I once read that the Greek philosopher Herodotus wrote that life is like a river. You can put your hand in the water, but it’s always different; the river is never exactly the same. You can wade into the water, at the same location, in some things might seem similar. The water that is flowing by you now will soon be downstream. But the river itself is always different, always changing and never the same. Life is like a river of change.
There are four stages of adaptation as we go through a period of change. As change is constantly happening in our life, we often experience living through these four stages without even realizing it. Here are the four stages in the context of changes that most of us would call good.
1. Accept the reality of what has happened; accept the change.
After a very long wait in line, you are finally able to get on the roller coaster.
You are graduating from high school.
You are getting married.
A baby is coming; you’re going to be a father or mother.
2. Experience the emotions.
Roller coasters are both exciting and frightening.
Celebrate the achievement of graduation.
It’s going to be wonderful to be married and settle down to a new life.
Holding your baby in your arms is a great joy.
3. Adjust to living through the change, especially the rough spots. (Deal with it!)
The roller coaster throws you into changes; you’ll want to hold on!
You’ve graduated; it’s time to think more about a job and think less about prom.
You’re married now, so you stay home with your wife or husband instead of going out with friends. When there’s an argument, you work through it; you are committed.
You’re a parent now, so you get up in the middle of the night to feed the baby. When your child is immature, you choose to be an adult in order to model the right way, even though you would like to have your own temper tantrum.
4. Reinvest in what comes next.
Your roller coaster ride has concluded; it’s time to get in line for the next ride. Or funnel cakes.
School was good, but work is also very rewarding; I’m excited about the future.
We’re married now, and life has settled down; we’re excited about the future together.
My child’s getting married soon … we’re excited about grandchildren.
If life is always changing, you could say that living well is a matter of adjusting well to the changes that are continually coming toward us. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, the sun comes up; yesterday is gone, today is here. It’s always a new day, with the possibility of doing good. When we live well today, we sow the seeds that become a happier tomorrow. We create tomorrow by how we live today.
We go through these four stages continually as we go through any change in life. Basically, they flow from one stage into the next. But in another sense, they are continually happening. Life is like a roller coaster. You have to continually accept the reality that you are a parent. You have to continually deal with powerful emotions as you deal with problems and joys with your child. You have to continually adjust to situations as you work to be the sort of parent that is needed. As life is continually changing, you have to let go of “the good old days” of being the parent of a second grader and move on to be the sort of parent a third grader needs. Often, the level of change a day brings is small and subtle, small enough that we don’t notice our bouncing from one stage to another throughout a single day as we do what is needed to move on with life. For this reason, clinical psychologist and professor William Worden prefers to call these “tasks” instead of “stages” – even though one typically flows into the next.
If life was all about happy changes, life would never be hard. Sometimes life is hard and difficult. These are also the four stages, or four tasks, of coping with difficult changes in life. The four stages of adjusting to change listed about come from the work of psychologist J. William Worden (http://www.rosemead.edu/faculty/profiles/william_worden/) And they are known as the “four tasks of mourning” because they are the stages and tasks that a person experiences in adjusting to the very human experience of loss and grief. As good as it is to understand the best way to work through positive changes, these four tasks can be life saving when we have to deal with grief and loss because of a change in our lives. Here is a description of these four tasks as they are normally applied:
1. Accept the reality of the loss.
The loss can be the loss of a person to death, of a relationship, of a job, of a role, of a privilege (drivers license), of reputation, of what we imagine to be true, of health … of anything. Anything that requires us to adjust to a change in life can involve a loss. Often there is more than one loss involved when we are grieving. Like life, it can be complicated.
The first human tendency is to pretend that the loss has not happened – and when the pain of facing the loss is overwhelming, sometimes human beings protect their emotions by pretending that nothing has happened. But eventually everyday life forces us out of denial to accept the reality of the loss.
2. Experience the pain.
It is normal to experience pain when there is a loss. It is also normal to want to avoid pain. But this sort of pain is patient – if you are strong enough to put it off forever, it will wait forever. You cannot avoid it or go around it – you can only go through it.
This is why people tell you to “feel your feelings” – you may not be ready for that at the time, and no one can be forced to feel their feelings before they are ready. But when you are ready, it’s a good thing to let them flow through you. The pain of grief is like that river … you can let it flow through you, and let the pain go downstream.
Some people just call this “sitting with the pain” – you sit still, let it well up, let it flow out, and soon you are done with that episode of feeling your feelings. When feelings are intense, it’s good to release them in little doses. But no matter how intense, you will not lose yourself if you let go – you will come back to yourself in a bit. Feelings are like rain, sometimes like storms … but the sun always comes out after a while. Just as in a very heavy storm, pull over to the side of the road and wait it out; it will pass.
3. Adjust to life without.
Grief is a natural, normal adaptation to change. Change requires some adjustment in our lives; we can’t go on as if nothing is different. In little ways, as we adjust to life in this new time, life becomes less painful. It is healthy to grieve, and unhealthy to not grieve; it is healthy to adjust to life and what life brings to us. It is healthy for grief to hurt, but it is also healthy for the hurt to decrease.
In adjusting, however, we often find that we are right back down in an emotional hole. No matter – that’s what adjusting is. We get up, dust ourselves off, do what is needed and move on up and out of the hole and on with life. We can find ourselves in the hole a dozen times a day, or not for months at a time; it’s unpredictable. Sometimes in this stage, people withdraw somewhat so as to put more energy into adapting to their new lives.
Adjustments are often required when we are in a situation where life reminds us of our loss, particularly if we now have to do something which was done differently before the loss. Something our spouse once did before the loss, something that was easy before the illness, etc. Nonetheless, we can cope and still get it done, but we are reminded of the emotions of loss. We learn, and what we learn is how to adjust to life after the loss.
4. Reinvest in life.
Grief is a natural, normal adaptation to change. In time, as we heal, the grief changes to be something we can more easily live with. We have adjusted to life as it is now, after the loss, and incorporated what we have learned about coping with change into our lives. It’s not that we no longer feel grief, nor as if the loss never happened – it’s more that we do not need to invest all of our time, energy or attention into surviving the loss. We now have time, energy and attention for other things that are important and meaningful to life – to what brings us love, joy and peace.
We are now ready for what comes next … another change, and hopefully one of many positive changes. The dark night is over and morning has come.
As your pastor, I am ready to be helpful to you in these four tasks of adapting to change. I am ready to listen and to advise you as you would wish to share your life with me. I am ready to walk with you through these four tasks, listening and praying with you at each stage, in both good and bad times of life. Most of the changes in life are good and positive … but whatever sort they might be, God is with us and as the people of God, we go through them together. You are not alone.
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The photo “Lomo Roller Coaster!” by Alex Abian (alexabian) can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/xtyler/3761308077 and is courtesy of the Flickr.com Creative Commons license.