Loss Involves Change

There are many experiences in life which remind us that change is an inevitable part of living. We can either resist change or look for ways to find new meaning in our lives. Losing a loved one, for example, is one of those changes that throw our lives into chaos and disarray. Knowing that things will never be the same again, we are forced to see our world differently.

Experiences of loss and change have a way of challenging our sense of stability and safety in the world. I would like to share a personal story of 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.

Five years ago, I was offered the opportunity to join my partner and live in Australia. Although I had worked abroad extensively, this would be my first experience of living away from the UK, my home country. I accepted the offer thinking the process would be easy. Alas, the practicalities of relocating were relatively easy. It was the emotional and existential anxieties I'd not anticipated, that depleted my energies.

I under-estimated the impact the move would have on my sense of self; I experienced change on all fronts - country, home, work, study, community, finances, access to friends, familiarity with what is known, but perhaps even more significant, a changing sense of identity, belonging and safety. Despite the excitement of living abroad, my new situation highlighted the ever-changing nature of me and the finiteness of everything. It prompted me to ask the question 'Who am I?'

Shortly before leaving the UK, I wrote about an experience I had when I resigned from the company I was working for. Writing it down enabled me to see that moving country could be a potent existential experience. The following is a transcript of what I wrote.

"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, something very fundamental about the process of living can be learned.

The multitude of beginnings and endings I have faced over the past two months has led me to ask the question 'Is this what it is like when someone is 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, the feeling that something very radical is happening compels you to reflect on every encounter meaningfully, to evaluate it and tie all loose 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 that I have come to the end of an era, of the nine years that I worked there. Feeling quite alone as I got on the train, I unexpectedly bumped into a colleague and friend with whom I had worked 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. On one level it was about 'Congratulations mate, good luck in Australia, great working with you' - on another it reminded me of the role of things like leaving parties, funerals and memorials. 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' did little justice to what was present in that encounter.

Reminded of the phrase 'I am all the ages I have ever been,' I tapped into a whole range of memories, dreams, expectations and sensations - in 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); then losing his parents and me losing my mother - the role of work providing a structure to cope, 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 any details, him knowing I was going through a bad time and taking a bit more of the workload; me becoming self-employed and working in the Middle East; feeling really anxious the first time I sat alone in a hotel in Dubai about to train a group of managers, realising I had left a crucial part of a case study at home - 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?

I think the intensity of the moment came from 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 that is going on in our lives.

In writing this, I am reminded that I create my reality as I speak. Being 'All the ages I have ever been' is not only experienced looking back on when I was younger but looking at what I will be as I get older. As my life unfolds, I will be in lots of new encounters and will be reminded of this meeting with my colleague one month before I left the UK. The loss associated with change is the realisation of the finiteness of everything and ultimately my self and my non-being."

Leaving Australia to come here, I met with a similar sense of loss as when I left England - although, this time the reaction was not as intense. I realise that I have brought Australia - all my experiences and relationships - with me to New Zealand.

So all change involves loss and all loss involves change. However hard the physical losses are in our lives, they remain part of us and of others. This is how they live on and how we are all bound by this universal process called life.

Words by Clare Mann

Posted on 03 December 2006