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(August 2007)

What Are Life Transitions?

The two most dramatic life transitions are ones we barely notice or remember—these are birth and death.  Coming into this world and leaving it are events we celebrate or mourn in the lives of others, but our experience of our own birth amounts to little more than an after-the-fact look at a faded photograph and our experience of death (unless we have had a near death experience) is entirely in our imaginings.

Most of the life transitions that we have to deal with are in between birth and death:  starting kindergarten, graduating from high school, our first love, losing our virginity, marriage, having children, divorce, empty nests, having grandchildren, first jobs, promotions, moves, losses of friends and loved ones, retirement, financial reverses or windfalls.  The list is endless.  I would estimate that we each go through at least twenty such major transitions in a life span, some joyful, some painful, some easy and barely noticed, others difficult and haunting. 

Some are marked with great anticipation, others with dread.  Some are expected, many are unplanned, even unthinkable.

All require us to examine our capacity to adjust.  We have to reframe our thoughts about life, about ourselves, and about our world.  We may be jolted out of a comfortable and stable emotional state into one marked with chaos and uncertainty.  Our spiritual core may be damaged or even expanded. 

Though every human being since creation has had to go through the same transitions, we can feel like each transition is an entirely unique experience, one we’ve heard about or read about but not truly known until our own lives are affected.

Why Are Life Transitions Difficult?

Life transitions are difficult because they require mental, emotional, and spiritual readjustment.  And most often they come on top of one another or at least overlapping.  Haven’t we all wished that we had just one year or even one day without the need to make some major adjustment? 

Scott Peck begins his book The Road Less Traveled by saying that life is difficult and the sooner we figure that out, the easier life will be.  But as human beings, we forget that fact.  We are surprised when events happen that demand readjusting our psyches and our daily lives.  We stay in denial.  We wish and hope that things will change, that we will be magically whisked back into our former comfort zone.

The most difficult transitions can be related to the sudden loss of health—a  stroke, heart attack, the onset of multiple sclerosis, even a sudden severe depression.  The loss of health does not happen in a vacuum.  It affects all the other aspects of our lives.  Working lives are ended and premature retirement thrust upon us.  Income is lost and with it homes or a comfortable lifestyle.  Family, even spouses, cannot face the changes in us and abandonment follows closely.  What has been a vibrant, overly busy life becomes a painful drudge with empty hours becoming agonizingly long.

How Can We Make Life Transitions Easier?

Preparation can help with the normal life transitions.  Finding and beginning to practice those retirement skills before you’re given the golden, or not so golden, handshake.  Taking care of the children or grandchildren of friends before thrust into parenthood or grandparenthood yourself.  Having an agenda of your own, a bank account of your own, and friends of your own, even though you have a loving spouse and don’t anticipate him leaving.  Learning how to do both halves of a marriage.  I’ve seen men practically starve to death because they no longer have someone to cook for them and women avoid driving anywhere because they don’t know how to fill the car with gas. 

For the unexpected transitions, especially those that pile atop one another, the best advice is to get professional help early in the game.  Most women I see in my practice have been struggling for months or years on their own before a crisis or a suicide attempt drives them to seek help.  During this time, opportunities have been lost to salvage a home or redo finances.   Isolation has resulted in the loss of social networks and fears about even leaving the house.  Despair has lead to a type of learned helplessness where no becomes the answer to every suggested plan.  Just assume, that you, like every other human being, is going to be overwhelmed by multiple transitions occurring at the same time. 

The nickname for my women’s midlife support group was the group for the formerly strong.  No one can remain “strong” when life transitions come on like a steamroller.  This is a time to reach out to family, friends, pastors, and professionals.