On loss, or letting go: Leaving the past behind is never easy



This summer at a free public outdoor concert in the park, the concertmaster told the audience that author Malcolm Gladwell estimates it takes 10,000 hours to learn a skill, to master a craft. Can’t you just hear the staff at Walker West Music Academy tell their students, “Practice, practice, practice!”

As a child, virtuoso Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie told her primary school teacher, “I want to be a concert pianist!”

“So do a lot of other people,” the teacher replied.

The St. Paul Civic Symphony (SPCS) performs free, but are no less the professionals than the Marsalis family. SPCS provides its members the chance to “perform in a high quality symphony,” i.e., to perform with others of their ilk and to continue to reap the rewards of all that practice, practice, practice.

In his youth an athlete may have thrown the winning pass, but as an adult he might be slinging hamburgers. Wilt Chamberlain said an athlete’s accomplishments may be important to him but irrelevant to others. Young arms will atrophy. They’ll never throw that pass again, but as writer Barry Targan said, “It’s a good thing to have a big good thing to remember.”

My son continues to follow professional athletes from having played sports as a kid.


Athletes and musicians are required — nay, demanded — to surrender time and dedication. The coach or your music teacher (“Did you study? Did you practice?”) tweaks your conscience. Worth is measured by competence and mastery, sown seeds to worship and harvest by soccer mom. Pride. The effort of our strain, the investment and the accomplishment are part of us, our 10,000 hours.

We assume that grief is the death of a loved one, but it’s also the griever’s loss he/she is grieving.  We tell someone to let go of their past accomplishment, but loss of that part of self is a small death of self-esteem, of identity. Letting go means it didn’t mean anything; it’s not worth keeping.

When we forget, it’s as if our field goal or our solo wasn’t worth remembering. Be it people or music, we “grieve the loss of a relationship that was hugely significant,” musician Eric Clapton wrote.

When we lose memory, we lose self; e.g., it’s the memories, not the music of the 1960s I’m listening to. Memories are hieroglyphics etched on the mind, the self. Etched. We no longer chronicle our inventory when we’re sure it will always be there. We’re like parents who stop telling you how many months old their child is. Once they reach that first birthday they’re less afraid of loss, like teenaged girls who stop counting how long they’ve been going out with So-and-So.

Even retirees are scolded, “Move on!” Retirees like day-old-bread must move on to make way. A retiree caught reading a trade journal said, “I gave them 30 years of my life!” An aging judge once said he would not retire from the bench. With the robe on, people tip their hat to him: “Good morning, Your Honor.” Without the robe, he’s just another old man.

Loss — be it driving after 65 years of age, the athleticism of a beautiful pass, or reaching that note — is grief, an old shirt you can’t bear to throw away. The Grief Loss Center motto is, “Get over it!” No, not really, but Canadian scholar and politician Michael Ignatieff said it: “There is a subtle yet profound difference between giving up and letting go.”


Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to ellisea51@hotmail.com.