Editors note: This season, we welcome Sheryl Paul for the first piece in this year-long series.
In the framework of transitions, summer is the fourth and final stage where the processes of letting go (autumn), in-between (winter), and rebirth (spring) culminate. It’s a bit strange to begin a four-part series for Rhythm of the Home with summer as it’s like starting with the last chapter of a book. But as the seasons of our lives are as circular as the seasons of nature, let’s dive in to the celebratory water and fly into the blue skies of summer so that we can understand the psychological undercurrents at play for both ourselves and our children. For it’s a truth of transitions that the more we align ourselves with the rhythm of the seasons, the more we can access their energy and utilize them to accelerate the healing process of our own internal cycles of change.
To illustrate the seasons of transitions, I’ll tell you the story of a loss that my family endured these past few months when our beloved cat, Mocha, who had been with us since before the birth of our older son, was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer.
Upon hearing the news late last fall, we immediately went into denial (the first stage of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief) as she seemed perfectly fine; the tumor under her tongue that would slowly and painfully cause her demise was barely detectable. But as the tumor grew and the reality and finality of the diagnosis sunk in, we each began to grieve in our own way. At various points throughout autumn and into winter, I cried, my husband made plans, and Everest vacillated between denial and anger.
Fall: The Season of Letting Go
Fall is the season of letting go. As the trees shed their leaves and the natural world retreats toward the cocoon of winter, so we acknowledge and make room for our grief, the places where we need to let go, the aspects of ourselves that are no longer serving us. It’s the time of year where we’re invited to observe ourselves through an honest lens and determine what habits, thoughts, and identities we need to sacrifice. Through journaling and conscious ritual, we work to let go of these unwanted and unnecessary attributes, metaphorically throwing them into the embers of an autumn fire and tossing them into the golden light of the late afternoon sky.
We also observe our children and notice which aspects of their lives they’re shedding. As children are more naturally aligned with the seasons, they generally don’t have to make this work conscious; their unconscious is beautifully at play as they relinquish that which is hindering their movement into their next stage of development. But when we understand that autumn is the season for letting go, grief, and separation, we can witness this process with more compassion and offer the words that might help ease their transition.
While in general Everest adamantly refused to talk about Mocha’s dying and imminent death, when I would see him reacting to something with emotions that were out of proportion to the experience, I would offer words and say something like, “I’m wondering if you’re feeling out of control inside right now. I’m wondering if it has anything to do with Mocha,” to which he would always respond affirmatively. He didn’t want to talk about it very much, but even just these few sentences helped to validate his internal experience and, I hoped, place his emotions more appropriately instead of projecting them onto a broken toy, for example.
Winter: The Season of Reflection
As fall unfurled into the quiet expanse of winter, our inner worlds followed suit. We reached a serene place of acceptance around Mocha’s death. There were fewer words around it, fewer outbursts of loud emotions. Hand in hand, we walked into the stillness of memory and reflection – the defining states of winter – pondering her life and sharing stories about our sweet cat. And Mocha herself, aligned with the season of winter, seemed to go into a remission. The vet had initially told us that she had a month to live and here she was, three months later, prancing up and down the stairs during the days and settling into bedtime reading with us each night.
During this quiet, reflective season, we learned what it means to care for a dying loved one. We learned to bathe her when she became unable to groom herself and we administered fluids when she started having trouble drinking water. As the tumor continued to grow, we knew that her death was nearing. But she wasn’t there yet. We were all residing in the in-between, liminal zone that defines winter and the second stage of transitions.
The Three Stages of Transition
Let me digress for a couple of paragraphs so I can put this fantastic word – liminal – into context. When I first started studying transitions during my Master’s program in 1996, I immediately discovered the work of a man named Arnold van Gennep, a Dutch anthropologist who wrote a book in 1960 called The Rites of Passage (thus introducing the term into Western culture). Through studying various groups of indigenous people he observed: “The life of an individual in any society is a series of passages from one age to another and from one occupation to another… For every one of these events there are ceremonies whose essential purpose is to enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another, which is equally well defined.” Van Gennep observed that the process of crossing from one position to another was divided into three phases: rites of separation, transition rites [also referred to as liminal], and rites of incorporation.
For the first time in my life, I had a context and a vocabulary for understanding the transitions that I had always longed to surround with meaning and ritual – from the onset of menstruation to losing my virginity, graduating from high school to getting married, I had endured these rites of passages in a meaningless void. My master’s thesis eventually evolved into my first book, The Conscious Bride, and my counseling work through Conscious Weddings where I guide women and men through the rite of passage of getting married, helping them to pass through the necessary stages of separation, liminal, and new beginning so they can successfully relinquish the identity and lifestyle of being single and begin their marriage on a solid foundation. Central to this work is the understanding of the word liminal, as it so accurately expresses the uncomfortable yet essential in-between zone that defines the second stage of transitions.
