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The Kindred Letters: How to let go

Published over 1 year ago • 6 min read

Dear Reader,

This is a letter about letting go. It focuses on the empty nest, but it applies to bereavements, breakups, mortality, etc.

Lately, I’ve gotten a lot of letters from friends and readers facing empty nests.

One friend’s son left for college in September. For two months after, she said, she and her husband were “like Sicilian widows. It is a multi-pronged grieving process. It’s not just the loss of the child’s presence, but of the whole family unit.” The late essayist, Michael Gerson, described it as a time of “random, useless tears.” “Youth speeds by,” wrote another friend, “then it leaves with our hearts.”

I’m struck by how little our culture prepares us for the empty nest, and for all the moments of letting go (the bereavements, the breakups, our own mortality, etc.) that thread through our lifetimes.

And it strikes me that the time to let go is not when our children leave for college, but when they leave the womb.

Not only because it will make the empty nest easier, but because it makes us better parents while they’re still here.

This is what Kahlil Gibran teaches, in his great 1923 poem, “On Children”. I love this poem so much, and am constantly sending it to friends who've just given birth.

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

This need to let go, in advance, applies to all of love’s transitions, including the final one, of death. To anticipate that these changes will come – to really know it in your bones – is to let our arrows (children) fly – to love them, as they are meant to be loved.

But it’s also to rejoice in being “the bow that is stable.”

This applies to our relationship to life and love itself.

As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote,

Be ahead of all parting,
as though it already were behind you,
like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one
so endlessly winter that only by wintering
through it all will your heart survive.

The question, of course, is how we’re supposed to do this. As a culture, we could use some rituals for letting go – ideally ones that we’d start performing in Spring, rather than waiting for Winter to arrive. In Bittersweet, I wrote about a tribe where the mothers give up a prized possession every year, to prepare for their sons’ departures at adolescence.

But what if you haven’t been performing such rituals starting when your kids were newborns? If you’re right this minute gazing tearfully into your grown child’s empty bedroom, which you’re in danger of converting into a shrine, how can you recover yourself?

The thing is, it’s never too late for such practices. My friend Kara Snead, who’s currently facing empty nestitude, recommends a modern-day version. “Have your long-term friends remind you of the aspects of yourself that you’ve sacrificed,” she advises, “and lean into those for a while.”

In Bittersweet, I wrote about other such rituals: the Tibetan monks who turn over their water glasses at night, to remember that they might be dead by morning, with no more use for water. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, who suggested that each night we tell ourselves that “You may not wake up tomorrow,” and each morning we remember that “You may not sleep again.”

Because I spent so many years writing Bittersweet, I remind myself of these things constantly -- not so much in ritual form, as in an altered consciousness that has taken this reality in, and absorbed it into everyday life. (In case you're wondering, this has made me quietly happier, not sadder. Still, you never take it in completely - as I discovered when I had that health scare I wrote to you about, a few weeks ago.)

Do you practice any such rituals ? Have you had a recent brush with letting go?

I would love to hear about it. (I read every single one of your e-mails, and do my best to reply to some of them.)

Love,

Susan

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The Kindred Letters: Join 525K Subscribers

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