In life we are faced with many losses. A loss can be sudden and unexpected or gradual and anticipated. We could lose a friendship suddenly due to a deep disagreement or more gradually after we lose touch when they move far away. We could be fired or laid off unexpectedly from our job or more gradually when we know in advance we need to seek a new job due signs like the company’s poor financial performance or downsizing and ‘restructuring.’ The sudden death of someone close is very different than the death of our elderly parent whose health may have been declining gradually over the last number of years. A marriage can end suddenly and unexpectedly when your spouse leaves you saying they no longer love you and/or have met some else. Or it can come to an end gradually as the emotional distance grows while you raise children, focus on your careers and neglect each other and end up feeling more like roommates and decide to separate.
Whatever the loss or change, be it sudden and unexpected or gradual and anticipated, what follows is a transition and adjustment. Reflecting on changes and losses in your own life, what has been most difficult, painful or confusing for you? What has the impact been of these events on your internal emotional world?
Perhaps, you are feeling lost as you try to adjust to a transition in your life. Is it the death of a parent, spouse or close friend? How are you dealing with the emptiness or grief you feel?
Maybe your marriage has ended and you are experiencing a profound sense of loss of the life, family and future you had once counted on.
Losses and changes alter the quality of our network of relationships. We learn who we can lean on for support. Some people step up to provide emotional support and others offer tangible help. We also learn that there others who we simply can’t depend on.
During this time of transition, we experience an internal journey of mourning and eventually self-renewal. In his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges describes a framework for understanding the inevitable changes we all experience in life. Understanding the natural process of transitions can help us navigate them more easily.
He suggests that all transitions have three parts:
It is wisest not to confuse endings with finality as they really are better seen as the beginning of self-renewal. Endings are characterized by letting go of whatever no longer fits or is adequate for your current situation or life stage. It is acceptance of the loss or change. We can find ourselves disengaged from the contexts in which we are familiar. We begin to dismantle our previous relationship and the identity we have with it. We mourn the loss of the other person, the relationship and a part of ourselves that was connected to them.
2. The Neutral Zone
This part of a transition can seem like an unproductive period when we may feel disconnected from people and things of the past and emotionally unconnected to the present. It is our internal ‘time out’. It is important to surrender to the emptiness and not try to escape or avoid it. This journey is part of the transformational process. This is a spiritual, meditative time.
3. New Beginnings
This part of the transition starts when we launch new activities. It is a period of self-renewal. We attain clarity about what we really want. It requires us to understand external signs and inner signals that point the way to the future.
Strategies for Coping during Transitions
Bridges outlines seven strategies for coping with the often difficult, painful and confusing relationships in transition.
1. Take Your Time
While external events in our lives can occur in an instant, our inner world of re-orientation to new situations, relationships and activities requires more time. Everything does not need to come to a standstill while we work things out. However, your commitments, either to the old situation you have just left or the new one you are not fully invested in, are provisional. It is unwise to rush the inner process through which this state of mind will change.
2. Arrange Temporary Structures
We need to find ways of going on with our lives while the inner work occurs. This may involve creating temporary arrangements. For example, we can make agreements about allocation of responsibilities until a permanent solution is found or make a decision which will be reviewed in short order.
3. Don’t Act for the Sake of Action
Being in a state of transition can be frustrating. It is tempting to do something, do anything to attempt to deal with the frustration. Before we can bring one chapter of our lives to a close we need to discover what we need to learn before taking the next step.
4. Take Care of Yourself in Many Little Ways
This is not the time to force change on ourselves as if it were good medicine. We need to take care of ourselves in small ways by holding on to those constants in our lives. They could be familiar routines or pleasant activities, spending time with family or good friends, enjoying favourite foods, or familiar TV programs or music that give us comfort.
5. Explore the Other Side of the Change
Some changes are chosen and some are not. If we have not chosen the change, we can get stuck in anger refusing to see the benefits of the change. When we explore the other side of change we may discover the old situation was not as good as we thought. On the other hand, if we have chosen our change, there are just as many reasons not to examine the cost of that choice as it may weaken our resolve, or make us aware of the pain our transition causes others. Either way, it is very important to reflect and explore the other side of the change situation.
6. Find Someone to Talk to
Whether we chose a close friend or relative or a professional, we need someone to talk to as we go through an important transition in our relationships. We need the opportunity to reflect and put into words our dilemmas and our feelings so we can understand what is going on. We do not need advice as much as someone who can listen and help understand our experience of adjustment.
7. Think of Transition as a Process
Transition is a process of leaving the status quo, living for a while in “time out”, then coming back with an answer. As in literary characters such as Odysseus in the Homer’s Odyssey, we need to experience both the internal and external journey. The needed transformation of people or groups of people takes place in the in-between state. Things end, you spend time in the neutral zone, and then new things can begin.
When people talk about ‘getting closure’ I often wonder what they really mean and whether they think that grieving or adjusting to a change or loss has an acceptable timeline or finite ending. Most people’s experience is not like that. Adjusting to the loss, by taking the time needed to reflect and learn about our internal emotional world when an external event shakes it up, offers us a chance to mature in awareness, gain wisdom and make better decisions in the future.