Saturday, October 29, 2011

Letting Go Is The Hard Part

We are starting to clean out my parents' house after my father's death and my mother moving out to assisted living.  Going through things trying to figure out what to keep and what to throw is an emotionally exhausting experience.  Disposing of things that my parents were attached to involves a guilt trip down memory lane.

My cousin went through the similar cleaning out process a couple of years ago.  I helped him relocate his mother.  His mother had already lost her husband and her three older sons (I call my cousin Private Ryan) so she had lots of stuff with emotional attachments.  He said she kept asking him:  "How can we possibly throw THAT away.  His repeated reply was:  "It's easy, Ma.  You pick it up;  Hold it over the trash can; and let go."

Yup, sounds easy.  Pick it up.  Hold it over the trash can.  And just let go. 

Letting go is the hard part.

Each object tugs at the heart.  A material object shouldn't have that much meaning:  It's just a book, a table, a chair, a mirror, a tool, a hat, a ticket, a painting, a marked up calendar.  But we remember them using it, making it maybe, treasuring it.  It connects us to them, the memories, the events, our childhood, the things they did, the way they lived, the things that in part made them who they were.  It was a book they read, maybe even read to us.  It is a tool they used to make things for us.  It is the table we sat around with them.  It is the mirror she got as a wedding present.  It is the ticket to that big event in their lives that they talked about for so many years afterwards.  It is hard to let go of the objects that connect to those memories.

There's also the feeling that this stuff doesn't belong to me.  It isn't mine.  It's theirs.  They wanted it.  They kept it.  It feels like I am messing with someone else's personal and private possessions.  Part of the problem is coming to terms with the reality that they are no longer there.  My father is gone.  My mother is alive, but has moved;  moved out; perhaps moved on. Neither of them, in different ways, could take it with them. The stuff is no longer theirs. They had to let go of it.  So so do we.  Letting go is hard.

It is not just my own mementos I am disposing of:  It is my parents' mementos, or their parents', or even their grandparents'.  Some of those of course are truly precious and will be saved.  But there are so many more than can possibly be saved, that we just HAVE to get rid of.  We can only hold onto a few things.  Most of it, we just have to let go of.

To some extent letting go of the objects means letting go of the people.  Sure, people are more than their possessions, but they cannot be entirely separated from the objects they spent a great deal of their lives working for, working with, creating, accumulating and caring about:  Their collections, their hobbies, the home they built, not only figuratively, but half the house my father indeed literally built, by himself.  The plants they so carefully tended and nurtured.  The things they used.  The way they lived. It means recognizing that is all over.  Gone.  Done with.  Finished.  They don't need them any more, because they are not there any more.  That is hard to accept.  Hard to let go of.

We learn early on that honoring our parents means doing what they have taught us to do, even if they are not there to supervise us directly.  Our "conscience" is really just the conditioning they give us that makes us feel what is right and wrong without them having to tell us.  We know what they would say; what they would do; what they valued. To devalue what they valued means letting go of some of that conditioning.  It means consciously doing what we know they would not, did not, could not do.  It requires going against a part of the way they lived and how they trained us.

Letting go involves recognizing that we are not our parents.  We do not live their lives.  What they valued was what was a part of their lives.  Although much of them lives on in us, the possessions that were important to their lives are not what is important to our lives.  Our lives are different.  Times change.  Needs change.  Places change.  People change.  The things we need now are not the same things they needed then.  The lives they lived are past.  We have to let go.

It is not just about letting go of the objects, but about coming to terms with the reality that dead or alive, that part of their lives, and that part of our lives, is over.  Those possessions that used to be important to them are no longer important to them.  They did let go of that stuff, in one way or another, but left it where it was.  Now, we have to pick it up, carry it out, and let go of it.  Letting go is the hard part.


  1. Time to get me a new paper shredder, and send all my old clothes to the goodwill. Great read. Thank you.

  2. John, sorry to hear about your dad. I know it is such a hard thing to think about let alone experience. How is your mom dealing with the changes? I think I saw a recent picture of her on FB with some comments about her new place. I wasn't sure what was happening but deduced something very significant had happened. Thanks very much for sharing such heart-felt sentiments. I can empathize. At least your dad is now facing the greatest greeting in his life. How wonderful it is for him to see the face of our beloved Lord! Please know that we are thinking of you and your family. Love, Alena, Mark and Leandra

  3. I had a hard time commenting on this at first, because the cleaning was hard on me too. I can only imagine how much more so it was for you. It was physically and emotionally exhausting. And as you said, it was not my stuff. But, I felt the memories were everywhere. And I also felt like I was disassembling their lives. Letting go of the "stuff" is relatively easy. Letting go of the people we knew and loved, is not so much.

  4. InTheFastLane: "disassembling their lives" puts into words what I was struggling to say. Yes, that was the feeling I was getting too.