Grieving in the Neutral Zone

Original Pastel Painting of Walking through Light and Dark or grieving in the neutral zone
Light and Dark at Discovery Park in Seattle

Years ago I discovered William Bridges’ work on transitions and used his three part model in work I did with organizational change.  I returned to it recently and found the three parts of “ending, neutral zone, and beginning”  to help me think about my grieving process, although not quite as linearly.  Grieving in the neutral zone is more of a pendulum swing process, from dark to light, from past toward unknown future.  Back and forth repeatedly.

Bridges wrote a more personal book called The Way of Transition; Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments.  He applied all his theories to his own grieving process after the death of his wife.

The ending is obvious in the case of a death, such as his wife, such as my husband, Larry.  What Bridges urges is to look not only at the loss of your spouse, your identity as caregiver (in my case), but also at what else you have to let go of.  I have to let go of the future we’d hoped for, as well as the suffering of the past few years.  I have to let go of yearning for things to be other than they are.

In the neutral zone, I have to endure the chaos of the unknown. I walk daily  in between the past life as I knew it which is now gone and the future life I will build still to come.   I live walking from darkness into light, and back through darkness, and back into light.

Bridges describes the neutral zone as exhausting, anxiety provoking, and full of vulnerability.  Oh, yeah!!!  On the other hand he offers some benefits if we can stay in the neutral zone and not move on too fast.

He describes the creative possibilities:  a time to challenge the status quo (what your life has always been) and being hospitable to new ideas (new directions your life could take).  He suggests thinking of it as a time of “active waiting.”

For me what also stands out is the word itself:  Neutral.  Neither good nor bad.

Feeling the intensity of grief  I felt the other day isn’t bad.  Feeling the glimmer of new possibilities isn’t good.  They are just feelings.  Temporary, at that.  Maybe if I sit quietly I can find the peace that sits under both, the presence in today.  In “active waiting.”

I went to a meditation class last night and felt that underlying peace momentarily.  Felt the existence of both grief and ease to be two parts of the same whole.  Two parts of grieving in the neutral zone.

I have this instinct that that pendulum swinging back and forth is important progress.  That movement from dark to light and back to dark and back to light is movement – it isn’t standing still.  And movement will give me new perspectives.




Darkness Descends Again

Original painting of darkness descending After a few days of feeling lighter than I had in a long time, darkness descends again.  Two days ago I woke sad, depressed, despairing of my life as I see it now.  I dreamed about Larry, waiting to go somewhere with him and him not ever getting ready.

Yesterday I cried for hours.  The weight of the past felt so heavy.  The weight of the present even heavier.

I cried for Larry and all the indignities he had to endure, for how hard it was for him these last four years  – with each day taking more and more from him.  I cried for myself and for all I had to endure, for the years of worry, and how hard it was to keep on trying to create a good life for us.

I felt critical of everything I’d done or not done, and angry at world, and at the healthcare system for making everything so hard for us.

What do I need today, I asked myself, to find some comfort?  I feel so…. so depleted.

I tried to think of what Larry would have said.  Immediately it came to me.  He would have told me to stop worrying about the past.  What happened had happened, and was meant to be.

I read a passage in the daily affirmation book Healing After Loss, by Martha Hickman.  She quoted Julian of Norwich:

“I was wholly at peace, at ease and at rest, so that there was nothing upon earth which could have afflicted me.   This lasted only for a time, and then I was changed… I felt there was no ease or comfort for me except faith, hope and love, and truly I felt very little of this.  And then presently God gave me again comfort and rest for my soul… And then again I felt the pain, and then afterwards the delight and the joy, now the one and now the other, again and again. ”

I was particularly struck by the aptness of this reading.  Also the serendipity that the quote was from Julian of Norwich, who a dear friend had been studying for several years.  My friend has just returned from a trip to the Church of St. Julian in England to visit the anchorage in Norwich where Julian wrote and lived.  As my friend sat there imagining Julian (and herself) being walled into the space, she felt the darkness of her own mortality.

