There are many experiences in life, which remind us that change is an inevitable part of living. We then have to choose to either to resist this process or look for new ways of finding meaning in our lives. Losing a loved one to homicide, for example, is one of those changes that throw our lives into chaos and disarray. We are forced to see our world very differently, knowing that things will never be the same again. Our loss involves substantial change in every aspect of our lives.
There are many experiences of change which also involve loss, although they are not as extreme and tragic as losing a loved one to murder. However, these changes also involve loss as they challenge our very sense of stability and safety in the world. I would like to share a personal story of personal change, which challenged my way of looking at the world. It reminded me that all change involves loss and all loss involves change. It forced me to look at what writers and philosophers called Existential Angst ? the anxiety associated with the reality of our own death and finitude.
I was offered the opportunity to join my partner and live in Australia. I am from the UK and although I had worked abroad extensively (although not lived abroad), I thought this process was going to be easy. Alas, the practicalities were relatively easy ? the emotional and existential anxieties were the ones that took my energies.
I could not have estimated the enormity of excitement, change, endings, anxiety and changing sense of self I would and continue to experience. This coloured my sense of self and identity. I experienced change on all fronts ? country, home, work, study, community, finances, access to friends, familiarity with what is known and most important a changing sense of identity, belonging and safety. Despite the excitement and opportunity to live abroad, it caused me to question 'who am I?' and highlighted the changing nature of me and the finiteness of everything. This may sound dramatic but I was not a young girl exploring the world but a woman in her 40s who was making a major life change.
How easy it would have been for me to dismiss this process and be caught up in the practicalities brought about by this change? Shortly before leaving the UK, I wrote down a particular experience I had had following terminating my work of nine years. This change, whilst in practical terms, was highly manageable, tapped into a whole range of emotions related to grief and loss. Writing down this experience immediately after it happened gave me the opportunity to consider moving country as a potent existential experience. The following is the experience ? exactly as I wrote it at the time.
" How can I explain what it is like preparing to go and live in another country? Once the decision is made, one is often preoccupied with the practicalities of the move. However, the reality of beginnings and endings is brought sharply into focus and if one takes time to reflect on the process, you can learn something very fundamental about the process of living.
The multitude of beginnings and endings I have been faced with over the past two months leads me to ask the question 'Is this what it is like when you are preparing to die?' That may sound dramatic but the last time I experienced such intensity of emotion on a daily, sometimes-hourly basis was when my mother died of cancer. The enormity of beginnings and endings, attachment and loss, sadness and joy, fear and celebration is experienced at one and the same time. In moving to another country, there is a feeling that something very radical is happening and you are forced to reflect on every encounter meaningfully, wanting to evaluate it and tie all lose ends ? practical and emotional. There is also a sense that you will never pass this way again. Perhaps an example of how this is happening to me will help.
This evening I finished working with my company and felt very churned up ? not with the actual work but the realisation of the end of an era of all the things that have happened over the nine years since I had been there. I felt quite alone in the process when I got on the train but unexpectedly bumped into a colleague and friend with whom I worked with on the first day with this company ? funny that I should also see him on the last one as well.
We had a drink together and trying to capture now what that was about is very difficult. At one level it was about 'Congratulations mate, good luck in Australia, great working with you' ? in another it reminded me of the role of things like leaving parties, funerals and memorials. What we are trying to capture in that brief time is something very important about being human ? as I said cheerio at the station, the shake of the hand, the quick embrace and words like 'It's been fun ? thanks for all your support over the years' really did little justice to what was present in that encounter.
In that encounter, I was reminded of the phrase 'I am all the ages I have ever been'. It tapped into a whole range of memories, dreams, expectations and sensations ? in that nine years, I have seen him face constant rejections from job applications (not important maybe in themselves but big in terms of self esteem and changing identity ? he is 50s and was often tuned down for the younger version).
Then him losing both his parents and me losing my mother ? the role of work providing a structure to cope and a respite from the intensity of emotional experience felt with people one is much closer to; my break with a partner and whilst not giving him any details, him knowing I was going through a bad time and perhaps taking a bit more of the workload; both becoming self-employed and working in the Middle East; me feeling really anxious the first time I sat alone in a hotel in Dubai just about to train a group of managers realising I had left one crucial part of a case study at home and my credibility was just about to crumble as this all felt apart as the purpose of the exercise was lost ? ringing him at 3.00am and him faxing over the missing piece ? real support, friendship and awareness of the anxiety of running a programme like that, feeling vulnerable in terms of my ability, etc etc, etc.
What am I trying to capture in reflecting on this encounter? The experience of this encounter and others like funerals has more significance than the moments spent together at a certain juncture. The encounter taps into all the experiences, expectations, losses, feelings etc that you experience (not just between the two people in the encounter) but which we ourselves experience whilst 'in relation' to them full stop ? to which they are not a part of or even aware of.
I think the intensity of the moment is about sharing something really important about being human ? the people we encounter on the way are important because 'they go part of the journey with us' and any sense of loss is not just to do with them, it is to do with the loss of all the other things going on our lives which they are not aware of or even a part of. This comes sharply into focus as I prepare to leave my country and face many such goodbyes on a daily basis.
In writing this before my departure to Australia, I am reminded that I am creating my reality as I speak. Being 'All the ages I have ever been' is not only experienced now 'looking back' on when I was younger but looking at what I will be as I get older. At some time in Australia I will be in lots of new encounters and be reminded of this meeting with my colleague one month before I left the UK. The loss associated with the change is the realization of the finiteness of everything and ultimately myself and my non-being"
My time in Australia has meant lots of new encounters with the people and experiences here who are now part of me. I have worked in Australia as a counsellor with clients suffering from serious injuries as well as victims of homicide. Serious physical injury dramatically changes a person's life as they are forced to face a world where they are no longer able to be and do the things they valued. It calls for a total re-evaluation of their lives as they live with an altered sense of self or chronic, unrelenting pain. My work as a grief counsellor offered me encounters with victims of homicide who lost friends and loved ones to murder. I am very humbled by the stories I hear and the ways in which people struggle to make sense on their lives. Each of those people or experiences are now part of me.
So all change involves loss and all loss involves change. However hard the physical loss of loved ones is, they are still part of us and of others. This is how they live on and how we are all bound by a universal process called life.
Clare Mann is a psychologist and existential psychotherapist who runs a private practice in Sydney, Australia. She is author of the "Myths of Life and The Choices We Have" an Existential Philosophy based self-help book. (http://www.lifemyths.com/