Saying Goodbye & Mourning Loss: A Necessary Step in Creating Change

A few weeks ago my grandmother passed away at the age of 91. Among the things she shared with me and others were her musical talents, sharp wit, and sense of humor.

I still recall hearing the organ and piano music wafting out her front windows during the summer, and remember her music books that provided guidance during my early days of learning to play the keyboard.

I remember learning many new words while playing Scrabble with her, and wondering how she always seemed to solve the word puzzles in the newspaper so rapidly.

At her funeral, I realized that I really don’t enjoy saying goodbye. I found it particularly difficult to hear my dad say “Goodbye, Mom” before we turned away from her casket the final time. Because she was my final remaining grandparent, it suddenly seemed all too real that one day – hopefully many years from now – I, too, would be uttering those words. It reminded me that I was also not getting any younger.

A number of individuals, such as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, have written about the importance of allowing ourselves to go through the process of grieving, and have outlined the different stages we go through in doing so. If we try to skip over or suppress this need, we may have difficulty moving forward in a fully energized way. Unfortunately, in an era when our schedules are often jam-packed, such things are often pressed aside, and a well-intentioned but subtly pushy “Feel better soon!” often replaces a more open and receptive, “How are you doing?”

Taking the time and effort to recognize and say goodbye to anything that fills an important space in our lives, be it a person, an object, or even a habit, can play an important role in the personal change process.

Sometimes in mourning the loss of someone, we realize what’s important to us in our own lives. That, in turn, may enable us to live more fully, and to carry on some of the energy that person embodied. For example, in the case of my grandmother, I was mourning the loss of her wit, humor and musical talents – probably not coincidentally, these are talents that family and friends have told me I have.

I eventually began to ask myself, “How can I more effectively develop and express my own talents in the world, and authentically share energy with others?” I suspect I’ll be working on that for some time. I’ve also begun to ask, “What other people still in my life embody many of these same talents, and am I relating to them in a way that doesn’t take them for granted?”

Additionally, we may not only be mourning the loss of the person, but also a period of our own life that the person represented. For example, my grandmother represented some of the fun and naive times of my childhood, when I was still unaware of many of the problems – and opportunities for change – that exist in the world. In saying goodbye to her, I was further acknowledging that those times were important in my development, but are well behind me now. If I forever attempted to dwell in that time, I could never move forward and enjoy the fun of the present, or look forward to the possibilities of the future.

While we can never fully replace the unique voids left by a person’s death, the loss of habits or objects presents a slightly different dynamic. Sometimes we fail to assess and acknowledge honestly the cost of losing the objects or habits before we try to get rid of them or change them. When we do this, we place ourselves in a state of denial or lack of integrity that can make it more difficult to move forward – even if we already have a strong vision for the new life or future we wish to create.

For example, suppose that I want to stop using disposable plastic water bottles every day so I’m not wasting so many natural resources. I simply attempt to replace them with my reusable bottle, saying, “Those disposable bottles never really meant anything to me anyway!” In reality, I find the disposable bottles very convenient, and giving them up is a huge loss for me, but I’m afraid or ashamed to admit that I ever even like them because it seems “non PC.” Thus, even though I’ve already purchased a very nice reusable water bottle, I soon find myself buying the disposable ones all over again. Why does this happen?

In failing to fully acknowledge the cost of my loss (my previous habit of using disposable plastic bottles) I failed to acknowledge the important function they played in my life – added convenience. More specifically, I didn’t have to worry about remembering to take my water bottle from the car to my desk at work, or from the gym to the car. I didn’t have to remember to fill up any water bottles. Thus, simply attempting to change my habit by purchasing a reusable bottle didn’t address this specific need – now every time I leave my new water bottle in the car, it’s inconvenient to return to the car to retrieve it, so I simply buy another bottle of water from a vending machine.

However, if I take the time and effort to courageously and honestly examine the cost of my loss (in other words, what were the benefits I enjoyed or the needs I met with my old habit), I’ll get clues as to how I can make productive change. For example, if I enjoyed not having to carry a water bottle between the car and my desk, I might keep one in both places. If I don’t like having to remember to fill it up every day, I might keep a gallon jug on the floor of the back seat, so a refill source is convenient. Informed by my “cost of loss assessment” or informal grieving, I’m generating change that will more productively refill any voids I’ve created through my loss. This will enable me to move forward more easily.

For most of us, saying goodbye to a beloved person is much more difficult than recognizing the loss of objects and habits. However, the processes have some similarities worth considering as we seek to create positive change in our lives and in the world.

Goodbye, Grandma. I’ll miss you.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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