When to hold on, when to let go

I love having a yard but don’t have much time to do anything about how it looks. Frequently the weeds rival the flowers in height, and I wonder whether we might receive a summons from the town public works department. Often the newspapers pile up on the grass to the point that my paper delivery guy once asked me if I had a country house out of town. Nope, I responded, I just get so focused on my responsibilities that for days on end I literally cannot stop to pick up a paper. So you can imagine how little time I have to pull weeds out of the flowerbeds in the front yard.

However, after coordinating the bereaved sibling program at the annual conference of the Bereaved Parents of the USA, I desperately needed down time. The day after I returned home, I sat on my porch and stared at the overgrown front yard. At first, I considered paying someone to take care of it. However, a moment later, I found myself putting on gloves and tying my hair up and spending the better part of three hours in the dirt, loosening the weeds with a garden claw and pulling them up one by one. Surveying the beds, I felt that I was on the way to some sort of satisfaction. Next up: Mulching.

I called a local garden supply and ordered a couple of cubic yards of mulch, which showed up the next morning in a pile on my driveway. I got out a shovel and began to lay mulch down around my boxwood bushes, black-eyed Susans, lavender plans, and the one sprawling rosebush.

Then I noticed the two other rosebushes.

Years ago we had three rosebushes, but when we dug up and moved two of them to make room for the boxwoods, the replanted rosebushes failed to thrive. A landscaper we had hired chopped them down almost completely, figuring they were on the way out, and planted daisies and black-eyed Susans directly in front of them. The next spring as the flowers bloomed, I noticed the near-dead rosebushes putting out a few tiny leaves, sprouting some thin green branches. I felt hope they would rejuvenate, and despite their location right behind the flowers, I kept them in the ground and watched to see what would happen.

In the two years since that time, as I waited and hoped for the rosebushes to bud and grow, nothing changed. They remained, bundles of thorns with a few stray leaves, stark and dry behind the flowers.

As I stood last week with a shovel of mulch in hand, wondering where to put it, I felt something had shifted. Up until then, I had needed to hang on and hope the rosebushes would survive. Now, with thorns far outnumbering leaves, it was time to let them go. I got my small metal shovel and dug deep around the base of each of the two rosebushes. I had to push from different sides several times in order to dislodge the stubborn roots. One rosebush finally heaved out of the ground, and then the other, spattering me with dirt and leaving my arms full of painful scratches. Thorns pierced my gloves and broke the skin on my hands. But I got them out, and picked them up, and dragged them to the driveway.

Here they are, a tangle of roots, thorn-covered branches, and a few mangled leaves. I hung on to them for a long time. Was it too long? Not for me, although someone else, having looked at them in my front yard all this time, may disagree. I kept them as long as I needed to, as long as I had hope they might provide happiness and beauty. Today was the day that they became, for me, more trouble than they were worth. Today was the day that the cost of keeping them outweighed the benefit. With effort, and some pain, I set them aside.

We bereaved people often hold on to things. Clothing, photographs, videos, memories, possessions, rooms, events, places, plants, friends, family members. People may tell us it’s time to let go of one or more of these things. People may tell us we need to move on. But we need to trust ourselves to know if and when we’re ready, and we need others to trust us. Our intuition will tell us when it is time, if it is ever time, to set something aside. That time will happen when we have received what we need from that thing. It may be a month, a year, or a lifetime.

If you are holding on to something or someone, give yourself permission to fully be with this thing, this person, this memory, this place. If you allow others to push you into separating from it before you want to, you may find yourself clinging to it even more desperately. Trust yourself. Go to the place, sleep with the shirt, spend your days with a certain person, stare at the photograph. A day may come when something shifts, and you find you want to drive past the place without stopping, put the shirt in the wash, get some distance from the person, put a new photograph in the frame. You alone can know if and when that day comes. Tune in to yourself, with the sort of kindness you would give to a dear friend. Ask yourself: Is this still giving me something I need? And then hold on, or let go, as you wish.

Now every day I see those two flower plantings, the daisies and the black-eyed Susans, their strength and beauty much more apparent without a tangle of near-dead thorny rosebush branches looming behind them. I look at them and feel no regret at how long I held on to them, and no sadness at having chosen to remove them. I feel only relief, because it was time.

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