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We’ve heard it, read it, or spoken versions of it:  “The only Constant is Change”. Scholars disagree on the exact wording of the original, but know that a man named Heraclitus was probably the first to make this observation in his writings around 500 BCE. Let that sink in and nurture your spirit for a minute:  we’ve been trying to figure out how to cope with Change for a really long time. It’s a natural and unavoidable part of the human experience, whether or not the changes feel good or bad. Some people thrive on and look forward to changes in their lives; but change brings uncertainty, apprehension and dis-ease to many others.

A certain kind of Change is particularly tricky for a lot of people; I’ll definitely include myself among those for whom Endings & New Beginnings are disruptive and distressing. In the past few years – maybe longer – the Endings in my life have felt like the freeway pileups we hear about, or are sometimes forced to bear witness to. Instead of twisted steel it’s more ‘emotional carnage’. One ending after another. A “domino effect’” of endings.

When Endings come fast and hard – regardless of whether or not they’re unexpected or anticipated on some subliminal level — they wreak havoc. An Ending may be the loss of a life, a job or lifestyle, a friendship, marriage or significant relationship. It can be a voluntary choice, or something imposed on us. Even in the most positive kinds of scenarios, Endings bring, among other things, the need to adapt to new feelings and circumstances. The crucial lesson we all learn about Endings is that there’s a process we must go through, at our own pace, in our own way, according to what feels right for us.

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I often think about how, as I grow older, most aspects of Life get so much easier as a result of clarity and wiser perspective. Nevertheless, Change is always lurking. When I’m faced with something really big – an Ending that’s rocking my world and shaking me down to the soles of my feet – I gravitate to people who’ve survived such changes and “lived to tell The Tale”. I want to understand. I want to feel that All Will Be Well; that the Ending will always be followed by a New Beginning. I want proof, in the version of someone else’s story.

Author William Bridges and his book “Transitions” (2nd ed.) is my go-to. Not only does Bridges reassure with Here’s Why You Feel What You Feel, but he outlines the process of self-renewal without sugar-coating what has to happen. Most importantly for me, lately, is the knowledge that following a Big Life Change, the body, mind, heart and spirit need a period of quiet time known as the Neutral Zone. As an example:  a  friend and I were sharing stories recently about our love of dogs. She’d lost a beloved Huskie she’d had for 15 years and went into a months-long funk. Her adult kids immediately began urging her to get a new pup.

But Mary pushed-back; she needed time to process her loss. The Neutral Zone (Bridges) is a period of rest, and also preparation for a New Beginning. Even if an Ending feels more ‘positive’ than ‘negative’, it’s still disorienting: it involves detaching from Something That Was, preparing to embrace What Comes Next. And whatever comes next may not be clear at all, when we want and need it to be.

I’ve gotten used to Change in my life; I’ve accepted that all manner of Endings will continue. My heart is lifted by the New Beginnings I know will come when I’m ready. In this period of rest and renewal, I reflect on Bridges’ words about  re-booting Hope:  “To make a successful new beginning, it’s important to do more than simply persevere. It’s important to understand what it is within us that undermines our resolve and casts doubt on our plans.”

It’s natural  to search for meaning, some sort of anchor or True North in all of existence, following the untimely death of someone in your family or friendship circle. It can feel like you’ve fallen off of a cliff:  arms and legs cartwheeling, trying to grab hold of something, anything, to slow down the momentum of this new reality.

Trying to comfort someone who’s grieving is almost as difficult,  as I recently experienced with a friend. Words are just words. Cards and flowers are meant to express love and care, but can feel like absurd gestures when offered to a widow who was expecting another 30 years with her husband. Loss can feel like such a solitary thing, especially in Western culture. We tend to perceive the grief process as something that can never truly be felt, never fully experienced, by anyone but the closest person left behind. In my friend’s home, wooden blinds tightly covered her windows; she seldom went outside; and visitors, even friends, felt like intruders (as she later told me). As I thought about what I could, or should do as her friend – if anything – I recalled a travel experience that comforted me in its dramatic contrast.

