This all started out as I watched a friend get ready to make some big life changes: Graduation from seminary, first job as a full-time minister, moving to a new home. These are all things we think of as positive - stuff we look forward to. Things she has worked really hard for.
But over the past few months, as these changes took place, my friend has been exhibiting many of the common symptoms of grief. I’m very familiar with these symptoms, and with the classic stages of grief as defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross because I’ve been through them myself as well as learning about them formally when I took training to be a grief counselor.
You see, when my first child was born, she had severe physical disabilities, a condition called arthrogryposis. In my case it was caused by a bout of staphylococcal food poisoning I had when I was seven months pregnant. The toxins from the bacteria damaged my daughter’s motor cortex so she couldn’t move properly - her muscles simply didn’t respond to her brain. She was confined to a wheelchair for the five short years of her life.
When I took grief counselor training from Parents Helping Parents in Tennessee (Parent to Parent of Georgia is another great support group) I learned that the gut-wrenching, raw emotions parents of disabled children experience really are grief. No, your child didn’t die, but the child you expected to be born is gone, replaced by something you never expected. If your child (or any other close family member) develops a serious medical condition later in life, or is disabled due to an injury or illness, the same applies: You don’t have the person you expected any more, and you grieve for that loss.
Of course, when someone we love dies, the loss is obvious and the grief is expected. But what about other losses, big and small?
The more I think about it, the more I understand that any change, even a positive one, is a loss, in the sense that we’re losing the status quo and having to adapt to new circumstances. That’s why the Holmes and Rahe stress scale that I used for years with my naturopathy clients includes such ‘happy’ changes as marriage, marital reconciliation, pregnancy and outstanding personal achievement.
It’s funny how we humans cling to the status quo and are afraid to change, even when the change is a positive one. I guess that’s where the old saying, “Better the devil you know” comes from. When we make a change, we’re walking through a doorway and we can’t know for sure what the world will look like on the other side. That’s scary. We’d rather be miserable than lose control.
The Death card in Tarot encapsulates this concept: Life change means walking into the unknown. Robert Heinlein’s character Valentine Michael Smith called these points in life ‘cusps.’ They’re like crossroads, where we have to make a choice, and that choice will change everything from that point on. That choice, and that change, can be so scary that we freeze and get stuck at that crossroads, unable to move on.
My sister-in-law, a substance abuse counselor, has told me that this is a common problem among her clients. They’re already miserable, often in abusive relationships in addition to having to deal with their addictions, but they’re afraid to take that step, to choose which way to turn at the crossroads, so they just hover in that one spot, unable to move. In order to make a change to health and safety, they have to give up all they know. They have to let go - incur a loss - before they can move on.
I can’t think how many times my various spiritual mentors have recited to me that well-worn cliché about having to empty out your cup before you can fill it up again. Yeah, I’m right there with everyone else, not wanting to let go of the ol’ status quo. But what I hadn’t realized until now was why it’s so damn hard to empty out that cup in the first place. It’s a loss. It evokes grief. And no one wants to feel that, to go through that. No wonder it’s so hard.
But now that I understand what’s really going on inside me, why change is so hard - even positive change - maybe I can work my way through it with a little more ease. I can give myself the room to recognize the grief and honor it. And move on.