Grief Through Life Transitions

If we live long enough, we will go through a significant life transition.

For the first years of life, this is marked by transitions we look forward – rites of passage, if you will. One of the major themes I am seeing at the moment is grief over the loss of significant markers around some of these. Examples include seniors missing prom, senior cut day, class day and with graduations suspended; college graduates missing out on celebrating their hard work; wedding festivities postponed, among others. There is definitely a large chunk of folks in this group at the present moment.

Then there are the life transitions that, though common, are not planned in a person’s life. Walking through our parent’s divorce, the loss of friendships or romantic relationships, grappling with the emergence of a chronic disease, finding recovery for mental health and substance use disorders, and grappling with professional burnout are a few examples.

I have dealt with a number of these transitions in my lifetime, most recently a case of burnout that impacted me to the point that it turned my entire world upside down. It’s been about 18 months since I acknowledged it, and I am still working through it on some level each day.

Each of these transitions marks the loss of something significant for us, which is why we are addressing it with the topic area of grief.

In general, these transitions can include a general process to them. In the past few weeks we have referenced the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief, but I recently saw an evolution to this in a social work publication (Social Work Tech, “The Seven Stages of Grief”) that I think is more relevant here:

  1. Shock & Denial
  2. Pain & Guilt
  3. Anger & Bargaining
  4. Depression, Reflection, Loneliness
  5. The Upward Turn
  6. Reconstruction & Working Through
  7. Acceptance & Hope

Many times, what we call denial is actually shock. It is more of a passive process, one that is protective in nature rather than an active ignoring of a loss or issue. This can be true even when we are just becoming aware of something about ourselves that is not working or unhealthy, even if it has been obvious to those around us.

The acknowledgement of pain and guilt as a distinct step was one of the elements that resonated with me with this expanded set of stages of grief. As I have been contemplating this topic, the word “regret” has come to mind consistently. When people first get into recovery, and the shock of this new life has settled a little, many people start what we commonly call the comparison game. When I was 22 and first finding recovery, I was acutely aware of the people who were graduating college, getting married, and the like. I had the distinction of failing out of a few colleges and having a moderately willing hostage in life, so I felt like I was WAY behind in this game. We see this with most people who find recovery from substance use, no matter their age. It is also common with people who feel like they have lost a period of their lives to a failed relationship, an unhealthy behavior, or even a belief construct that held them back.

One thing I wrestled with a lot while navigating the early part of my recovery from burnout was a deep sense that I was a fake or a fraud, and that my career successes were a fluke. Over time, this settled down, giving way to the recognition that an unfortunate set of circumstances coupled with a deep desire to be seen as capable and competent had driven me deep into a hurried, busy, over committed life that I resented and felt trapped in.

Enter anger and bargaining. There are a number of elements that contributed to my burnout that were legitimately out of my control. For a while I was deeply stuck on these elements. There is some purpose in having an external locus of control. Though it leaves us completely and utterly powerless in the end, in the moment it reeks of control, which feels so much more predictable than looking in the mirror. With each of the issues I have walked through in my life – addiction, toxic relationships, and professional overdrive – I had to burnout on the idea that it was because of someone, or something, else. Once I spun these out, I had nowhere to look but in the mirror.

Sometimes I would burn out on the idea my reality was because of someone else, and even though I knew the truth was in the mirror, I would beg that someone or something to be what I wanted them to be. This is why I say I had a hostage. I knew there was something deeply wrong with me in my addiction, and I spent many years begging and pleading with my partner to be the person I thought I needed them to be so I would get better. He tried. He desperately tried. He wanted my happiness, my peace, more than anything. But that wasn’t something he could give me. Neither could the drugs or alcohol. Just saying this leaves the lyrics of Drugs Don’t Work by Ben Harper running through my head. But I digress…to finish that last though, neither did being the person who said yes and working myself into the ground.

Truthfully, for me there has always been some level of return to regret and guilt before settling into depression and loneliness. The recognition that I gave up and hustled for my worth. And the deeply wounding truth that no one could give it to me, even if they wanted to. Then the shame of recognizing that most people just wanted to keep taking, allowing me to hustle for my worth for their gain.

Then comes the depression and loneliness. They say it is darkest before dawn, and this is the lowest of the low in this process. I have been around, and through enough, to now see this for the moment it is, but it still hurts like hell. Who likes to have that moment where a look in the mirror brings the harsh reality that much of our suffering in these life transitions is self-inflicted?

The upward turn is also what is sometimes referred to as “turning the corner.” It is the place where you pause, take a breath, and start to realize you can do this thing. Whatever the transition is, you begin to get used to the way walking through it is feeling, and you start to get the idea that you can survive it ok. This recognition generally cracks the door for some hope, and a little grit or resolve to figure out a way to grow through your new way of life.

The truth for me is that the last two – reconstruction & working through and acceptance and hope – are an intertwined process.

The imposter syndrome I felt was a process, heavy at first, and it subsided over time…in direct proportion to my willingness to do the work that presented itself to me. I have always been a workhorse, with a high driving energy level and willingness to say yes to just about anything. What I needed in recovery from burnout is a solid foundation of reworking all of that, starting with really wreckoning with the heart of it all.

What this looked like is that, in the first months, I worked out a number of consulting and training contracts, but instead of energizing me, the prospect of these projects left me feeling hollow and exhausted. It took a number of times of saying yes and then having to go and back out gracefully (and honestly) to realize that my job was to stop saying yes.

I am so thankful for JP. He didn’t really understand what I was going through, but he did know that I needed the space to do it. So he went into overdrive to make the space I needed. This very well has saved my life. And put us in the position to work in our business together, which is really what we wanted all along anyway.

Time takes time. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. I am still in the arena, fighting this battle. This was a case of deep soul burnout, and I have spent a lot of time learning to trust my body and my energy level. Things have improved dramatically, yet there is still much work to be done. Really, there remains elements to be undone, as this is a process of unbecoming, of deconstructing old beliefs and actions that no longer work. My instinct for the longest time was to continue to grab for the old skills but it was like trying to use a spoon to cut a steak – they were completely ineffectual. My job is to stop doing what is not working, and let time, experience, and God guide me to what I am meant to do and be next.

Brene Brown talks about having a strong back, soft front, and wild heart. My hustle kept the bills paid, progressed my career, and the like. It also left my back broken from the crushing weight from taking on everything that came my way. A lack of attention to who should get my attention left my soft front covered and hidden from being wounded by people who should not have been given the privilege of that status in my world. And my wild heart was hurt and becoming hardened. The kicker? I was coming home to the people who meant the most in the world to me with nothing left in the tank. Sad, but true. And the state of many people in the middle of their careers like I am.

So I have worked on being still. Putting my energy to my priorities first, then working out from there. Doing things daily that tend to my mind, body and spirit. Working on putting strong energy into my marriage. Being present and nurturing the girls. Working on doing less work with better quality. Letting my back be strong. Nurturing relationships that honor my soft front. And letting my heart (and sometimes my mind) be wild.

In the end, as with anything else, the “other side” of a life transition changes us forever. There is no arrival point – there is a journey.