I’ve never had someone close to me die.
I’ve lost a grandparent, but was too young and too far away to really know them, or even understand that they were gone when they left. I’ve had family friends pass away, but always adults who I’d met once or twice and had never spoken more than a few words to. I’ve lost pets, but they were always hamsters quickly replaced with one of the same fur color and unceremoniously buried in the backyard next to the hose.
But I know someone who has dealt with the concept of losing someone they love for the majority, if not all of, their life. I’m not particularly close with this person, but I’ve known that their mother has been ill for a long time. Her original diagnosis was so grim that her projected timeline was not long enough at all for a life- as long as a year, as short as a few months- and although she has continuously beaten the odds time and time again, her suffering has not ended, and her time to leave this earth appears to be growing ever sooner. It is a sad time, but one that has provoked a lot of reflection for me.
I was speaking to a close friend of this person, about how they were doing during this time. I offered them food or rides or anything they’d need, as most people would, but was told that “they’re experts at this by now”. Experts at long hospital stays. Experts at emergency admissions. Experts at preparing to say goodbye.
But I was also told that beneath the sadness, there existed a relief.
I tried to put myself in their shoes. Watching someone you love suffer is a ridiculously torturous and unfair facet of life. And I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to experience that for years on end, inter spliced with raised hopes and risk-taking and terrifying brushes with the inevitable. But more than that, I can’t imagine what it’s truly like to get to the point where all you desire is a relief from suffering, even if that means having to say goodbye to someone you love. And this is not, I truly believe, a selfish desire. No, it’s hardly a wish at all for themselves, but rather to only hope that the person they love won’t have to feel that kind of pain for any longer.
We cling so hard. To life, to expectation, to assumption. This person’s story is just one, remarkably sad, piece of the complex human need to hold on and never let go. Perhaps considered a flaw in our existence, but also a stark tribute to our capacity for love, we want to believe that if we grip hard enough, all we want will continue to fill us up in the same way.
One of my favorite quotes is from the Yamas and Niyamas. Paraphrased, it reads: “Much like the breath, anything held too long becomes toxic to our existence.”
It’s undeniable that a mother’s love is something that fills us up, gives our life light. But anything, even something so pure and good, fails to serve us once held too long. When we’re forced to say goodbye to someone we love, we’re forced to accept this as fact, a process that can be long, slow, and remarkably painful. This healing process is one I have only witness from afar- the community losses of a young girl with an incurable illness and a heartbreaking victim of suicide, my father’s loss of a parent, my mother’s loss of a grandparent. I’ve seen time and time again, from this removed and distant perspective, that the actual moment of letting go is one of the most painful human experiences to exist- transcending age, race, gender, social status, authority, or opportunity.
The pain stems, so often, from just how prolonged the process is. Letting go is a long and slow process, because we fear so much letting go before we’ve secured our next destination. We fear the unknown so greatly- but more than that, fear what the unknown could be. In the context of losing someone we love, we fear that life will never be quite as bright with their light extinguished, we fear seeing what the world will be like without them.
But I have also seen how time begins to change this process. Like pressing a dislocated bone back into place, the pop of pain is unavoidable should you hope to ever heal. Watching someone you love suffer is like holding your breath- and once you let go, you’re finally able to breathe to the fullest capacity for perhaps the first time in a long, long time. It’s so easy to see and say from afar that letting go is necessary to the process, that releasing our loved one back into the universe is the only way to truly heal, but the fear of the actual moment blurs this realization, something I understand that I’ve never experienced first hand, but someday will.
In yoga we practice non-attachment, releasing ourselves from the things that do not serve us and living a life completely sacrificed to the present moment and the greater, higher good. It’s a practice, however, for a reason. Letting go of fear, letting go of insecurities, letting go of expectation…these are things we have opportunities to release at any given moment. But when the world sends us something as heavy as the loss of a love one, letting go can seem like a much greater and unmanageable task. But gripping so hard is so draining on the soul and body. It exhausts your spirit, trying to work against the world and cling to what we know and avoid what we do not for as long as we can. In our observance of the Yamas and Niyamas, we hope to invite these tools into our lives in order to prepare for these great obstacles that will inevitably come to us, and hopefully ease our pain during these times.
My life runs in themes. It’s been a solemn theme that has come to me recently. It began with the encounter I had earlier this month, and has shown up in various forms since then. Death, illness, and sorrow has been bubbling up in the lives of people around me, and at first I feared what this meant. I saw it as a warning that sadness would be entering my life, or that bad things were to come. But as I looked closer, I saw the deeper theme that ran hidden beneath the surface: Letting Go.
I’ve been gripping so hard, recently, my palms are sore. I’ve been gripping to my current life as it is, and refusing to acknowledge changes to come. I’ve been gripping to expectations, both collected from myself and others, on what my future should look like. I’ve been gripping to fears that will hold me back until I release them. I’ve been gripping to doubts that I know should not exist but I can’t help but fear will come to fruition against me.
Letting go is remarkably hard, but it exists in all of our lives in various forms. It’s okay to let go. It’s okay to surrender to the universe (or God, or Allah, or whoever it is you believe in) and believe that what will come will come. It’s okay to admit that we do not know what is coming but trust that what we currently have cannot exist forever. It’s okay to release the breath that we’ve been holding for so long that it’s beginning to burn our lungs, and yet the pain seems more tolerable than the pain of not knowing exactly what is to come.
We don’t fear the unknown, we fear what the unknown could be. We grip to what we know because it is certain, and uncertainty breeds fear.
I’m still learning what it means to let go.