Our familiar life circumstances, defining roles and personal identity are either drastically changed or lost completely. We are overwhelmed with the sheer number, immediacy and complexity of the choices we face. Feelings of anger, betrayal, abandonment, loss, grief, confusion, vulnerability, inadequacy, fear, loneliness and other powerful emotions disrupt our usual rhythm, drain personal energy, distort our perceptions of reality and truth, diminish our capacity to cope effectively and rob us of our everyday common sense, wisdom and inner peace.
Yet, this is precisely when we suddenly have so many important decisions to make. We rely on family members, friends and professionals - lawyer, CPA, financial services provider, realtor, minister, therapist, etc. - to advise us and help us figure out what we should do.
Their words swirl around in our heads. We have lots of questions and few answers. We have lots of stress and very little peace. Nothing is clear. We may be thinking something like this: “There are so many things to consider. I don’t even know who I am any more, so how can I possibly know what decisions to make right now? What do I really need or want in the future, anyway? I don’t even know what all my choices are, much less understand everything I need to know about each of the choices. What trade-offs would I have to make? I just want to make sense of it all. I need to know if I will be OK.”
Ironically, it can be the person who seemed to “have it made” who finds transition decisions most difficult. Perhaps this transitioner is a successful business executive, a skilled professional, a well-organized and talented stay-at-home spouse or prominent community leader. This person may be accustomed to a life of privilege and to handling business and personal affairs easily. What makes transition so difficult?
It starts with the expectations we impose on ourselves. If we internalize the expectation that we should be able to handle everything in stride, that is a very unrealistic expectation and only creates more stress. It’s very normal to have crazy times, senior moments and rollercoaster emotions during transition. We need to give ourselves permission to just be real. We don’t need a daily dose of “I should be able to handle this with no problem, so what’s wrong with me?” Additionally, this transitioner’s personal and business affairs may, in fact, be more complex, so there may very well be reasons, such as tax issues, estate planning, investments or family business succession, for example, which make transition decisions particularly challenging.
Transitioners also struggle with their expectations of the object of loss. We expected our deceased spouse to provide for us, to take care of us through life insurance, good estate planning, etc. We expected our divorced spouse to be reasonable, to agree on custody of the children, to agree on a fair division of our marital assets, to be reasonable about alimony and/or child support, to give us the house, to sell the house and split the proceeds, to treat us with respect, etc. We expected our former employer to be fair, to pay severance pay or retirement benefits which would enable us to make a smooth transition, to honor our years of service, etc. Anything less is hard for us to accept, especially when we know the resources were there to meet our expectations.
Even well-meaning family and friends can inadvertently add to a transitioner’s struggles. Uncomfortable about the transitioner’s pain and wanting to provide encouragement and moral support, without thinking, they tell the transitioner, “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. You’re so smart, so good-looking, so successful, so financially secure, so talented…so “you name it”…that you’ll be over this in no time.” What this feels like to the transitioner is that “No one understands what I am going through, no one listens, no one hears me, no one really cares about me.” Then, guilt and self-criticism take over. “Maybe I have no right to feel the way I do. After all, there are lots of people worse off than I am. What’s wrong with me?”…Here we go again….You get the picture. In reality, though, thinking that there are people who are worse off doesn’t take away the pain and loss this transitioner feels.
Fortunately, the challenges we face in our life transition journey can also lead to a sea change of personal growth and spiritual awakening. Stripped of our protective covering of comfortable beliefs, we are exposed and vulnerable. There is nowhere to hide. We turn to God for strength, healing, hope, meaning and purpose. We start to see things differently. Our struggles, our fears and our confusion become our opportunities to learn life lessons and spiritual truths. We stop resisting the past. What could be more futile anyway? We stop controlling the present. We learn to let go and let God. In what has to be one of life’s biggest mysteries, letting go actually dispels the fears that we once tried to control, creates clarity out of uncertainty and gives us power instead of taking it away. It is real. It is exciting. It is uplifting. It is transforming.