What do you do when something goes away—something you wanted to keep? A few years ago I read a book that helped me greatly in this question. The book is called Transitions and the author is William Bridges. The book is more than 30 years old but it addresses the stages of transitions so clearly that it is a timeless book. How can you be skillful in navigating change?
Bridges says every transition has three phases—death, chaos and confusion, rebirth.
Here are those three phases fleshed out a little more:
- Phase One: Death. Simply put “something ends.” Some of the endings are big and some are relatively little. A pastor leaves. A key friend becomes alienated. A spouse dies. A job is taken away. A dream dies. An application is denied. A favorite car is wrecked. Employment ends and retirement begins. High school ends. A beloved pet dies. The empty nest phase of life starts. There are probably hundreds of major transitions that could be listed here. In each case something dies or ends or goes away or is lost. Sometimes it is a small thing like a favorite shirt being ruined and sometimes it is a big thing like a family member dying or leaving. But small or big something has ended. The stage is characterized by grief, disappointment, anger, disbelief, and bargaining to get back the precious person or thing.
- Phase Two: Chaos and Confusion. In this time immediately after something has ended—which may be days, months, or years depending on the situation—there is a time of chaos and confusion. When we are in this phase we generally get anxious. We cannot see the solution. We are grieving whatever has ended and we are unsure of what is going to happen. We look forward but there is no clear path forward and there is no hope on the horizon. We cannot believe that there would be a replacement of that thing that has died. In the case of something precious being gone—like a spouse or a child—there is the despair that the person could never be replaced because they are just too precious. In the case of a spouse dying or leaving there is the fear that I will never have another spouse. The end of this phase is uncertain and often it feels as if it will never end.
- Phase Three: Rebirth. This is the time when the void in life is filled or the need is met or the hope is fulfilled. In the case of unemployment it would be getting a new job. In the case of losing a spouse it would be getting remarried. In the case of being rejected for a college it would be getting into another college. In the case of having a contract rejected it would be getting a new contract signed. If a pet died and new pet was gained. The rebirth phase is not a time when a beloved person is “replaced.” But it is a time when a void of some kind is filled and a need is met and joy is kindled by the new person or thing that is the rebirth.
What do you do in these phases? I am sure that the answer to this simple question would fill a book. Not having time to write a book—and not having the expertise to fill a book—just let me give a couple of key thoughts.
- What to do in Phase One when something has died: Grieve well. Let it hurt. Do not say it doesn’t hurt. Resist the temptation to self-medicate. Draw close to God. Draw close to the people who care about you. Cry. Give grace to the people who shower you with platitudes and syrupy poems. Don’t make any life altering decisions.
- What to do in Phase Two when chaos and confusion have ensued: Trust in God. Pray. Ask for help in gaining perspective. Stay connected to the people you love. Fight the tendency to “worst case scenario” thinking. Counsel with your advisors—people who care about you and have wisdom. Discipline yourself to test the input of others—even though you are in confusion you must not get sloppy in your thinking.
- What to do in Phase Three when the rebirth has happened: Rejoice. Give thanks to God and others. Share your joy and your story. Cultivate ongoing gratitude for all that you have. Cherish the thing that has reborn. Be a great steward of the thing that has now come into your life. Love it well but hold it lightly.
Death. Chaos and confusion. Rebirth.
You may be in one of these phases with something little or something big. The common denominator in every phase is, as our former pastor Joe Wall said: “Stay close to the Shepherd.”
Jesus loves us deeply and shepherds us well. His love for us and His skill in shepherding us are not affected by the phase of transition that we happen to be personally experiencing right now. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever—when I am in Phase One and/or in Phase Two and/or Phase Three.
“Stay close to the Shepherd.”