Letting go is the hardest thing.
And we have to do a lot of it throughout our lives.
We have to let go of things. Old clothes. Furniture. Appliances. Toys. If we didn’t let go of things, we’d all be hoarders. Letting of things isn’t as easy as it sounds, though, because things have meaning. Things remind us of people who are gone and times that have passed. Things remind us of moments, events, and milestones. Sometimes we are scared that getting rid of things means getting rid of memories. It doesn’t, of course, but tell that to someone as they are going through a loved one’s belongings after they’ve passed away. We attach emotionally to items that are tied to people, places, and times that were meaningful. That’s normal, but we can’t physically carry all of these items with us throughout our lives. We literally don’t have room. We have to let go of some of it.
We let go of our dreams. Sometimes, we have to let go of one dream to achieve another. We give up our goals to free up time and energy to seek out new goals. Sure, our parents and teachers told us to be persistent and to try, try, try again, but there’s a time to move on. (Case in point: A friend of mine was telling me about a guy she knows who wanted to be a rapper. This guy–who is now close to 40–still wants to be a rapper. He lives with his parents and waits for his break… Maybe it’s time to let go and pursue a new dream.)
Then we let go of people. Or we try to let go of people, anyway. We have to let go of people when we end romantic relationships. It’s not easy, even if we know the relationship isn’t working. When I was dumped and heartbroken in my early 20’s, my wise sage of a friend Lisa said something that has stuck with me. She told me, “Letting go of the wrong person means you’re one step closer to finding the right one.” I have repeated this to at least a dozen crying female college students in my office over the last nine years. Breaking up isn’t a failure. It’s progress, right?
We have to let go of friendships when they no longer serve us. It doesn’t mean we’re angry or upset. It just means that our time and emotional energy is best spent elsewhere. Looking back, I’ve clung to some close friendships in my life long after I should have let go. My mistake was thinking that if a friend brought something positive to my life at some point, they were meant to be a forever friend. I don’t think that anymore. Forever friends are amazing, but you’re only gonna get a handful–and that’s if you’re lucky. Other friends come and go, and those temporary friendships aren’t failures. You just have to know when to move on.
There’s a lot of letting go in Dementialand. We let go of people when they die, but all stages of dementia involve letting go. People with dementia let go of their jobs. They let go of their driver’s licenses. They let go of the roles and responsibilities that they played throughout their lives. One of my friends told me she had to let go of being a perfectionist when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Sometimes people with dementia let go gracefully, and sometimes they don’t. I can’t blame them to being angry and for fighting the inevitable. They have every right to be mad at dementia for what it has taken from them. Yet, somehow, they cannot allow that anger to take away what dementia has left behind.
I often use the phrase, “Let go of what was to enjoy what is.”
I usually say it in some overly pleasant, patronizing term, as if it’s easy to do. I usually say it as if it’s something that I do with grace. For the record, I am not good at letting go. It’s hard for me. And I’m not unique in that.
A friend of mine has a mother who is in her 80’s. Although her physical health is impressive for someone in her 80’s, she shows some symptoms of dementia. She has become more self-centered and isolated. She doesn’t want to leave her home, and she struggles to focus on a conversation.
My friend said to me, “I know my mom’s still here, but I have to let go of who she used to be. And I really liked who she was.”
I thought about this statement…It is important for her to let go of who her mom was. Letting go of the person her mom was can allow her to enjoy the person her mom is right now, in this moment. It’s okay to admit that some of her favorite things about her mom are gone. It’s okay to grieve for aspects of the relationship that are no longer possible while enjoying those parts of the relationship that are still possible.
Reminiscing about the past is great, but clinging to it only brings disappointment. People with dementia are not the same as they were ten years ago. To be fair, the rest of us aren’t either. We change. We struggle with our own changes. We struggle with seeing changes in our loved ones.
We struggle to let go of skills and abilities our loved ones used to have. We can’t accept that they can’t tie their shoes. They could do it a month ago. We don’t know why they can’t remember who we are all of the sudden. Maybe it’s because we colored our hair or lost a little bit of weight. We want to think they’ll know who we are next time we stop by. Sometimes we even argue, “Grandma, you know who I am. Think hard. I know you do.”
We struggle to let go of the activities our loved ones used to enjoy. I spoke at a support group over the holidays. A woman in the group told me how she’s finally let go of her husband’s love of going on long car rides out in Iowa farm country. It used to be their Sunday activity. Now, it just makes him anxious. He asks where they are, where they are going, when dinner is, when they will be home. After a couple months of this, she let it go. She wishes she’d let it go sooner, but she just couldn’t. He really used to love those Sunday drives.
In my experience, caregivers struggle to let go of control. You have to let go of the notion that you have any control over a disease like Alzheimer’s. You know what happens if you make all the right decisions regarding your loved one with Alzheimer’s? The Alzheimer’s gets worse. Sure, you can have an impact on quality of life, but you cannot stop the progress of the disease. Although this sounds like a negative statement, I find that many dementia caregivers find comfort in knowing that decline is not a result of any of their actions or lack of actions. I know one caregiver who repeats the phrase “I didn’t cause this, I can’t change it, and I can’t cure it” to herself before bed each night. It’s her way of letting go.
Life is about letting go. Sometimes, unfortunately, we have to let go before we feel the story is really finished. We can’t go back. It doesn’t matter if we want to. It doesn’t matter if the past was better than the present. All we’ve got is the present. Sometimes the present is bittersweet, but–as one of my friends with dementia recently reminded me–there is still sweet in bittersweet, even if sometimes it’s just a little bit of sweet. Otherwise it would just be bitter.