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Letting Go of Grief and Loss

Chapter 8: Letting Go of Grief and Loss

Tools for Handling Loss

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What is letting go?

Letting go is:

  • A decision to take an action that will result in a significant change in your life or in the lives of others.
  • Taking a risk to change the status quo.
  • Releasing yourself or others from a real or perceived guilt-arousing obligation.
  • Freeing yourself or others to be themselves without fear of rejection or disapproval.
  • Granting to others the personal responsibility for their own lives.


What are some types of letting go?

Here are some types of "letting go" which are necessary for people to accomplish if they hope to grow in their self-esteem and emotional health:

  • Letting Go of Guilt: Decreasing the impact of guilt as a motivator for your behavior.
  • Letting Go of Grief: Accepting the changes resulting from a loss.
  • Letting Go of Dependency: Accepting personal responsibility for your life and releasing others from their sense of responsibility to you and for you.
  • Letting Go of Over-Responsibility: Handing the responsibility to others for their lives and encouraging them to accept the consequences of their actions.
  • Letting Go of Resistance to Change: Facing the changes in your life that are the inevitable result of your being a member of the human race.
  • Letting Go of Fear: Desensitizing yourself to real or imagined stimuli that induce fear in your life.
  • Letting Go of Anger: Being able to express negative feelings in a healthy way with both your rights and the rights of others being respected and protected.
  • Letting Go of Denial: Facing life's realities with an open, straightforward approach and accepting the natural consequences of change in your life.
  • Letting Go of a Loved one to Death: Releasing your grasp on a loved one who is suffering pain and discomfort and who wants peace and respite from their suffering. It is the unselfish act of encouraging the loved one to “Take care of yourself; don't worry about us.”  It is the joy and peace you gain by recognizing that your loved one will be in a better place after death.
  • Letting Go of Life: Making the final decision or choice that death is a reward for your virtuous life; to struggle on to live will result in a reduced, minimal, or non-existent quality of life. It's the pulling away from others to prepare them to accept your death.

What are some obstacles to letting go?


Irrational beliefs:  If I let go…

  • I will fall apart.
  • Others will fall apart.
  • Life will be awful.
  • I will never be happy again.
  • I won't know what to do with the rest of my life.


Fear of rejection or loss of approval of others:  If I let go…

  • They won't like or love me.
  • They will judge me badly.
  • They will never do anything I ask of them again.
  • They will be angry with me.
  • There is no one else in this world who will accept me.


Fear of the unknown:  If I let go…

  • What will life be without my loved one?
  • What is on the other side of death?
  • How will I fill the void left by the loss?
  • What will happen?
  • How can I survive?


Avoidance of guilt:  If I let go they will …

  • Never survive the loss of me in their life.
  • Falter and maybe fail.
  • Suffer pain and hurt.
  • Feel badly and possibly turn against me.
  • Blame me for their problems.


Over-responsibility:  I can't let go because …

  • They can't make it without me.
  • They need me.
  • I must take care of them.
  • I have so many people I must help.
  • There is too much I have to do.


Fear of conflict:  If I let go …

  • They will be angry at me.
  • I will have to defend my action to others.
  • I must be certain it is the right thing to do first.
  • I won't be able to defend the decision.
  • What price will I have to pay in response to others' reactions to my decision?


Over-dependence:  If I let go of you …

  • I can't go on.
  • My life would be void and empty.
  • Who will take care of me?
  • I will never be happy again.
  • How will I be able to have my needs fulfilled?


Unwillingness to express true emotion:

  • If I let go you'll know how I really feel and what my real needs are so as to keep all this in I'll not let go.
  • It is more important for me to be macho and strong than to let go and let my feelings out.
  • If you see how I really feel by my letting go, I will become vulnerable and possibly taken advantage of.
  • If I let go of my anger I might be able to forgive and forget hurtful, uncaring and painful experiences in my life, and I can't afford to forget these things.
  • In order to let go I have to be in touch with negative feelings that I never allow myself to experience.


Fear of being disloyal or unfaithful:

  • If I let go of you, you might feel like I no longer care about you.
  • If I let go of you, you might believe that I have found others with whom I am replacing you in my life.
  • If I let go and let you struggle on your own in life, you may feel that I don't care anymore.
  • I never want you to hurt, so I won't let go.
  • I must protect you no matter what, so I will not let go.


