality. I don’t accept this. This cannot be the way it is now. 

But it is this way now. And I am starting over, alone. But I don’t want to start over with this heavy burden I have been carrying. Not this time, not anymore. My fists are weary from holding on.

But I have trouble letting go.

For Buddhists, attachment is one of the main negative emotions that creates suffering. When we attach to an object, to someone, we seek to possess. We see the object or person as permanent when often it is the opposite. Attachment is a compulsion, a desire to be loved, praised—to create constancy where there is only change, or willfulness. It’s the need to control what we cannot control. We hang qualities and importance on something that can only leave us wanting. And so we suffer.

I suffered more when my mother was dying than I did after she died. Desperate to save her, I fought her dying with everything I had. She was the center of my world, and without her, I didn’t know who I was. If she died, I would lose everything; I would lose myself. So I hung on to her with my angry fists, and banged hard against the inevitable with all I had.

But her death was hers. It was her time, her choice to stay or go. My attachment to my mother made her death about me. And that selfish need made me suffer and spin when I should have been telling her it was okay to let go. I could have been releasing her to her chosen destiny.

But I couldn’t see past my own pain and so could not ease hers. And in the end, for all my fighting with my indignant fists, I could not stop her from leaving me. Instead, I made our last hours together desperate and frantic. What did I accomplish but more suffering?

When this was photographed, I was just beginning to understand who I was without my mother or the career I’d attached so much self-importance to. Burgundy, 2014, by ©Geoffrey Guillin

When you say yes to the universe, it doesn’t guarantee good things will happen to you. Saying yes only guarantees you will keep moving forward toward your destiny. Sometimes you have to say yes to someone leaving you, even if it rips you apart. You have to say yes to change, even if it feels like death. And it is a kind death—death to the past, to something that has held you back. When you are moving forward, creating a bigger life, the only thing that is constant is the unknown. But you have to keep saying yes, and let go of attachment.

The only person who can bring you joy is you. You can’t find happiness with someone who is unhappy. There is no safety, no constancy, in a state of change. But when you let go, really let go—of expectations, need, fear, want—you can begin to write a new story for yourself, one where you are truly free to let your life take the shape it was meant to, unhindered by your own limitations.

I know all this is true. And I know that God has a plan for me even if, for the moment, I am at a loss to understand why I have to go through this gauntlet. For now, I am still working on my own limitations. Even as I have opened my angry fists, the deep imprint of my nails in my palms remains. A reminder that letting go is not without pain—but holding on is more painful, still.

A portrait of a women setting out on a journey toward an unknown future, shot among comfortable old things from the past. Burgundy, 2014. ©Geoffrey Guillin

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Read more about my journey to find purpose in Paris after the loss of my mother, and the healing I found in Burgundy, in my memoir My (Part-Time) Paris Life, on sale here:

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15 responses to “On Letting Go

  1. Very powerful as well as insightful. Thanks for sharing with us. Important enough for me to share with others too.

  2. Beautifully written – which is so important. You may have read this, but I do recommend Cheryl Strayed’s essay on losing her mother – it was collected in The Best Essays of 200? – Do track it down – yours is the only other piece on this subject that truly touched me. That sounds cold – I don’t mean it to be. I am also a writer, however, and so often deepest feelings do not transmute to the page – your craft as a writer made it do so. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much, Judy. That is wonderful praise, indeed. I have also written about losing my mother in my memoir, My (Part-Time) Paris Life, and how her death impacted me, and moved me to make huge life change. It’s a process, that is for sure. I feel I’m just halfway through it.

  3. If you are the only heir, I would not give those precious items away. Someday, you will be married in a big house with kids and you’ll wish you had your mothers things around you – and to hand them down to your children. You are obviously torn. Try finding an inexpensive storage shed in New Jersey.

    • You are so sweet. God bless you, but I’m past kids at this point. I won’t chuck anything, don’t worry. And what I can’t keep, I’ll share with my cousins. And I do have plenty of my mom’s things already in my home, and that makes me happy. Oddly, it’s the little things that mean the most—like her strainer and bread knife that I use everyday. I did not expect that.

  4. Lisa – you sound like my twin. I am 58 years old. I’ve “commented” on your posts in the past. Like you, I worked for Time Inc., (Time Magazine), for 25 years. It was devastating to let go of working full time at a place that I loved — but from which I was exhausted. In the few years since, I have been caretaker to my father – who was ill so vary often, and who is since deceased. Then, I lost my magnificent 40 yr. old cousin to cancer. She left a husband and 6 yr. old child. The way you speak of fighting for your mom, being her advocate — moved me to tears. I too, fought for my cousin, seeking clinical trials, seeking alternative treatments. Nothing worked. And her loss has left me empty. Now I am a caregiver to my mom. Lastly, like you, I cannot let go of anything — any physical mementos — from my aunt, a cousin, a grandmother — these were exquisite things that hold no value to anyone but me! And, I cannot let go of memories. I am stuck. Lisa – I believe you are being too hard on yourself. You should give yourself kudos for having the courage to move to Paris, and then weathering all the renovation complications that arose in your apartment! You are criticizing yourself on not letting your mom go !!! Lisa, you fought for her !!!! And we fight for the ones we love !!!! It is always easier for someone else to tell us this, than for us to tell ourselves. To ourselves, we think in terms of everything we did wrong. Others impress upon us how much we tried to do well — and with the best of intentions. When I was criticizing myself, “why didn’t I take my dad to the ER one day earlier – was I being lazy,” someone professed to me, what makes you think you can pick the time someone dies. Okay, I guess that person got that right! I wish you well on your continuing journey. My mantra, “one day at a time,” — not an original mantra by any means !!!!! — but one that permits you to breath more easily………..I look forward to your book and to subsequent posts.

    • Oh my friend you made me cry. Thank you for sharing your story. Do know that I have no regrets about my mother. I know I did all I could for her. I used her as an example, sharing how I felt at the time, because I know others are going through the same thing. And of course, the post is a metaphor for another loss I am suffering—this time from love. But it’s given me a classroom to learn about myself—and writing down my experience with my mother, and about how I hang onto things, is another way of letting go. Day by day I will become lighter. This I know. And posts like yours, reaching out with love, helps to lighten the burden. I hope you will read my book, since I know it will ring true to you. It’s available now; the link is on the bottom of this post, or on my blog homepage. Message me on my FB page after you read it (https://www.facebook.com/myparttimeparislife/). Curious to know what you think. XO L

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