This is a story about what happens when we forget to make room for grief around transitions. It’s a story that illuminates the heart of a highly sensitive person, and how easy it is to overlook and minimize the tenderness of our hearts. It’s a story of remembering my own medicine, and how easy it is to forget.
We bought a new car a few weeks ago. After spending weeks researching and discussing, I decided on a car and felt excited about my choice. On the way to the dealer, our family packed into the car that I had driven for thirteen years, I said to them, “Remember: I always hate new things. It seems to be how I’m wired. So if I hate this new car, which I probably will, remind me that I’m saying this.”
We went through the paperwork, became oriented with the new car and pulled past our old car, which was now sitting in the corner of the lot waiting to be auctioned (we had traded it in). My husband drove home, and I was pleased with the car for the most part. I even had a fleeting moment of excitement when I noticed all of the snazzy features. I’m doing pretty well, I thought, as I drove into our neighborhood.
Within moments of pulling into our driveway, however, fear hit me full force. I suddenly noticed that the rear window was smaller than I had realized, and I felt tightness grip my stomach. Rear visibility has always been a top priority for me in cars. I orient myself through a wide rear window (the metaphor is not lost on me now ;)) and I feel boxed in and unsafe when I don’t have full visibility (again, the metaphor). How in the world could have I have purchased a brand-new car that had compromised rear visibility? What had I done? Fear tumbled into panic then anger at myself for not being thorough enough about such a large and long-term purchase. I lashed out at my husband, then retreated to my bedroom.
After a few minutes, my older son came in to check on me. With such graciousness and wisdom he said, “Just give it time, mom. You knew you were going to hate it. I think with time you’ll love it and you’ll feel safe. It’s a new car and it has different features, which will take getting used to, but I think it’s going to be great.”
“But I don’t feel safe,” I responded. “How can I love something that I don’t feel safe in? I bought this car for the safety features and now I don’t feel safe.”
On some level, I knew that my son was probably right, but fear can undo any logic. It’s like my clients who attach onto the one feature of their partner that they’re convinced is non-negotiable as a way to protect against the vulnerability of loving.
So what was I protecting against?
My husband came in a few minutes later and sat down gingerly beside me (after all, I had just snapped at him in the kitchen). He looked at me with love and also tried to reassure me. I looked back at him, and before I knew what I was saying, blurted out, “I miss our old car. It looked so sad sitting there at the car dealer. I want it back. It was such a good car. It carried our boys all these years. It kept us all safe. Everest learned to drive in that car. And we just left it sitting there all alone.”
I started crying. Hard. Big tears rolling down my face. My husband, in his infinite wisdom said, “It’s hard to let go.”
This is how highly sensitive people are wired and this is the nature of projection: If we bypass grief, it morphs into fear, panic, and even hatred. This pattern carries the key to emotional freedom, for when we reverse engineer the projection we arrive at what’s needed, which is to grieve. In other words, if we believe the fear, we stay stuck there and before long we’ve climbed onto the hamster wheel of an intrusive thought.
As I sobbed to my husband and son, who looked on with such sweet concern, I knew what I needed to do: I needed to write a letter to my old car. It was a Toyota Highlander Hybrid and we would call it “Hybrid” when referring to it. (I’ve always been one to name inanimate objects.) The depth of my attachment and grief took me by surprise, but when I framed it in the awareness that highly sensitive people attach deeply to all things, including inanimate objects, which also carry memory, it made sense. This is why moving is one of the most traumatic transitions we endure: our homes carry memories, and if we don’t grieve those memories they morph into anxiety and depression.
And so it is with cars: they carry a piece of us. In dreams, the car appears as a representation of Self and a metaphor of agency. That first night, with our shiny new car in the garage and the old battered one at the lot miles away, I longed for what was familiar and for the pieces of me that were held in the car. I wished I had taken more time to say goodbye. I wished I had done a ritual and honored what the car had meant for us. But like I always tell my clients who feel regret about not grieving a transition on the front end – whether getting married or becoming a parent or moving – it’s never too late to process a transition; if you don’t process during the engagement or pregnancy or in the old house, you can process on the other side.
Change is hard for the highly sensitives. Actually, “hard” is an understatement; we cling to what’s familiar and vehemently resist the new and unknown as if our lives depend on it. Maybe in some other era our lives did depend on it. I think about how my boys used to cry and rage when we would rearrange the furniture in our house. It’s how I feel when I think about the new car in our garage. For me, our old car was familiar and the new car was the new, not only in terms of what I’ve known for the past thirteen years but also in terms of the technology. There is a very big part of me that wants to remain in the 20th century and resists technological progress with every fiber of my being. And there is another part that loves technology and recognizes the ways in which it can be used for creativity, innovation, service, and safety. On that first night, I wanted to go back to the old car and the old ways, at least in the last century. I wanted to remain in what I’ve always known.
But we can’t stop time. It marches forward inexorably and the best we can do is recognize our response to this forward motion and drop our defenses so that we can soften into grief. Letter writing is a tool I always recommend for processing difficult emotions, particularly around grieving and letting go. Whether letting go of an ex, a difficult relationship with a family member, or aspects of yourself, letter writing brings us into direct contact with these characters or experiences, which then allows us to move the feelings attached to them through us.
Here is the letter I wrote that night to my dear, old car. I share it here not only for any benefit it might offer you in terms of seeing an example of letter writing, but also for me, for it’s when we share our experiences and ritualize them that they can move along the pathways of life more fluidly. Thank you for reading.
Thank you for being such a great car. Thank you for keeping us safe all these years. Thank you for holding my babies in your backseat. When I think of you now I see our memories, all of the times I would look back and see my boys’ sweet faces staring out the window or looking back at me. Thank you for holding them with me all these years. You’re the only car Asher has ever known, and now he’s almost eleven.
I weep as I write this, and I know it’s not so much about you but what you’ve held, the memories you carry. Daev says that we take our memories with us. I trust that that’s true. But right now I only feel heartbreak for the passage of time, for my boys no longer being babies, for their sweet little faces that used to look back at me. Oh, I remember the hard times, too: how they would fight like dogs back there and I would lose my patience and yell at them. How horribly guilty and awful I would feel. You watched all that, too.
I know you’re “just” a car, but I also know that we gloss over the spirit of inanimate object in this culture. When I think of you sitting in the car lot as we drove away, I feel heartbroken. I’m sorry we left you there with so little honoring, so little goodbye. I wish we had done a ritual. I wish I had taken more time with letting you go. I wish I could go back and be with you longer.
And, of course, I know it’s not just about you, but about the me that is carried in you, the part of me that has been left and abandoned and felt unbearably lonely, the part of me that has needed ritual in order to pass through change. I’m sorry we left you sitting there alone. I’m sorry, young self, for the times that you were left sitting there alone. I’m sorry for the first day of kindergarten when you were left sobbing at the door. I’m sorry for the day you were born and were taken away from your mother to be placed in a nursery with other newborn babies, none of whom were kin. I’m sorry for the existential loneliness of being human.
As I grieve for you and I want you back, I think about how difficult change has always been for my two boys. I think about how hard it’s been for them to let go of anything, even a broken toy that hasn’t been played with for years and lives at the bottom of their closet. I think about how the culture minimizes these attachments, and how there’s a voice in my head even now that says, “Are you serious, Sheryl? You’re crying over a car? You know there are much worse problems in the world.” Yes, I am crying over a car. I am letting myself weep through the pain of the passage of time, to let the memories that are embedded in the car filter up to consciousness so that I can cry them through. It’s the car and it’s not the car. Maybe mostly not… but still it hurts. It hurts to say goodbye.
You were a great car, Hybrid. Thank you, I’m sorry, I love you, Please forgive me. The Ho’po’o’pono prayer rises up now. The prayer that sees me through so many vulnerable moments. Thank you for holding us and keeping us safe. May you find your way to a family who loves and appreciates you, and may you keep them safe for many years. Thank you and goodbye.