How strange that these meaningful words  came to me from someone who lived from 1342-1416, and in whose abode my friend had just sat for hours.

I read recently that emotions are meant to be temporary solutions, and apparently centuries past, Julian knew that to be true.

Julian’s quote is followed by Hickman’s comment: ” Just when we think we have ourselves in hand and are going to be able to manage this, we are suddenly plunged into despair again. ”

Yes, darkness descends again today.  But I know, I hope, this too will pass.  It is all part of the process of healing.   I can’t rush it.  It will take its own time.  Damn it!

“He that lacks time to mourn, lacks time to mend.” – Shakespeare.


Traveling with Grief

One of the beaches I walked while traveling with griefI hated to leave on my trip because it felt like I was leaving Larry behind, but traveling turned out to be the best thing I could have done.  After three and a half weeks away visiting family and friends, I came back feeling lighter, more open to new possibilities.  Traveling with grief was not easy, but distance and new surroundings  created an opportunity for new perspectives.

It was a complicated trip and took weeks to plan, mostly because I was overwhelmed with indecision.  My grief-addled brain is still not fully functional for executive tasks.  I was going 5 different places but I started with booking just one flight.  Days later, I booked another.  And then another.

Figuring out how to fit my visit into other people’s busy lives, and into my kids’ homes evoked a sense of not belonging with anyone.  Once I was away that feeling was heightened.  I kept wanting to call home to report in, to share my daily experiences, but there was no one to call.  No one at home to check in with.    I even had several panic attacks of forgetting to do something, forgetting to take care of something (or someone.)

In spite of being with people all the time, I often felt lonely.  I was reminded of a movie of an astronaut taking a space walk and losing the tether, being left to tumble through space entirely alone.   I even had dreams about calling Larry to come home, and him telling me “I can’t come home.  I have things I have to do.” My brain was still working on accepting that he is really gone.

Though traveling with grief, there were wonderful times.  My grandson ran across the living room in the mornings with a big grin and wide open arms to hug me as he yelled “YaYa!”  There was taking him to the zoo, and a children’s museum.  Long walks by the Pacific, and putting my feet in Puget Sound.  Going to meetings with my daughter at UCSF and to my son’s lab at UW, meeting his girlfriend, sharing dinners with them.  Seeing my brother and his family, and taking my sister to lunch.  Spending time with Larry’s son and his wife and daughter.  I could see Larry alive in his son!

There were hard firsts that I expected, like our 23rd anniversary.  And other firsts that snuck up and sucker punched me, like July 4th fireworks. We’d always enjoyed watching them together!!

I stayed for a week in the town where Larry and I lived for 20+ years before moving to Florida 3 years ago.  On a gray day I walked by the house where we used to live, past another house in which my mother and stepfather lived.  Felt the sadness of all the losses.  Felt my own mortality.

I visited many friends we used to socialize with together.  Some visits were delightful, others were harder.  Some friends asked wonderful caring questions about how I was doing, and wrapped me in their arms when I cried.  Others avoided Larry’s death and my grief completely – which felt SO weird.

Many people asked “where are you going to live?”  “Will you stay in Florida?”  “Will you move back?” Will you go back to work?”

I didn’t have answers, and at first was angered by the questions, by their assumption I had answers so soon.  Perhaps I was angry with myself for not knowing.  But as I traveled, I began to realize that I couldn’t go back anywhere, I had to move forward.  I couldn’t fit myself into my old life, I had to find a new life.  I couldn’t live my kids lives, I had to make my own life.   I began to feel a little shiver of possibility.

I was worried about coming home to an empty house after so much time with people.  But I walked in and felt the comfort of my home and the memories of Larry wrap around me.  I felt so much lighter!    As if a shift had happened through the process of being away for so long.

We’ll see how long this feeling lasts.  I know enough now to expect that both the bad feelings and the good feelings are temporary.  Yesterday, I woke with a momentary thought of wondering when Larry would be getting home.  Today I miss him terribly!!!

Even though I’m home, I’m still traveling with grief.