Letting Go: When Losses are Inevitable

Stan Goldberg, PhD

As the Soberanes fire in Carmel, California comes closer to our vacation home, I’m devastated knowing the source of wonderful memories will most likely become a charred monument to quiet weekends, solitude, and cherished family gatherings. I know it’s time to let go.

Fire Path

According to the heroes fighting the fire, it is roaring through canyons with heat sufficient to melt metal. These 3,000 men and women are risking their lives on the primary attack line and fighting exhaustion carving secondary defense lines to corral the 21,000-acre blaze.

Our community, San Clemente Rancho, has been transformed into an island bound by defensive firebreaks. I hope the effort will make the community impenetrable to the advancing fire, but I know my hope for a reprieve is as realistic as it is for a husband to disregard the statistics associated with his wife’s Stage IV breast cancer diagnosis.

As I wondered if I should try to rescue treasured objects, I learned the road to the cabin had closed, and mandatory evacuations are in effect for a community directly in front of us. The evacuation line ends less than 500 yards from our cabin and the space between us is filled with enough draught-hardened fuel to send embers a mile away.

Unable to retrieve anything from the Cabin, I’m relegated to watching the fire progress in dramatic pictures on Facebook next to ones of people eating breakfast and celebrating family events. How ironic to have two extreme examples of human emotions placed next to each other—joy and grief. Yet, that’s exactly where they need to be. Each a necessary condition of the other.

Instead of admiring the spectacular photographs, I see the face of a monster that neither I here in San Francisco nor the 3000 firefighters working the lines can control. They concentrate on minimizing damage  knowing there will be significant losses. My focus is on preparing for a future without something that gave me great joy. That painful journey is something we all face regardless if our loss is physical or emotional.

Anticipatory Grief

In my past hospice work, I learned the devastating effects of anticipatory grief; the feeling one experiences knowing a loved one is dying, and the only thing you can do is witness it. The same dynamics exist with ailing pets, progressive illnesses, and yes, out-of-control wildfires. We know the losses will advance, just not when and its severity.

The cabin and its contents are inconsequential. Insurance will cover the physical loss, but how do I and my family deal with losing something so treasured just the words, “our cabin,” causes us to smile? How should we deal with the loss? Is there anything in this experience that is instructive not only to those of us who may or have been devastated by fire but those who have had losses at least as substantial? The death of a spouse? The death of a pet? The loss of a job?


As I prepare for the advance of the fire (I’m told it will happen), I jot down 30 years of memories. The brilliant moonlit night when my wife and I sat outside with a bottle of a vintage wine and toasted the birth of our granddaughter. Dropping into a comfortable chair, exhausted after cutting wood the coming winter. The disbelief of family members that I was physically capable of building a deck by myself, then as they stood on my most proud carpentry project, asking if I snuck in workers.  I remember bringing friends together at the cabin to rekindle relationships in one of the most beautiful settings in California.

It will be these memories and hundreds of others just as poignant that will sustain me even if the cabin and surrounding forest are destroyed. And if the cabin survives, I’ll have two beautiful things: memories and a place that will generate many more.

Letting Go

For 15 years I counseled caregivers of dying loved ones about the importance of letting go. Now it’s my turn to let go of the belief something miraculous will stop the fire. My turn to let go of the source of much happiness. My turn to let go of the belief I can stop the inevitable. We often hold on to the past with a grasp so tight it prevents us from experiencing the present and moving on to the future. Now I’m faced with practicing what I suggested to my clients: to let go of what I can’t control.

Life without the Carmel Valley retreat will be different, but the memories it created for more than 30 years will always remain. In the movie, Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa are about to separate from each other for the last time when he says, “We’ll always have Paris.” After she leaves, Rick walks into the fog with Captain Louis Renault and says, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Louy.”

Assuming the persona of Rick, it’s time to let go and say goodbye to my sweet cabin, keep the memories close, and prepare for something new and possibly wonderful. The future may not result in the euphoria I experienced high over the Carmel Valley, but it may be as rewarding as Rick’s  friendship with Captain Renault.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


  1. Ronee Henson

    Dear Stan ~~
    If a person lives long enough they will lose many things, including people they have loved. I know, I’ve been there too, too many times.
    What has helped me are the memories of my Loved Ones, and the good, happy times we have shared.
    Talk about the happy times in you cabin, write a story about that.
    And give it time…..just keep remembering.
    Thinking of you and yours,

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks Ronee for your kind words. Yes, memories are important and fortunately we have many of them.

  2. Jim B.

    Great perspective, although we are hard-wired not to believe it. Our deepest brain takes its own course, despite the counsel of the wiser part.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Wise words Jim. I think my brain is amenable to “letting go,” given the number of times it has experienced the importance of not holding too tightly to things that are impermanent.

  3. Becki

    Bless you and yours Stan! So sorry for all who are/will be experiencing many losses due to this fire. Prayers for all?

  4. Pat

    I am so sorry Stan. I am without any other words. No more growth experiences for awhile, ok?

    • Stan Goldberg

      I agree. I think I prefer being stupid for a while.

  5. Cathy A

    This reminded me of August 2005. Hurricane Katrina hit and my daughter had just relocated to New Orleans 2 weeks prior . She and her husband were in the hardest hit area and they lost everything except their one box of treasured love laters ( he was in the military) and they evacuated their 3 cats. All worldly goods were ruined by the flooding that is now part of their personal history. Yes, losing ” things” may not be a death, but my son in law told me that it was the most devastating event that he had ever experienced . That was 11 years ago. It took years for them to deal with the losses. Family heirlooms that belonged to and were passed down from one generation to the next were lost in the mud, and toxic waters. This loss did bring our family closer emotionally, though. My daughter relocated with her husband and they moved on in the Pacific Northwest. Though a fire didn’t destroy their possessions , a flood devastated their lives and made them really appreciate family ties.
    I’m sure this personal loss can’t compare to the loss of human life, but I understand how holding onto those special memories will now become very important and also will aid in the healing process . These wildfires are very frightening and yes, you must be quite disheartened.
    So very sorry for you and your family and friends .

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks Cathy for you kind words. I’m sure this will be a growth experience–most tragedies are.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks for your kind and wise words Cathy. I’m sure this will be a growth experience–most tragedies are.

  6. Michael Brant

    Very sorry to hear. Keep us posted. 8)

  7. Cheryl

    Hi Stan,
    So glad you sent me the email about this post (and I realized that I hadn’t subscribed to your updates and just did!), and I’m so sorry to hear about this potential loss of your cabin due to the fire. Thank you for writing so poignantly about the process and importance of letting go. In such devastating life situations, it is so critical to learn this lesson and oh so hard to do. Sending energy your way that perhaps there will be a miraculous change in winds or rain or some stoppage of this fire. But regardless, take care of yourselves.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thank you Cheryl. It seems the way we learn life’s lesson is through adversary. Would be nice is learning was easier and less painful.

      Take Care,


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