I was in Egypt, walking with my companions through a square in Cairo, at around 10 o’clock at night. There were so many people out and about: a chaos of jostling bodies packed so closely that it almost felt intentional; a kind of slow, seductive dance that a thousand or so people were engaged in; enjoying the relative cool of the evening. One of my friends was Egyptian – totally used to this scene — who held tightly to my hand, pulling me along in the crowd as we pushed toward our destination (a coffee bar). The lights in the square were pale gold orbs on top of tall, futuristic-looking poles:  not bright enough to fully illuminate our walk, but some help in the growing dark. The lights washed the faces in the crowd in sepia tones. It was an odd, dreamy, slow-motion party filled with animated conversation in Arabic or Farsi (and probably other languages as well).

The coffee bar we were headed to was in a swank hotel on the Nile River. It felt like everyone in the square was headed there also. As we made our progress, I heard a loud, high-pitched scream: more of a wail, now that I think back on it. Knowing what can happen in large cities at night, I instantly assumed there’d been some kind of violence. I felt a little panicky. But my Egyptian friend didn’t react to the first, nor a second scream; he just kept pulling me along at the same pace. The crowd didn’t seem agitated either. I kept looking behind me, expecting some awful visual. Peoples’ bodies behind us were parting to allow what I thought might be law enforcement through.

All in black, some faces covered and some clearly visible, murky shapes of women were forging through the nighttime crowd, 2or 3 abreast. They were shrieking and crying, raising their arms above their heads. Their cries were painfully loud and visceral. The emotion vibrated in my body and made tears well in my eyes. It felt overwhelming. My friend gave a quick tug on my hand, indicating  that we should stop walking and step aside to let the women by. It seemed that at least 100 women passed us, all sobbing in the most heartfelt way. Next, a group of men came from behind the women, holding what looked like a stretcher on their shoulders. I was completely transfixed: there was a human body on the stretcher (wrapped in white cloth), and this crowd of men and women appeared to be part of a funeral procession. At 10 o’clock at night. In a crowded public square. In the middle of a sea of strangers.The grief of the mourners was not only on display, but a full-on public expression of emotional pain. The interest of the onlookers around us intensified; they began shouting out what seemed like commiseration and chanted prayers. Some tried to touch the body on the stretcher as it passed.

At the coffee bar my friends were nonchalant about what’d just happened. But I wanted and needed to talk about it; to be eased-into the idea that this was actually a very natural way for people to cope with death. As unsettling as it was, the group-catharsis I’d been a part of was also mesmerizing. I know that other cultures have similar rituals, but this one, in particular, was the most primal I’d ever witnessed: a mixture of deep sadness, surrender, release and relief. The relief came in being comforted by so many others who were physically, emotionally and spiritually ‘present’ for the mourners.

When my widowed friend finally emerged from her seclusion I spoke in a flood of words: what I’d been thinking and feeling about her, and her loss. She seemed appreciative, but reluctant to talk. When she did, for just a moment, the tears came, along with the look of “What am I going to do now??” Just as quickly, however, she changed the conversation. It made my stomach hurt, to be honest. There was still so much sadness.

Everyone processes loss differently. Sometimes just surviving the day, by carrying-on with routines, is the only option. But, might being able to let loose — to scream  and howl one’s pain to the skies – as in the crowded Cairo square, with so many people engaging with you in your despair – be a healthier way of coping, than suffering in quiet solitude? How many emotions do we feel we must endure in silence because they’re too fearsome and powerful to let loose? Why are we so reluctant to let others know the depth of our sadness, while it consumes us completely? There was community, that night in the square:   a joining of people’s hearts, in the midst of unfathomable sorrow. There’s a message in that, I believe – for all who feel alone in sadness and despair – and for those of us who stand as close as we dare, wondering what to do.