Endings, transitions and new beginnings
‘New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings’ Lau Tzu
Our lives are full of endings and transitions.
From the death of a loved one, separation or divorce, to moving house, job or school; we voyage from one phase to another… and another.
On the way, we might sometimes find ourselves firmly at the helm of our ship, at others, we may feel tossed and turned by turbulent seas over which we have no control.
Our final control, of course, is in our response; in the setting of our sails as we find a way to ride the waves. And sometimes, we just need to stop… and seek refuge in safe harbour while we wait for the storms to pass.
Taking time to think, talk, or simply stop and ‘be’ for a while can allow enough space for us to ‘tune in’ to ourselves, make adjustments and find the right way forward again.
Our amazing brains allow us to interpret, explain, explore, rationalise, be curious, debate, and shift perception; to both step in and step back from our experiences; to look to the past and look to the future, as we weave life’s events into the story of who we are.
The examined life
The perfect time to ‘stop and be’ for a while is as we transition from one year to another.
So, as you link arms with friends and family to sing Auld Lang’s Syne, what story will you tell about last year? What will you celebrate? What will you regret? As you wave goodbye to the old year and turn to look the New Year in the face, what wisdom will you take as your journey continues?
In the small, silent space between last year and next, lies a quiet opportunity. The end of something is always the beginning of something else.
My client, Helen had experienced a major loss.
On the face of it, she coped very well. But it was only many years later, when her boyfriend ended their relationship that the cumulative grief threatened to overwhelm her. She presented as a bright and bubbly young woman and was smartly turned out. She looked like a real professional who was going places in her chosen career of accountancy.
But, when Helen began to tell me her story, her outer confidence fell away, as one memory after another slipped from her eye and rolled silently down her cheek.
Helen's mother had died seven years ago, when she was only twelve. As the oldest child, she immediately took on responsibility for looking after her two younger brothers and, to some extent, for running and maintaining the home too; doing the shopping, cooking and cleaning.
Helen became ‘the rock ‘of the family. Everyone leaned on her. She had helped her father organise the funeral and was a supportive and comforting ear as he grieved for the loss of his wife. And she was always there for her two younger siblings who desperately missed their mother.
Helen prided herself on being strong. Everything had seemed ok until, many years later, her boyfriend left her for someone else, and Helen fell apart.
The anxiety attacks had started at work. At first, she noticed some palpitations, some shortness of breath and had taken herself to the doctor to be checked out. Her mother had died of a heart attack and she was worried. Reassured that nothing was wrong physically, her doctor had encouraged her to ‘talk to someone’. That was when she came to see me.
The panic attacks were easy to control. I taught Helen the STOP System™ and she was soon able to recognise the symptoms of anxiety; using breathing and scaling to control her emotional temperature which quickly put her back in control.
I was aware however, that this on its own would be like putting a sticking plaster on an amputation. Her grief for the loss of her mother, which she had boxed up and put on a shelf somewhere, had opened up when she encountered loss and grief again’ after her boyfriend left her.
As spiritual author, Deepak Chopra observes: ‘Grief is a wrenching emotion and therefore one of the most threatening.
Those we love have been taken inside us and made a part of who we are. When they die (or leave) we feel that our own being has been attacked.
There are many traditional models of grief. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross talked about the ‘stages’ of denial, fear, anger, bargaining and depression before reaching a point of acceptance.
Colin Murray Parkes described the ‘phases’ of mourning which begin with numbness or disbelief and move through feelings like guilt, anger and resentment, yearning, pining and searching towards resolution.
William Worden listed the ‘tasks’ of grief, just like a job which needed doing, and Stroebe and Schutt suggest a ‘dual process’, like the swinging of a pendulum from loss to restoration; moving from the painful emotions of grief to the practicalities of getting on with life and adjustment to change.
Get over it
Grief is not something we ‘get over’ but rather something we learn to live around. Like a walk through a dark wood, it is a road we must travel, as grief serves a housekeeping function for the human brain.
Powerfully painful feelings are produced by the brain as it updates its records and memory systems to accommodate the changes following a significant loss so that it can predict reality more accurately in future.
