There is nothing in this world harder than letting go.
Right now I am watching a lot of people having trouble with letting go, and I am having trouble letting go, too.
Letting Go of Mom
I watch my mother, who has been in the process of letting go for the last 5 years, starting with letting go of the house on the mountain which had gotten too big for her. She let go of that and moved near my sister, but still held on to the old house in her heart and couldn’t let go enough to sell it. She took forever to find a house to buy near my sister, then picked one that had to be gut rehabbed. Finally she let go of the old house and it sold quickly.
Then Mom fell, ended up in the hospital, and refused to let go of the idea that she needed to change her approach to life, to give up her independence and become interdependent on a paid caregiver. She accepted one during the day but then couldn’t let go of the idea that she needed one at night – until she had an umpteenth fall at night when no one was there, and had to accept that idea, too. Then Covid struck and – since her caregivers are Trumpers — she was faced with letting go of her fear of Covid.
In March 2020, Mom’s primary care physician sent her to the hospital to get routine labs because he couldn’t do them because of Covid. When she got there, they wouldn’t let my sister go in with her because of Covid. Mom has terrible lung problems and, when she tried to tell them what kind of tests she needed, they couldn’t hear her, she was coughing, and all they heard was “test” and thought “Covid Test!” and whanged her into the (empty) Covid ward and onto a ventilator. When they realized that she didn’t have Covid, they said to her what they have said to her every time she’s gone into the hospital over the last 5 years: you’re pretty sick, maybe you should go on hospice.
So she did.
Later that year, Mom had to let one of her old dogs go – it was suffering pretty badly and couldn’t walk anymore and Mom couldn’t give it the necessary care.
Now the other huge, untrained dog has begun tripping the caregivers. Mom’s favorite caregiver – the one that was awesome and took care to make my Mom’s favorite foods, read aloud to her, engage her in conversation; the two of them always had a project of some sort that kept Mom awake and engaged –asked not to be assigned to Mom anymore because the dog made her trip twice, once when she was assisting Mom and they both fell, and the fire department had to come and help her get Mom off the floor. Mom overheard the caregiver telling my sister that she had asked to be reassigned because of the dog and fired the caregiver on the spot, afraid that the fire department would call the huge, untrained dog a nuisance and it would be put down.
So now my sister doesn’t have caregiver coverage and will be spending this weekend and the next watching Mom sleep and channel surf. There won’t be any mother-daughter time because my mom gets even more passive-aggressive when she’s angry with you and is probably not speaking to my sister. And my sister is livid because her job is at risk while she takes care of Mom and now she’ll have to find new caregivers and possibly a new service.
When you’ve let go of so much, it’s hard to let go of one more thing.
Two years ago, when the social worker asked Mom what her goal was, she said, to outlive my dogs. When her PCP asked her two weeks ago what brings her joy, she said, watching my caregiver play with the dog.
I’m a little afraid that, if Mom lets the dog be re-homed, she will be letting go of the last thing that keeps her alive. She never goes anywhere. She rarely calls relatives on the phone or answers the phone when they call. She has no hobbies. She has alienated my sister and my sister’s family with her passive-aggressive tactics; her grandchildren never want to visit. My brother-in-law shows up, does what he wants to do there, and leaves. When my sister visits, Mom sleeps the whole time, or refuses to turn off the TV, or disappears into the bathroom.
Mom has her remaining caregivers – who often call in “sick” when they want to spend time with boyfriends or take a day off, requiring my sister to miss work or holiday plans or vacations to care for Mom; but who are sweet to Mom to her face so she won’t let my sister replace them with more-reliable caregivers – and the dog, whom Mom has trained to be completely dependent on her.
The dog doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. It has never bitten anyone or growled at anyone. It just gets underfoot at all times. My sisters and I are convinced that Mom’s last big fall – the one that finally persuaded her that she needed 24-hour care; the one that put her in the hospital with bruises that covered the left side of her face and etched a permanent dent in her forehead – was caused by tripping over her dogs.
She’ll never admit that.
I am having trouble letting go of Mom, accepting that she is going to die. That she is dying. Her mind is sharp. Her body – while incapacitated – is holding on. Her will to live is fading. She doesn’t eat. She has withdrawn socially.
If the dog goes, I think she will go, too.
Letting Go at Work
One of the hardest challenges people face at work is letting go. If you are promoted or take a new job, you have to let go of what made you great in the last job; otherwise, you won’t have room to take on what will make you great in the new job.
And if you work for someplace that has been a start-up, you have to let go of all the hats you have been wearing. You have to let others take on roles that you have held; you have to learn to delegate power – otherwise the company will not be able to grow.
As you let go of these people, you have to also let go of managing them, of letting someone else manage them. Of accepting that you can’t always be the one with the answers – you have to let other people have the answers, too, sometimes.
Don’t act like my mom, training her dogs to hover about her and get underfoot, and train your employees to always come to you, to never feel competent on their own.
Great managers set their people up for succeeding on their own: they make sure each team member has a clear view of the target; they delegate authority; they hold people accountable for execution, holding up the magic mirror so that people can see when they are hitting the target and when they have missed; and they help people think through what they need to do differently.
Great managers take pride when their team members succeed on their own. Great managers make themselves obsolete to the process so that they can get promoted.
But that means letting go.
Right now, at work, I am faced with people who refuse to let go. And I am being challenged to let go of deadlines, to let go of thinking I know how to do my job, to let go of what I thought I knew about how to do my job.
And all I can do is let go of my fear.
The Changing Milkmaid
When I was in college – so many years ago – a professor told a story that he said was from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The story he described was that Young Werther was walking through the forest and he glimpsed a young woman – in my memory, she was a milkmaid – who had her foot up on a rock and was adjusting her stocking.
Something about her physical position, the backdrop of nature, her beauty, struck Young Werther to the heart. At the same time, he rejoicing in the beauty of this picture, and mourned the fact that – at any moment – she would move and that moment, that beauty would be lost forever.
And then she moved.
And he realized that, although it was different, the new position was just as beautiful as the last.
That story has stuck with me all these years, through change I have chosen and change that has chosen me. It is my touchstone.
All that I have and everyone I love is of the nature of change.
I cannot escape their loss.
I come here empty-handed and I leave, empty-handed.
My actions are my only true possessions.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the path on which I walk.