Crisis has a funny way of driving us to become the phoenix of our own life.
I was invited to be a guest on The New Family Podcast recently, to talk about exactly this, and how divorce – though painful and difficult AF – can be a catalyst to spark massive personal growth and development. (Psssst – you can listen to that podcast right here, or over here on iTunes).
Anytime we face a major loss in life, we are faced with two choices: look back, or move forward. Be it the end of a relationship, friendship, life, employment, health, or marriage, when we go through the trauma of loss, we essentially lose the sense of life as we knew it. And in that way, every crisis we face offers the opportunity to push us forward and become a stronger and more authentic version of ourselves.
True loss is followed by true grief, the kind of grief that doesn’t ever really go away. The kind of grief that leaves a scar in your heart and requires being handled with care, because no matter how old the scar is, when you just scratch the surface, it’s still there. True loss is followed by the kind of grief that sneaks up on you in the aisles of the grocery store when you least expect it, or while stopped at a red light in your car, and absolutely blindsides, then derails you with its intensity.
I am no stranger to loss, and this grief has become a passenger in my life. After many unsuccessful attempts at avoiding it, ignoring it, and numbing it with a variety of fleeting but pretty bad decisions, I have come to realize that the surest path to healthy healing is to accept and feel grief exactly as it is, for as long as it takes.
Drowning in grief happens when you keep looking back at what was. Grief’s intensity has the potential to drown you; if you want to live out the rest of your days in a healthy and happy way, drowning in grief is not an option. The other option, as noted, is to move forward.
Moving forward is a process all on its own. It is the process of taking that loss, pulling out every single lesson you can learn, and transmuting that experience into something good. It is an opportunity to take whatever those lessons you learned or gifts you received through the grieving process, and turn them into something healing and new. This is not effing easy; it’s a massive, massive learning curve, and one that requires – ironically – a lot of practice.
We call that learning curve “starting over.” It’s the feeling that your world is a snowglobe; a trauma comes along and shakes the hell out of it, so that when the snowflakes start to settle again, nothing is as it was before. Starting over is what happens when we re-acclimate ourselves to the new landscape of our lives, picking up in the places where the pieces all fell. After my fair share of practice navigating that new landscape, I think this how you do it.
- Travel. The beauty of travel is that it pushes you outside your comfort zone in any and every way. It takes you to new places, new people, new routines, new experiences, new challenges, new perspective. Each of those elements creates new memories, not to replace the old ones, but to augment them. New memories create a safe and comfortable mental space where you can draw from emotionally as you move forward.
- Spend time getting to know who you really are. Lots of time. Old patterns of behaviour and other people’s perceptions or expectations of us have the habit of driving us to repeat the same things over and over; we often define ourselves in relation to someone else, or who we were based on a particular relationship. When we stop and appreciate that we are both responsible for and accountable to ourselves, we can start to see ourselves as we truly are. We can enjoy the things we really love, and stop doing things we don’t – behaviours we have all been guilty of at some point in some relationship. The end of something can feel like shedding old layers, which underneath can reveal the truth about what makes us US, and embrace it.
- Say “yes.” We tend to get hung up on what kind of person we aren’t, i.e “I’m not really into that. I’m not the kind of person who would do this. I don’t know how to do that. I could never!” After a mega change in your life, why not try it, whatever “it” is? Just because you’ve never tried something before doesn’t mean you will never try it at all. You’re not too old, too young, too anything for new adventures; this is your life! You get to live it as you see fit. As soon as you find yourself saying no to something, say yes instead. One of two things are going to happen: it’s going to be amazing, and you’re going to have an awesome story to tell, OR it’s going to stink, and you’re going to have an awesome story to tell.
- Understand that everyone processes grief differently. And they do so on a different timeline. This means you will not be emotionally aligned with most of the people who are experiencing even a ripple of what the crisis is. At a certain point, after most losses, you will need to accept that people you thought would be there for your whole ride aren’t going with you anymore. They might come back and join you later, but for now, you need to respect and make peace that they’re on their own path and starting over in their own way. This may be the hardest part of starting over.
- Be gentle with yourself. This, above all else. Starting over is like a starfish growing a new limb; it’s going to take some time for it to mourn the presence and the loss of the old limb, then not only grow, but develop a new, fully functional limb in its place. That growth is ripe with emotion and rife with possibility to feel intense anger and shame for where you are in the growth process; you can’t shame a new limb into growing faster, and yell at it long enough to make it nimble on your timeline. Great patience and tenderness are required through the growing pains.
Is it easy? Nope. It gets easier, but as anyone who has experienced a great loss will tell you, it stays a part of you. It doesn’t have to define you, but it’s always there. Like a wave, it can come crashing down on you out of nowhere when you are just playing on the beach. But just like a wave, after the rush of intensity has passed, it washes away, and you are left with a fresh, clean sandy beach to play and build on. Go build something new. Let yourself play and make new and happy memories.
Rise up. Start over. You’ve got a new story to write and it looks nothing like your past.