Lack of belief in self:

  • I could never survive if I let you go.
  • I am worthless without you, so I can't let you go.
  • I can do nothing right in life; I need you so much that I can't let you go.
  • There is no way they would ever let me continue to succeed if I let go.
  • I am incompetent and have never been able to make a decision, so how can I let go now?
What are some dynamics in the letting-go process when there are two or more people involved?

Here is what happens when there is a "Holder oner" and a "Letting Goer" in the process:

  • If one person is ready to let go of the relationship through death, divorce, moving away, or quitting and he/she senses that the other is “hanging on.” There is the possibility of the “pushing away” and the “holding on” phenomenon. In the “pushing away” process the person, even though he/she sincerely loves the other, can resort to such uncharacteristic behavior as snapping at them, ignoring them or arguing with them. In the “holding on” process the other, even though she/he sincerely loves the person, can resort to self pity, pleading, begging and self flagellation in order to keep the person from letting go. This often occurs in the dying process where the patient is gravely ill and the “holder on” rationally knows the other person will be better off in death but irrationally pleads for the patient to hang on.
  • The “letting go” party sometimes feels so guilt-ridden in letting go of the other that he/she requests a complete cessation of communication so as not to hear about the consequences of the letting-go process to that person.
  • The “holder on” are so intent on hanging on to the other person who is “gone” that he/she begins a chronic state of unresolved grief over the loss event.
  • The “holder on” so desperate for the person to hang on, cries out for help by acts of irrational proportion designed to pluck at the heart strings of the other to hang on just a little more, e.g., “Give me one more chance,” “I promise I'll do better next time,” “I promise I'll change and reform myself,” “I can't live without you,” “I'll kill myself if you go.”
  • The letting-go party hangs on and on until he/she is convinced that those “hanging on” will be cared for once they do let go. However, this results in the “letting go” person or the relationship surviving much longer than what would be necessary or even reasonably expected.
  • The “holder on” is lost once the person does “let go” because he/she is challenged to survive in life without the other person. The “holder on” can make a successful adjustment and become more independent, resourceful, and personally responsible in his/her own life. A less successful outcome is the “holder on” collapsing into self-pity, debilitating grief, and maladaptive behavior. The “holder on” in either case needs assistance and support initially to sort out the impact of the loss event so as to be better able to decide which outcome he/she wants for his/her life. It is a personal choice of the "holder on" how he/she will adjust to the person's letting go.

What are some steps to help you let go?


Step 1 Decide what type of “letting go” is needed in the problem with which you are dealing and what is needed to be let go of:

  • Guilt
  • Fear (name the fear)
  • Grief
  • Anger
  • Dependency
  • Denial
  • Over-responsibility
  • Loved one to death
  • Resistance to change
  • Life
  • Other (name or describe it)


Step 2 Once you have identified what type of letting go is needed, then decide what are the obstacles to your letting go. Identify the following in your journal:
  • Irrational beliefs (list them)
  • Fear of unknown
  • Avoidance of guilt
  • Over-responsibility
  • Fear of conflict
  • Over-dependence
  • Unwillingness to express true emotion
  • Fear of being disloyal or unfaithful
  • Lack of belief in self


Step 3 Once you have identified the obstacles to letting go, take the steps described in Productive Problem Solving, On Becoming a Risk Taker, and Handling Irrational Beliefs in Tools for Personal Growth, a Tools for Coping Series book.


Step 4 If you are still having problems try one or more of these ideas to stimulate your letting go:


1. Write a eulogy to the person in your life whom you need to let go of in death. In the eulogy emphasize their positive contributions to others in their life and capture their goodness, zest for life, and energy. Once you have completed this task, you may recognize that the person wanted you to let go. If the person had lived, the person would never have been as productive and would have never have enjoyed life as much as he/she once had.


2. Write your own eulogy if you are having problems considering your letting go of life when the time comes. By reviewing your own life, you may recognize the need to let go once its quality is diminished due to terminal or severely debilitating illness. 


3. Write a will and the plans for your funeral service. This will remind you of your mortality and the need for you to keep your priorities in life clear.


4. Write a “one year, five year; ten year and twenty years from now'' set of autobiographies of yourself, emphasizing the changes in your life at that point in time if you let go now of:
  • guilt
  • grief
  • dependency
  • over-responsibility
  • resistance to change
  • fear
  • anger
  • denial
  • any other unhealthy behavior in your current life