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Yesterday, when by chance I heard someone urge a bereaved person to “move on,” the phrase brought forth the same bristling reaction as always, even though it has been six years since my husband died. My civilized, compassionate self made a speedy exit, replaced by a hostile alter ego, ready for battle. Non-violent by nature, I was ready to lash out verbally and physically. “Who are you to tell someone that they should ‘move on?’ How could you possibly know what it is like to have your life totally dismantled in the twinkling of an eye?”
I believe that most people want to be kind and helpful most of the time. I know when they say “it’s time to move on,” what they really want is for the grieving person to feel better. Alas, sometimes, their words are anything but helpful. This common admonition serves only to sew a seed of failure, that somehow the person being thus addressed is not doing what they should to put their life back together.
Here’s why this bothers me: “moving on” sounds like a hit and run maneuver. It’s as if someone I love was run over, and instead of stopping, I’m supposed to simply keep driving onward, leaving them in my dust. The phrase implies a cavalier sense that people are somehow expendable, great when we have them to fill a void in our lives, but to be put aside without a trace when they no longer can serve that purpose.
The idea is repugnant and disrespectful, but also, it simply doesn’t work that way. We don’t forget, whether we want to or not. The question is how to remember, how to carry the best part of what we knew with someone forward with us, not living in the past, but rather, incorporating our history into our tomorrows.
As I thought about this, what came to mind was thinking about my life as a puzzle. (No stretch there!) Over time in our lives, we assemble some sort of “big picture” for ourselves by picking up various pieces here and there, working on them, and altering them to fit into other pieces in order to form some sort of coherent whole. When life feels copacetic, there are no huge gaping holes. However, when some life-altering experience happens, it is as if a tornado blew through and disassembled the puzzle, leaving the pieces lying about like leaves scattered after a storm. I imagine myself in some scene out of the evening news, standing there in a stupor, all semblance of my familiar surroundings torn apart and strewn willy-nilly around me. “Move on?” How?
There is no one way, no magic formula, but getting rid of the idea that there is a “Big Should to Move On” is a good place to begin the painful process of rebuilding an altered life. The shame created by pressure to do something we don’t know how to do simply stops all forward motion as we try to hide our imagined inadequacy.
Continuing with the puzzle metaphor, “incorporating and carrying forward,” (instead of “moving on,”) suggests picking up the pieces and working with them, instead of imagining that I can simply leave chaos in my wake and magically find myself in a new place of bliss.
First, I’d have to look at the pieces — all the pieces, wherever they landed — and take in on a gut level that things are forever altered. Anyone who has been through a dramatic life-changing event will tell you there is no short-cutting this step, as harrowing and awful and frightening as it is. This is a fallow time, a time when it looks like no progress is being made. In reality, truly and deeply absorbing altered reality lays the groundwork for reassembly. Until that happens, there are only scattered pieces and stupor.
In time, then, I’d begin to pick up some pieces — family, friends, activities. I’d work with these pieces, reshaping them so that they can fit together in new ways, different than before, yet somehow still infused with the essence of that “evaporated piece,” because I bring it along with me, rather than leaving it at the side of the road like a forgotten victim of hit-and-run. I’d do more of some things, and less of others. I’d learn to experiment. This would not be a “once an done” chore, but rather an ongoing process with continuous alterations, a process of trial and error. I’d need to find some new pieces to fill in the void left by the lost piece(s). Remembering would help me “re-member,” rebuild, illuminating my path as surely as a light over a puzzle table.
Already, I can hear the distant rumble of voices from skeptics, saying variations on themes that either a) I’m holding on to the past unrealistically, or b) that I’m in denial, or c) that I don’t “get it.” Well, folks, I do “get it.” I know what is gone, lost, over. I know that it is necessary to turn my gaze from the closed, locked door to the other windows and doors that lie just beyond that scope of vision, to find new ways not only to cope but also to thrive. Even now, I’m gaining on that process with every day that passes. Ideally, it’s about balance. The challenge is to learn how to keep a glance on that beloved closed door while also looking at and exploring others that are open. We need not wear the masque of “fake amnesia” and pretend we’ve forgotten, because “either/or” is a false construct. When we lose someone, we miss them and we remember them. We hold on to our memories and we look for new ways to invest our love and energy. We don’t have to abandon the past in order to be able to go forward. One outlook does not negate the other. It’s a “both/and” attitude instead of the “either/or” implied by “moving on.”
That’s good news, because we are part of everyone we’ve ever known and loved, and they are part of us — unforgettable, inseparable, and in the ultimate sense, forever. Instead of trying to “move on” from these ties that bind, we need to pick them up and carry them with us. They weigh nothing at all, unlike the weight of shame and “shoulds” which are heavy burdens, indeed. Quite the contrary, these ties remain within to sustain us.
In time, we will be able to feel the love without dwelling in loss and yesterdays. In time, that love nourishes our ability to create new wholeness. We “carry forward,” rather than “move on,” feeling whole again as we incorporate all we have been with new possibilities as they unfold before us.