Yes, she's an idiot. And truth be told, I have been the same idiot on countless occasions, holding on to pain and wearing myself out when relief is less than a foot away. Sometimes greater tenacity and steadiness of nerve is required to release than to retain. And never is this more true than when the thing you're clinging to is a relationship that's ended.
Whether the pain of lost relationships needs to flow loosely through our hands or be flung resolutely over our shoulders, there is no denying that there are times in life when we need to lighten our load in order to move forward. If we carry our emotional pain too long or too far, we risk being stunted. Like the roots of a plant in desperate need of repotting, we can become so tightly tangled that we remain bound in the shape of our former container, even after we transplant our lives.
When a relationship ends in death, divorce, or division of any kind, we may recognize the loss intellectually, but it takes longer to get the message to our heart. Maybe our inherently hopeful nature is a protective mechanism allowing us to endure grief in bite-size morsels—much as I suffered peas as a child, swallowing them whole, pea by pea, with a mouthful of milk.
But whether we expect a beloved soul to reappear and join us for breakfast or a former spouse to experience an epiphany that the grass isn't greener after all, it's all denial of some sort. We postpone the finality of heartbreak by clinging to hope. Though this might be acceptable during early or transitional stages of grief, ultimately it is no way to live. We need both hands free to embrace life and accept love, and that's impossible if one hand has a death grip on the past.
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.