In this world of proliferating spiritual self-help material, there is always a lot of spaced dedicated to letting go. Whether one is trying to learn how to let go of a bad relationship or delve deep into mystical waters of Buddhism, the destination point is inevitably this place of willing acceptance, of relinquishing control, and of recognizing that our ability to move forward hinges on this ability to ceasing grasping. “Let go or be dragged” the Zen proverb goes, and we all nod knowingly with the understanding of our higher selves. Letting go is an awakening to the potential of the moment: we recognize that we are suspended in this stream of experience and allow ourselves to move with its current. No more treading water, frantic, scared or frustrated. We float peacefully, feeling the respite from clinging. Letting go is both produced from and manifests as a sense of ease.
What is rarely addressed, at least not explicitly, is what you do when confronted with that thick gnarled root of the resistance to letting go. That white knuckled, fingers interlocked grip that finally gives way, not from an awakening realization but from exhaustion. Or when each finger has to be peeled back, one by one, until the strength of the hold is compromised enough to release. No sense of peaceful floating as your heart opens in acceptance…just the thump when you hit the ground and the breath is knocked out of you. Stunned and numb at first, and then filled with regret and sorrow at the loss of not holding on for just one more moment longer.
When the time came to make the decision to put Shotzee to sleep, I had for all intents and purposes arrived at a place of letting go. I was lucky…I had a lot of rational justifications for coming to this decision. And I had an amazing veterinarian to help me make sense and validate my perceptions. While his true age was not known, we knew from the clouding in his eyes that Shotzee was over 12. He fur had not only started going white around the eyes, but the fur across his whole body had whitened. Dark gun metal gray when we first adopted him, his last trip to the groomer revealed him to be a pale silver, a little ghostly version of himself as he aged. Shotzee had been in heart failure for 18 months, 12 months longer than his original life expectancy with heart failure of 6 months. He was old and he was fragile. He was highly susceptible to the negative effects of stress and he couldn’t be hospitalized. And I had promised him that I would not let him suffer at the end of his life. I was lucky…his vet and I knew that Shotzee had become sick with something he couldn’t recover from (pancreatitis) and that he would only get worse. While I hoped for the best in the few days leading up to his death (after all, he had rallied so many times before), when I took him in on that final day I knew that I needed to make the hard decision. Despite a good morning, Shotzee was clearly waning and beginning to struggle to maintain his place in the world. It was time to let go.
It was too hectic in the hospital to put him down during his visit, so I took Shotzee home for a few final hours and returned after the hospital had closed. I paid for his euthanisia in advance and told the vet to let the vet techs and other staff know they could feel comfortable coming in the room to say good-bye while we waited. I held Shotzee in my lap as he received his final visitors, and relinquished him only for a moment to receive the first sedative injection. Then I held him while the vet feed him treats until he fell asleep under the sedative. He remained in my lap to receive the final injection. For a few moments after the vet had confirmed his heart stopped, I held Shotzee knowing it would be the last time. Time to let go. I got up and handed him over to the vet who laid him gently on the table. We talked about how peaceful he looked and what a handsome boy he had been.
And then I felt the thump as I metaphorically hit the ground and the ensuing stunned paralysis.
I couldn’t leave the room.
Shotzee was gone, but I couldn’t make myself turn around and leave him behind.
And I knew that this was the moment to really let him go.
Suddenly, the series of evaluations and decisions and actions that had led me to this point over the previous few days, from when Shotzee first appeared to be sick to this moment in the hospital standing by his still body, revealed themselves to be the illusory. Illusory in the sense that all this time I thought I had been letting go, accepting that his life had come to its end. After all, for the past 18 months Shotzee’s like had been far from guaranteed. At any time he could suddenly become terminal from his heart, so I had been preparing for this moment for a long time. Or so I thought. But now I feel this type of “preparation” is also an illusion. Because despite all of this, I felt how tight that grip was up until the last moment and how much effort it took to loosen it enough to turn away and walk out the door. To let go, and to feel those now open hands filling with the grief of loss.