Sometimes too long can be spent in loss orientation with a kind of ‘pathological grieving’ where somebody might spend hours a day ruminating over the loss, perhaps even creating a shrine dedicated to the loved one. Unresolved, this may lead to morbid clinical depression over time.
Some however, like Helen, try to avoid the loss orientation altogether, suppressing the emotions they fear will overwhelm them; almost as though they can ‘box up’, confine or push the grief away. And, for some, this strategy may work, but for others, the lid of the box starts to open on its own and the delayed journey through grief must begin.
My work with Helen was gentle and supportive.
I provided a harbour where she took refuge for a while and, in this safe space, she was able to express the feelings she had fought so hard, and so long, to avoid. Like rewinding and replaying an old film in slow motion, Helen explored the past through many lenses until finally, like a slowly developing photograph, the picture became clear for her and she was able to move on.
In a guided meditation, I told Helen a story I had written for another client many years before.
It seemed to be just ‘the right fit’ for Helen and helped her accept that loss is a part of life, that our final control is in our response, and that the end of something…… is always the beginning of something else.
In the garden of the cottage stood an apple tree.
Nobody knew how long it had been there but it was central to the garden. Every autumn after a bumper harvest of beautiful green apples, its leaves would wither and die and fall to the ground, as is the natural order of things.
But every spring, at the first glint of summer warmth, the tiny buds on its branches would erupt into new life, creating before long, bunches of fragrant blossom and a beautiful green canopy for the garden, where the family would come and shade themselves from the intensity of the full sun, and holding the promise of more delicious apples for the autumn.
Every year was the same. The apple tree was steady, reliable and constant, following the gentle rhythms of the seasons, beautiful in its simplicity.
And the apple tree felt good. It was wonderful to be so appreciated, so central to the garden and so loved by the family.
Yet, one day something terrible happened.
Builders, who had been working on the cottage thoughtlessly, cut through one of the apples tree’s largest roots sending shock waves through the tree to its very core.
At first the tree felt numb. Nothing like this had happened before and now the tree became angry, berating the builders for their foolishness.
And then it grew frightened, feeling unsteady in the wind now, unstable. Every time the wind would blow, the tree would hold itself very tight and shout ‘Leave me alone, I cannot withstand your force. Can you not see I have lost my strength? Would you have me fall down?’
But the wind continued to blow, as is the natural order of things.
A bird that lived in the tree had an idea. ‘Why do you not ask the King of the Trees for some help? He is old and wise and he will surely know what you should do at this uncertain time.’
‘Of course’ said the tree. ‘In my anger and fear, I could not think clearly, but now I can see that you are right. But how will I get a message to the King?
‘It is the natural order of things,’ said the bird ‘that I have the freedom of the skies and so I can take your message deep into the heart of the woods where the King resides.’
‘So be it’ said the tree.
And with a flap of his wings, the bird was gone, soaring high into the sky and disappearing somewhere among the drifting clouds.
The apple tree waited…….and waited. Several days passed by and the tree felt deserted, without support, creaking and groaning in the wind and fearing the weakness caused by the damaged root.
And the old apple tree grew sad and worried. Holding himself so tight against the strength of the wind was making him tired.
Early one morning, the bird returned.
‘The King of the Trees’ he began, in an important voice ‘Says, it is the natural order of things for the wind to blow and that you should not resist, but rather bend with it. Breathe the cool fresh air. And as you bend, send down your remaining roots even further into the earth so that you will grow stronger and stronger and support you in your time of need.’
And that is exactly what happened. Every time the wind blew, instead of fighting and berating it for trying to cause it harm, the tree accepted it was the natural order and harnessed the power of the cool, fresh air to drive down roots so deep into the earth that it felt safe and secure and calm once more.
The apple tree is still there, bearing the scar of the damaged root, but stronger now in many ways.
And the tree is central to the garden, appreciated by the family, changing and evolving with the gentle rhythm of the passing seasons, growing older and wiser……… as is the natural order of things…..……