Making Your Goodbyes Good: 5 Ways to Come to Terms with Change
May 23, 2011
The world is full of possibilities—even when you lose something you truly loved.
During the first half of my life, I was lucky enough to live in a series of beautiful places, and I spent a lot of time painting pictures of my surroundings: the majestic Rocky Mountains, the colorful marketplaces of Asia, the Charles River in Boston. Then I moved to Phoenix, and my artistic enjoyment took a serious dive. I tried to warm to the desert landscape, really I did, but for me it had all the charm of a broiled litter box: endless beige flatlands broken by occasional mounds of volcanic rock that looked—I must be frank—like scorched poop. Before I knew it, I was in full-on mourning for something so basic I'd never imagined losing it: the simple joy of living somewhere I loved.
Any kind of ending can leave us feeling "deserted," as if our lives have gone barren and dry. It doesn't take moving, divorce, or a loved one's death; we can feel bereaved when a friendship wanes, or our knees get too creaky for racquetball, or we quit a bad habit. When my clients are lost in the barren landscape of endings, I'm always tempted to quote the Rilke sonnet that begins, "Want the change. Be inspired by the flame / where everything shines as it disappears." But because I'd rather not get punched in the mouth, I try something else instead.
Ending the Struggle with Endings
It's natural to dislike saying goodbye to things we care about. Who wouldn't want to preserve the beauty, the vibrancy, the fun of things they've loved? Of course, these are the very qualities we destroy by refusing to let go. When we try to force a defunct relationship to continue, or stay in a job after we've outgrown it, it invariably turns hateful. Denying an organic end point is like trying to animate a corpse.
The option is to stop struggling and let the ending happen, to go into the desert and let the grieving—the searing waves of sadness and anger—come. The deserts of our lives can seem unlivable. But if we stay awhile, something unexpectedly comforting happens. "Every happiness," writes Rilke, "is the child of a separation / it did not think it could survive." Conversely, any sorrow can be the parent of a joy we've never imagined. Don't believe me? Try the following steps.
1. Relax into Ending
Though the concept of letting go sounds great, it's a delicate art. You can't successfully try to let something go, because trying is at odds with releasing. Fortunately, our subconscious minds already know what to do, if our conscious minds are willing to suggest doing it.
Right now, consider something in your life that's ending (this might be all you think about, or you may have to ponder a bit, but you'll find something, trust me). As you hold this fading thing in your mind's eye, inhale while silently repeating the phrase, Let it happen. When you exhale, think, Let it go. Keep at this for several minutes. When you feel emotions like sadness or anger begin to flow, you'll know it's working.
Practice this meditation consistently and you can strip most of the trauma and drama right out of your world. I once met the housekeeper of an Indian yogi who owned a collection of gorgeous natural crystals. One day the housekeeper knocked over a display case, smashing many of the irreplaceable stones. When she apologized, profusely and in tears, the yogi smiled and said, "Those things were for my joy, not for my misery." Such is the ease with which a practiced mind embraces endings.
No one expects instant equanimity from you, but as you repeatedly think, Let it happen, let it go, you'll begin heading in the right direction. Relax into the bittersweet mix of emotions, and go on to the next step.
Even during difficult times, there are things that bring you joy, or at least gratitude. Once you're in the receptive state of letting go, think of your greatest current source of comfort or happiness—a loved one, your job, your innate determination, the stash of See's Nuts & Chews hidden in your sock drawer. Whatever it is, write it down now.
3. Recall an Event That Ushered in This Happiness
With your treasured prize in mind, think back to an event that helped bring it into your life. Maybe you met your spouse while jogging, or learned your trade in a terrific class, or nabbed your great apartment by seducing the building manager. Record this event now.
4. Keep Tracing Casual Events Until You Find an Unhappy One
Each source of joy has a "family tree" of progenitor events that get more plentiful the further back you look (just as you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on). Keep tracing the chain of events that led to your greatest current happiness until you run across one that seemed painful or ugly when it happened.
For example, my client Hannah has amazing friends, gleaned from dozens of pleasant encounters. Why? Because Hannah was once very lonely. "My father left my mom when I was 5, and she had to work to support us," Hannah says. "I spent a lot of time alone, imagining a loving family. So when I meet people who interest me, I never pass up the chance to create a friendship."
Meanwhile, Maddy's greatest happiness comes from her job managing a famous film festival. When she started, however, the festival was obscure and the job paid only minimum wage. She never would have taken it if she hadn't been desperate for work after losing her previous job.
And the thing that brings Jaquee the most joy is her faith—a faith born from the "ugly ancestor" of an abusive relationship. "If I hadn't lost myself so completely and felt so unloved in my marriage," she says, "I wouldn't have needed to find myself in such a deep way, or keep hunting until I found the unconditional love I feel now."
Once you've traced the ancestry of your greatest happiness back to a painful event (I guarantee you can), you'll see that the pain involved an ending—the end of innocence, or freedom, of a life, of a love. Write down the name of that ending.
5. Notice and Nurture the Happy Children of Your Unhappy Ending
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes how most people, when dealing with endings, focus exclusively on the loss, not anticipating other events that could occur in the wake of—or even because of—that loss. Gilbert often asks people how they think they'd feel two years after the death of their eldest child. ("As you can probably guess," he says, "this makes me quite popular at parties.") Everyone answers that they'd be totally devastated. "Not one person I know has ever imagined anything other than the single, awful event suggested by my question," writes Gilbert. "When they imagine the future, there is a whole lot missing, and the things that are missing matter."
When people actually lose a loved one, the subsequent two years can be pure hell, and Gilbert knows this. Yet he also knows that they contain the beginning of new joys. These joys—call them children of loss—don't burst into our lives full-grown, instantly turning grief to euphoria. Like all babies, they start out weak and tiny, and require nourishment to grow. If you're in the midst of a loss or its immediate aftermath, you may not be paying much attention to newborn sources of happiness. And if you can't think of a single good thing that came from a long-ago ending, you've probably been too busy grasping at ghosts to care for your baby joys as they were born. The good news is, they didn't die from lack of attention. They're still waiting for you to help them flourish.
Now, list five things arising from a recent ending that bring you even tiny bits of positive feeling. Maybe losing your job lets you sleep in, or your boyfriend's departure replaced arguments with peace. See what you can find.
For me, salvation was in the clouds. About a month after moving to Phoenix, I noticed that almost daily, the hot, dry, convectional desert air created massive, elaborate cloud formations. What's more, the cloudscapes were so beautiful that I wanted to remember them forever, so I started painting them. I found myself inventing new words to describe the way desert clouds play with light: upglow, backshine, rainblur. Each is the name of a baby joy that grew as I came to love the desert, the perfect minimalist stage on which the clouds perform their glorious dances. Oh, believe me, I live in a beautiful place.
Sometimes it bothers me that before I've even started painting a skyscape, it's gone. But the truth is, something we love is always ending. If we keep in mind that the thing we've lost was itself the child of separation, it's easier to let go. We learn the way through loss to gain, expecting unimagined delights to be born from every sorrow. It becomes not only possible but delicious to follow Rilke's advice: "Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking / finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins."