The Psychology of Letting Go

TW: death, suicide

Last July, my friend J was found in a park, dead by his own hand. And I lost it. I’m still not completely sure why: though he’d been a huge influence on me, he’d also been out of my life for several years. 

But lose it I did. My funky, upright world went completely sideways and I found myself listening to a corny late night DJ every night while I stared out the window and pondered my own mortality.

Today, there are still songs I can’t hear, things I can’t see, words I can’t write without remembering some stupid joke J told me, his bright yellow shorts, the way he fed me a mint leaf. And yet, nine months later, after what would have been his 39th birthday, I’m starting to feel normal again. Here’s what happened between then and now:

I got angry.

My dad warned me, not one hour after the fateful phone call, that this was coming. He would know: he’s lost two friends this way. “You’ll try to figure it out, why someone would do this,” he said, as I clutched my phone and sank on the bench of a chain restaurant biting back sobs. “And you won’t be able to, and that will make you mad.”

He was right. Over the next several months, I got very angry. I also got very emotional (I cried at a Christmas gift exchange, for God’s sake), very fragile, and very worried. But mostly mad – and I felt so guilty pinning it on a dead guy that I turned it inward. I called myself a freak until my very upset mother begged me to stop. I got defensive with more than one well-meaning friend. (“I can’t be on right now,” I would snap, wrongly assuming that my pals just wanted me to entertain them. “I can’t be fun. I’m sorry. I can’t even eat in front of people!”) But mostly, I kept it inside, fretting about what others thought, blaming myself for the tiniest of mistakes, thinking if I were just good enough, I’d feel better. I’m notoriously hard on myself. This was ten times worse.

Gradually, I unclenched. It helped to have friends and family who knew just when to call me on it and when to just sit and let me rage. My short fuse evolved to an even keel, little by little. It wasn’t fun, but I rode it out. (I can even eat in front of people, sometimes.)

I went back.

Once I like you, you’re in my orbit for good, even if we don’t speak for months or years. In the months after J, however, I ramped it up. I reconnected with my ex-boyfriend, with a former coworker, a college classmate turned fellow yoga enthusiast, a couple of guys from my past who’d been more than friends. Gradually, they all heard the story. They listened, offered support in their own ways, ate yogurt or did shots or lay beside me as I talked about the tattoo I was thinking of getting, that had been in my mind since two days after J’s death. “I want it here,” I said, gesturing to my ribcage. “That’ll hurt,” my friend said. “I want it to hurt,” I replied, surprising both of us. “I’m feeling pain in here. I want it out there, you know?” He knew.

I got creative.

Like many of my friends, I balance artistic pursuits with work that pays the bills. It can get tiring. I’m no longer tired. I write all the time: reviewing books and plays and movies, editing and rewriting my novel on the way to work, scribbling and typing and blogging constantly. I was accepted into a select yearlong writing workshop taught by an acclaimed author, and each time we meet I’m hungry to know more, to be better, more clear. I received a fellowship to an arts colony and read an updated version of the “Hey There Delilah” piece. The arts colony director stopped me the next day. “I lost my brother a few years ago,” she said. “You got it. Exactly. It happens, and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do next.”

Not for the first time, I found comfort in burlesque. Three days after, I went to class and threw myself into a Jay-Z routine. (Afterwards, my teacher, aware of the situation, sat down by me and asked quietly, “How are things, kitten?” Dancers aren’t always good with words. She is.) I took a choreography class, something that had previously intimidated me. Some days, I’ve danced for three or four hours at a time. I can’t get enough.

And the aforementioned tattoo: I got it on my  left ribcage to balance out the tat on my right lower back. The name of the camp where J and I worked. My friend was right. It hurt like a mother. I gritted my teeth, sang a corny Train song in my head and thought, Hope you’re happy, J. This is all your fault.

I got through.

There’s so much more to this story. There’s yoga on North Avenue Beach on a crisp September morning, a mix CD from a long-distance friend, a handwritten letter and sprig of rosemary from another. There’s both my siblings moving up here, acting a piece I wrote in a theater alumni show. There’s Bob, the most steadfast of buddies, sitting across from me in a coffee shop, studying law while I write about angsty teenagers, and later egging me on while I sing CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” with a live band while wearing a tutu.

There’s walking through my neighborhood one day and realizing that my sideways world is almost right side up again.

I wish I could take credit for the title of this post, but it’s actually the name of a Community episode, where Pierce (Chevy Chase) loses a parent and can’t understand why. I don’t remember much from the episode, but the title’s always stuck with me. The only psychology I’ve taken is an introductory course when I was 18, but I love the understanding that letting go is a process, and a weird one, and a unique one.

It’s safe to say I’m not over J. I move forward, but I’m not the same. I’m more intense and more artistic and more here. His looming presence in my mind, though, is lessening. To quote Gotye, now he’s just somebody that I used to know.

By The Unprofessional Critic

Lauren Whalen is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She reviews plays for Chicago Theater Beat ( and talks about movies on The Film Yap ( Lauren's young adult novel is represented by Chalberg & Sussman Literary Agency. Say hi to her at maybeimamazed02(at)gmail(dot)com. (Photo by Greg Inda)

6 replies on “The Psychology of Letting Go”

Thank you everyone, for your comments. If I’ve learned anything in the past several months, it’s that almost everyone has a version of this story to tell. Hugs to all.

Tamalyn, I am so sorry for both your losses. Terrible to lose someone so young, and then so recently too.

My dad’s a man of few words, but they are wise ones. What I didn’t say in the article is that both of the people he lost were in the same family. Brothers.

So horrible, both the person’s choice and the ripple effect it has.

Thank you. I lost my first friend to suicide when we were 16. That was a very long time ago, yet I still sometimes wonder if I’ve recovered. My husband and I lost another friend to suicide a few weeks ago.

Your dad is so very right. I will keep wondering. I will never fully understand. I will keep aching over the what-ifs. I will struggle with the anger.

And I will endeavor, always, to let go and remember with love.

I lost a friend in a car accident not too long ago. He was speeding down the highway and hit a truck. He was a recovering drug addict so we don’t know if it was just an accident or if it was something else. Like you, he was a huge part of my life at one time, but I hadn’t talked to him in several years. It hit me much harder than I anticipated. Reading this was great for me in continuing to process the loss. Thank you,

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