So here we were, my family and I, in the winter and liminal stage of our transition with Mocha’s death. Mocha was not quite here and not quite there: no longer the spry and sleek hunter of her healthy days but not yet a spirit in the next world. She was part-body, part-spirit, two paws on earth and two in the netherworld of the beyond. Sometimes I would look into her eyes and see my good friend as she has always been, and other times her eyes would glass over as if a part of her was already departing. Some family members suggested that it was time for her to go, but we knew that her soul still had work to do. As hard as it was to witness her struggle, we trusted that we would know when it was her time.
Spring: The Season of Rebirth
And then something shifted. Winter melted into spring, the new winds blew through the bare branches, warming them enough to remind them to push out their leaves. The first crocuses appeared and their happy friends, the daffodils, followed closely behind. Change was in the air once again. Still, Mocha hung on and we cared for her and waited. And just when the waiting became almost unbearable, when sitting in the unknown of “when?” and “how?” almost hurt, when the restlessness of spring rustled to the core of my soul, clarity arrived. It was time to say goodbye.
For months, ever since we learned that Mocha had incurable cancer, I had agonized about how Everest would handle her death. Everest is a highly sensitive child and he grieves hard over losses of every kind. If a book rips, he demands that we tape it back together. If a toy breaks, gorilla glue is always in order. If something is lost, he’s uneasy until we find it. But how would he make sense of a loss that isn’t fixable? How would he process the permanency and finality of death? I didn’t know. But I knew that all we could do was prepare him as best we could. Just as I counsel women and men through their transitions into marriage and parenthood through the three-stage framework of transitions, so I had “counseled” Everest through his first loss according to the same principles. I would have to trust that it would be enough, that through our discussions and actions he would find his way, that he had let go enough in fall, sat in the uncomfortable void enough in winter, and would experience a rebirth during the spring of this loss.
And, as he so often does, he exceeded my hopes and expectations. Not only was he present for her death to the point of wanting to touch her dead body and participate in her burial, but skills and resources that had been incubating during winter burst into full bloom after she died. Within minutes of her death, an extraordinary thing happened. Everest had been swinging on the swings while I was inside with the vet. My husband was pushing him because, at 5 1/2, he still refused to learn how to pump. But after we helped Mocha die and I came outside, Everest said, “Look, Mommy! Mocha’s sitting on my head and she’s helping me pump!” Sure enough, for the first time in his life, Everest was vigorously and excitedly pumping on the swings. While he pumped, he asked all about her death, eliciting exquisite details from my description that I had thought he would have wanted me to gloss over. He was full of energy, full of joy. He had traversed the tricky abyss of transition and had emerged on the other side exuberant.
Herein lies the secret of transitions: the more you grieve on the front end, the more joy you feel on the other side. As grief and joy live in the same chamber of the heart, you cannot fully experience one without experiencing the other. And when we align ourselves with the appropriate stage of our transitions or the cyclical seasons of nature, we’re able to harness that energy thereby facilitating our own changes. I imagine that the skill of pumping on the swings was lying dormant inside Everest for months, hibernating as it waited for the energy activated by a transition to push into the world, much the same way a tulip bulb is planted in the fall, lies underground all winter, and utilizes the warmth and energy of spring to push above ground. And when summer arrives, we celebrate the skills and resources that were born in the past year.
Summer: The Season of Celebration
My research and work with transitions has centered on the three stages introduced by van Gennep. But recently it has occurred to me that there is, in fact, a fourth stage. We let go, we sit in the void, we’re reborn, and then… we celebrate! Where spring releases the new skill, feeling or resource into the world, summer carries it into full bloom; the restlessness of anticipation that characterizes spring finds release and expression in summer. In the weeks following Mocha’s death and Everest’s new ability to pump, the skill has continued to flower. Now, for the first time in his life, he’s running out the door first thing in the morning so that he can swing by himself. For this child who has been deeply attached to his parents and hasn’t wanted to play alone outside or even in a separate room, this is astonishing. Like a vine that grows wildly in summer until it covers a stone wall, tendrils of independence have shot off of his newfound skill and each day, it seems, he discovers new resources within himself. As my husband and I stood at the back door the other day and watched him swing, we remarked that it’s simultaneously painful and thrilling to witness these leaps in his development. We look forward to seeing how much more growth this season brings.
As we walk toward the fullness of summer days, when the trees are leaved and the flower beds are buzzing with bees inside of wide-open blossoms, let us notice the aliveness of joy that resides in the natural world and within us. Let us notice the skills and areas of growth in our children that peeked their heads above ground for the first time in spring and will now find the fullness of their expression in summer. By the openness of the clear blue sky and clarity of water days, let us find creative ways to bring the seeds of those discoveries to fruition. As we walk into the lushness of summer, we revel in our own lushness. We celebrate the new aspects of ourselves that were tentatively born in spring and the positive aspects of ourselves that have lived for years within us. The self-examination of autumn isn’t far off, but for now, we celebrate the fullness of ourselves, our children, and our world, exactly as they are.
Through her websites Conscious Weddings and Conscious Motherhood , her blog Conscious Transitions, and books, Sheryl Paul helps people traverse the tricky terrain of transitions. She’s the author of The Conscious Bride and The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner and has appeared several times on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as on Good Morning America and several other international newspapers, radio, and television.