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Letting Go Of What Didn't Happen

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By Alyce Barry

Many years ago, a friend of mine became severely ill and nearly died. To everyone's surprise and delight, he did not die but recovered.

Several months later, in a conversation with his wife, I heard her describing various upsets and illnesses she'd had recently, and I came to the conclusion that these had been caused by feelings she still carried about her husband's near-death experience. I asked about this, wondering if she would agree with my assessment, and it turned out that she did. However, she believed it wasn't appropriate to mention these feelings to anyone, much less actively vent them, because everything had turned out well in the end.

I was struck with the range of feelings she had still in storage, as it were. She had felt afraid that he might die, and about how she would go on without him and care for their children. She had felt sad that he was in pain and sad that their life together seemed to be coming to an end. In fact, she was already grieving his life when the amazing turnaround came. She was a religious person and had felt angry at God that this terrible illness had nearly taken his life and had scared them both so badly. And she had felt tremendous relief as his illness abated and he gradually recovered.

In the years since, I've noticed once or twice what seemed to be similar unexpressed feelings in the family members of people who had a serious illness and then recovered. And in early September of this year, on the first anniversary of my mother's death, I realized that it was happening to me. I was carrying unexpressed feelings about the events of her final days. So many things about those last days — and for that matter, about those last years — could have been much worse. She could have suffered for a much longer time; she could have remained deeply depressed for years longer. At the end she might have contracted pneumonia. For me, it would have been much worse if I hadn't been with her at the end.

The impact on my life was a kind of focus on death and dying that sometimes intruded on conversations in which those subjects were not really the focus. I choked up easily upon any mention of my mother or her final months, and it sometimes seemed as if the grieving process would never end.

I thought I'd write about it in case my thoughts are of help to others.

There's an irony to this, since I don't consider myself anything like an expert at releasing feelings. In fact, I've been fairly stoic most of my life, and releasing feelings is still a growth area for me.

But it's precisely because I know it's a growth area that I've worked to acquire techniques that I find helpful in releasing feelings.


For me, fear is agitated and wants to move; it finds standing still very difficult. So when I'm afraid, I move my body I walk back and forth in my apartment.

It often helps me to speak aloud what I fear as I walk, and to shake my arms, rotate my shoulders, move my body in any way that my body wants to move.

I sometimes find it helps to repeat the word "fear" to myself: "Fear, fear, fear, fear, fear . . ." Somehow hearing it spoken aloud so many times gives me confidence, maybe because it brings me back to an awareness of the discrepancy between how much fear I'm feeling and the situation causing it.


I've done a lot of grieving over the past year, for my mother's death, and have learned a few techniques that help me release sadness. I lie on my bed so that my head is very slightly tilted back over the edge of the bed, so that my mouth is more comfortable open than closed.

I put on the saddest music I've got and let myself begin to make whatever sounds come most naturally.

Another helpful position for me is leaning forward over something soft, like a large pillow. It seems to remind me of being held on the shoulder of my grandmother.


If I'm living where venting anger will be overheard, I drive to a large parking lot at a shopping mall and play loud music through my car's speakers while I yell.

I am sometimes able to yell while I drive, but it's important to remember that anger tends to make me drive quickly and sometimes without sufficient caution.


It often strikes me as odd that most people have difficulty expressing joy, since it's such a pleasant feeling. In my family, joy was usually described as "loud" or "obnoxious." Friends have told me they were told they were "too much" when they expressed their joy. My favorite way to express joy is to jump up and down while yelling "Yes!" Dancing also works well.


Sad music
Albinoni's Adagio
Barber's Adagio
"Gabriel's Oboe" by Ennio Morricone, from the soundtrack to The Mission
"Nearer My God to Thee" from the soundtrack to Titanic
"Lieb Quartet" by Beethoven
"Abide with Me" sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
"Abide with Me, 'Tis Eventide" sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
"I Need Thee Every Hour" sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Second Movement, Dvorak's Symphony #9 ("New World")
"Panis Angelicus" sung by Luciano Pavarotti
"The Pilgrim's Chorus" sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Second Movement, Beethoven's Symphony #7
Second Movement, Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata
"Eternal Father, Strong to Save" sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
"Bring Him Home" from the music Les Mis
"The Parting Glass" from the soundtrack to Waking Ned Devine
"Ashokan Farewell" by Jay Ungar
"Serenade" by Secret Garden

Anger music
"Clubbed to Death" from the soundtrack to The Matrix
The theme to the film Batman by Danny Elfman
"Never Believe" by Ministry 3

Joy music
"After the Sunrise" by Yanni
"Children Go Where I Send Thee" by Joe and Eddie
Any song that's hard to listen to without getting up and dancing!


I welcome suggestions for techniques and music, which I'll add to these lists. Thanks for reading.

Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless, available in paperback and on audio CD and as an e-book. Read more about Alyce.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in October 2012. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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