1) Something Has Ended
If you have recently experienced an actual (death of a loved one, relationship, change in health, career, finances or geography) or symbolic (role, identity or dream) loss, you have arrived at the beginning of an ending.
You might be saying, “Wait a minute…I just told you my partner has died, my marriage has ended or I was fired from my job…this does not feel like a beginning! “
William Bridges, author of “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes”, notes that, “All transitions begin with an ending and end with a beginning.” While change is an experience or event that happens to us, transition is the internal process we go through to re-orient, re-locate or re-organize our sense of self as a result of loss and/or change. These changes may be internal or external, on-time (retirement) or out-of-sequence (death of a child) as well as painful (illness) or positive (birth of a child or sudden wealth).
2) Reeling from Feelings
Endings evoke powerful physical and emotional feelings. You may experience grief, anger, anxiety, fragility, denial, disorientation, fear, despair, numbness or a sense of falling apart. Physical responses to loss might include sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, clumsiness, shakiness, heart racing or new nervous tics. One client, who divorced after a long marriage noted, “For the first few months after my divorce, I felt like I was always walking around on sea legs – unsteady and about to buckle at any moment.”
Why does this happen? Losses challenge our equilibrium, disrupt our natural desire for homeostasis and therefore dysregulate the nervous system. We may be moving away from a way we knew or defined ourselves or letting go of long held beliefs or illusions. One bit of hope I offer my clients: imagine your reactions as speed bumps on a road; at first it seems that these bumps appear one after the other, without pause. However, with time, introspection and support, the bumps begin to lessen and you start to experience patches of clear road in between. Later on, the bumps still appear, however they become far less frequent.
Nevertheless, it is essential to feel the feelings rather than bypass them. “A grief deferred is a grief prolonged,” author Miriam Greenspan states in her book,”Healing the Dark Emotions”. When my family relocated to California, we had left a home I loved on the East Coast filled with memories of my three children growing up. As this was my ninth move in 19 years around the world for my husband’s career, I was very skilled at moving in but far less skilled in moving on. I could unpack boxes faster than professional movers and was the envy of my California neighbors for my ability to completely decorate a new home and settle my children into new schools in less than a month’s time. I’d done this enough times to recognize that I was hiding behind the busyness of change to avoid the painful feelings of entering a life transition.
One day a couple of months later, after depositing my children at school, I pulled into the garage and realized I had nowhere to go and nothing to do until it was time to collect my children at the end of their school days. Faced with a blank to-do list and a long expanse of emptiness, I sat frozen in my car, which was now parked in the garage. Before long, my numbness morphed into sadness as I started to remember my old house – the light streaming through the kitchen, the flowers I’d planted in the garden, the secret staircase with walls of family photographs, special meals in the red dining room and looking out my bedroom window the morning after a big snowfall to see bare tree branches, drooping and white. I sobbed. The sobs grew louder with each memory – deep, guttural sounds. I sat there wailing until the tears dried up. I squeezed out all of the sadness I’d been carrying, holding and containing. I got out of the car, eyes swollen and throat burning, feeling both exhausted and exhilarated. I promised to let myself continue this practice for as long I needed. I don’t remember when I stopped. I just did.
3) Inward Focus
The image that accompanies this article captures the essence of loss and the concurrent impulse to retreat, withdraw, contract or contain. Honor the ebb and flow of these impulses born from the mind, body and heart responses to loss. You may be unresponsive to calls and queries from friends, believe that no one understands your experience, lose trust or faith in the future or yourself, be unable or unwilling to experience pleasure and generally prefer time alone to be with your unreliable mood swings. In the seasons of life transitions, you have arrived at winter and it is alright for you to want to hibernate.
4) Rearview Mirror Syndrome
“I want what I had.” The beginning of a life transition is a time when longing for who we were or what we had in the past intensifies. It is a nostalgic period that precedes letting go (more on that subject in Part 2) and one in which the story we construct about our past layers of reality may be idealized or glorified. By allowing ourselves this conversation with the good times, we begin to uncover the embedded seeds of what they meant to us and for us.
5) Dream Themes
Dreams at the beginning of an ending often reveal the chaos and/or collapse our waking selves are reluctant to acknowledge. Images of being trapped in a box, standing at the edge of a cliff, wandering in a house where the doors to rooms are closed or wandering through a war torn village are just some of the ways our psyche works overtime, trying to make sense of what doesn’t. Nightmares are common during this time as well. Keep a bedside journal to record and track your dreams over time – you and your therapist will be glad you did, particularly as you begin to enter the next phase of transition.
In ending, I offer you this quote from T.S. Eliot, who beautifully summarizes this season of winter and endings in “Four Quartets”:
What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
Next up: In Between Something Old and Something New: Now What Do I Do?
Karen Batka, MBA, MA, LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in grief and life transitions.