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When my son, Luke, turned 3, I told him it was time to give up his precious pacifier. He asked me why. Frankly, I was more prepared for a meltdown than a direct, honest question from my toddler, so I fumbled and told him that the “Paci Fairy” comes to visit after your third birthday and takes your paci to give to another baby who's coming into the world. Somehow he bought this feeble story, and one afternoon as we drove north on the highway, I told him it was time. I unrolled his window, and the wind whipped into his face and lifted his wispy beige-blond hair. He bravely stuck one chubby arm out the window-his pacifier held tightly in his little sausage fingers-and we counted, “One, two, three!” and he actually did it. He let go.

If only it were as simple to give up grown-up things. If only the “one, two, three” approach could ease the pain of watching from a distance as your ex-husband walks with another woman, holding hands. Or the despair of facing a holiday with a hole inside so large that you feel yourself slipping through your own cracks. Perhaps love's greatest gift—that it is indeed unconditional—is also its greatest curse.

Like a bad case of acne, the grown-up pains of hurt, loss, resentment, regret, and failure need to fester, pop, and have time to heal. When I was an eye-rolling, unruly teen, my mom told me not to pick at my occasional eruption or I would scar, and I think the same rule applies to our hearts. We cannot expect things to heal if we are always picking at them.

Not far from my house is a beautiful view from Mt. Bonnell, which overlooks the part of the Colorado River we call Lake Austin. It's the place where I first fell in love with Texas, it overlooks the place where I got engaged, and it is a place I have returned to often in the years I have lived here. In the trenches of my divorce, when I had some emotional poison to release (the writer Malachy McCourt says, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die”), I decided that as a visual person I needed to make a visible statement. I walked up the steps to the lookout point carrying a fistful of helium balloons, one balloon for each ugly thing that I needed to purge. I must have looked ridiculous, like a woman who missed a birthday party, but I walked all the way to the farthest edge and sat down. I said a prayer and named each thing (blame, guilt, regret, fear...) as I let it go, watching each colored balloon swirl away until it became a speck and disappeared into the horizon.

Only by learning how to let go do we learn how to hold on to what matters. It's as though the shadows created by loss illuminate what remains; the contrast helps us see with great clarity and appreciation the things we were meant to do, the people who are still with us, and those we love deeply who also love us back.

Kristin Armstrong is a contributing editor at Runner's World and the author of Happily Ever After (FaithWords), a guide to coping with the pain of divorce, in bookstores now.

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