Letting go of what might have been.

On the question of how to process the choices you didn’t make.

Jen Cowitz
Jun 3 · 3 min read
Photo credit: Carr Hagerman Photography

When I was very young, my mom taught me to body surf. Anyone who has spent any time in the ocean knows the feeling of being caught beneath the waves, being drawn under and spun until you don’t know which way is up. She taught me the trick of waiting, of staying still until my body began to float upward or the sun broke through the foam until I could find my way to the surface.

When she died, grief came in almost literal, undeniable waves –fully enveloping, inescapable. The only way to survive was to let the feeling wash over me until the turmoil became stillness, and I could find my way back to myself. I could be distracted away from my grief for periods of time, but eventually, like the tide, it pulled me back under.

In many ways, that makes grief and grieving the loss of a loved one easier for me than for some of my close friends. I don’t have to summon it, and I can’t push it away, so I don’t have to dredge up feelings or put forth effort to process. It happens because it is happening.

But what if you’re not grieving something sudden and specific, like death? What if we need grief to help us let go of things we’ve learned to bear the weight of? I find myself wrestling with these new questions: how do I grieve? How do I turn my face to grief with intention?

As someone who has spent my life grappling with chronic illnesses, I feel the weight of a life unlived. I pine for choices I would have made differently if my body or my mind hadn’t made some choices for me. Sometimes, the person I could be, or really, could have been, is so clear and present that she’s almost in the room with me.

Intellectually, it’s clear that this thinking is dead weight, but extricating myself from it, from this mythical, imagined “her”, isn’t merely a matter of putting her out of my mind. Pushing these thoughts aside to deal with the pragmatic problems of the moment only seems to lend her substance; what’s pragmatic gives my life more matter, so hers accumulates more details as well.

So, now, it’s time to grieve her and let her go. She’s gone. She’s always already been gone.

It’s not merely the other life, but the everyday little things that cut into my time and mental store, like calculations of food, exercise, pain management, glucose, supplies, stress reduction, ad infinitum. I’ve relied on making these changes and adjustments since I was 6. I can’t grieve an insulin shot or carrying quick sugar on me everywhere I go.

I don’t have an answer, here. We live in a world that turns away from grief. We fear pain; it gets in the way of the production and precision modern life demands. How do I invite my pain in for tea? How do I bury it in a box?

I suppose I start here, by letting it be real.

Jen Cowitz

Written by

When Jen isn't flinging herself at the horizon, she's trying to treat body well and to suffer fools with just a little more patience and bigots with much less.

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