When Claude, our eight year old canary, was found face down on the bottom of his cage last week, his sudden death added a piquancy to thoughts I was having about the importance of endings, triggered by Holden’s announcement that it was retrenching 400 staff. I was concerned for those people who would lose their jobs. We all experience losses of one kind or another, some huge and some small. How we deal with those losses is critical to how well we recover from them and move on.
It’s so important to mark an ending. When people (and pets) die, we usually have a funeral to observe and honour the ending and celebrate their lives. To skip this important step is to deny the ending and leaves those affected with a sense of unfinished business. When someone retires or moves away, it is customary to have a farewell celebration to commemorate their achievements and contributions. This leaves them free to move on with a clean slate and leaves others with a satisfying sense of completion.
When we lose our job or a role we cherish, even if the decision is our own, there are no such rituals. We too often fail to mark the ending in some way, and remain stuck and often resentful - even depressed, for some time.
William Bridges, an American executive development consultant whose work on transitions is widely admired, was the first to highlight the importance of endings when changes occur.
Bridges died in February. This excerpt from his obituary in the New York Times summarises his work:
“In 1980 he published Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes. In it he set forth the idea that, while change was situational, transition was psychological, and needed to be better understood… Transitions proposed that individuals experience change in three stages: first as an ending, followed by a period of confusion and distress, and then followed by a new beginning. He noted that because Western culture offers few rituals to mark the passage through these stages, people often try to skip from the first stage directly to the last. Instead, he asked individuals to spend time in what he called "the neutral zone" as a way of psychologically accommodating the space between”.
Bridges went on to write several more books on this topic, all of which are recommended reading. In ‘The Way Of Transition’ published in 2001, he argues that the more thoroughly we mark the ending, the more easily we are able to negotiate the all-important “neutral zone”, leading ultimately to a successful new beginning.
So how do we mark an ending? There are any number of ways, starting with simply taking some time to reflect and feel whatever emotions are emerging in relation to this change. If there’s shock involved, it is especially important to take time to consider and get used to the idea of what’s happened. Reflection often becomes a crucible for the meld of ideas on what you might do next.
Writing a eulogy, even for a job that you’ve lost, is a powerful way to mark an ending. It provides a structure in which reflection leads to memories bubbling to the surface that you can capture of times past, people who have played a role and made contributions, achievements, special moments and things you’ve learned that you can take with you.
Use the eulogy as the basis of your farewell speech, even if there’s no farewell. Read it to yourself in the mirror or, if that feels too weird, read it to someone who loves and supports you.
Making a collage of photographs is another way of achieving the same result. With Instagram and other photographic collage apps, this is now simple and rewarding.
Getting together with others who are sharing your experience and speaking about your memories, especially the positive ones, is also helpful. Beware, though, of falling into the trap of bemoaning your situation, blaming others or yourself, and feeling worse each time you repeat your story. I know, because I did this when I lost my job as a television producer many years ago. This was, at the time, the worst thing that had happened to me and I made it mean all kinds of negative things about me. I wallowed in self-pity for weeks. The decision to chop my program from the lineup was nothing to do with me, as it happened, but we humans are quick to interpret events with ourselves playing a central role.
So when our canary died, we created a ritual. We buried him under the pomegranate tree and marked his grave by hanging his mirror on a branch. My husband wrote a ditty about Claude's antics and I posted his photograph with a brief eulogy on Facebook. We then spent several hours quartering and de-seeding 3 kilos of cumquats which became a huge pot of marmalade (I find repetitive chopping, stirring and slow cooking to be meditative and immensely soothing). The colourful jars of marmalade with hand-written labels ‘in memory of Claude’ are now safely distributed leaving us with a sense of completion and satisfaction.
It doesn’t matter how you mark the ending, as long as you take the time to reflect and express your memories in some way that is meaningful and satisfying for you.
In our case, not only did our rituals honour and celebrate Claude and his contribution to our lives, but we now also remember him every morning as we eat our toast!