Change and loss

Change is constant. Like death and taxes, it is inevitable. It is a paradox that must be faced and accepted if we are to be prepared for it emotionally and practically -- if we are to live fully and grow.

Changes are endings and beginnings -- a time when the body responds both physically and emotionally to the process of separation from the old, the certain, the comfortable, and the entry into the new, the unknown, and the feared.

If we have time to react, a person responds to changes in these stages:

  1. denial/disbelief
  2. anger
  3. bargaining
  4. depression
  5. acceptance
  6. adapting

Each person approaches change and loss in a unique way. All stages may not be experienced, due to limited understanding, or a refusal to consider the situation as real. A person may not have time to experience all the stages; they may combine them, skip around, or hide their feelings. Periods of enjoyment may be experienced when the change is forgotten, or we get caught up in other, more important events.

Denial/disbelief . . . a refusal to believe the change:

"Do you really think they will do it?"

"I can't believe he is gone!"

"They can't do this to me!"

This stage is a normal reaction, allowing time for the idea to sink in, so people can begin to collect themselves. It is a defensive response, aimed at keeping the status quo. It is usually temporary as reality becomes evident and we are forced to go on to deal with the change in our different ways. Often, however, denial and disbelief return and we will plan ahead as if nothing is happening.

This stage is also necessary to assure that the change is needed. Sometimes the denial results correctly in the status quo.

Anger . . . as a sense of helplessness turns to rage:

"I'll show them who is boss!"

"I don't deserve this!"

"They can't do this to me!"

This is a difficult, necessary stage, as anger comes unexpectedly and is hard to control. If denial and disbelief won't work, maybe some anger will force the situation back to the status quo.

Other people often become innocent targets, because it is not possible to confront "them." The innocent target finds it hard to respond with understanding instead of with anger, hurt feelings, and guilt. This often causes corresponding guilt feelings in the person undergoing change.

Bargaining . . . an attempt to postpone the action:

"Let's wait until the action is really necessary."

"Why can't we wait until the children graduate or leave the home?"

"Let's study the idea and try to find another way."

We often bargain when it appears that the anger will not change the situation. The bargain involves a promise of a change in behavior or some other specific promise in exchange for more time . . . with the hope that the change will then prove to be unnecessary.

The intent of bargaining is to delay, or to try to get the decision moved as close to the status quo as possible.

Depression . . . occurs when the person faces the fact that there is no hope, no way to change the decision.

"It is hopeless . . . they won't listen!"

"I don't care what happens anymore . . . they won't listen to me!"

When the reality is impossible to ignore, depression sets in. It is a painful time of grief and despair, guilt and shame, at failing. It is a time of letting go of the old, of reluctantly taking hold of the new.

It is in this stage that physical changes (frowns, sleeplessness, headaches, tiredness) occur, as well as emotional changes (crying, deep sadness, fear of death).

Acceptance . . . a healthy coming to terms with reality:

"You know . . . that was the best thing that happened to me."

"I'm still uncomfortable, but there are some new ideas I have."

When the emotion has drained away, the body has healed itself, and there is a time of emotional calm, the events are seen in a new light.

New possibilities are seen in the situation. The past is relegated to memories, affirmed and acknowledged as good times. It is a time when creativity and new behaviors arise naturally, sometimes without any conscious effort. In working through the feelings and conflicts of change, the person has arrived at a new awareness.

Adapting . . . taking control of future changes:

"I will look ahead for the next change and plan for it in advance."

"I will be the initiator of the next change . . ."

In an age of rapid change, we must be able to continuously adapt. Our existence as humans is testimony to our high degree of adaptiveness. But, being adaptive is a conscious decision. It is a decision to honor the past, to integrate it into the present, and to move on to the new.

The process of change and loss occurs continuously. The death of a friend, the wreck of a car, the moving of an office, someone sitting in your chair, a change in habit (like smoking), a new office policy, and a road detour, are typical examples. Some changes we go through rapidly, while others take years.

It is our reaction to change in others that creates problems. We may not understand what is happening when others are suddenly angry or despondent. We can't understand why they won't accept the situation, why they continue to want to delay the action.

The first three stages are particularly dangerous times. The person feels helpless, out of control, and fears the worst. Behaviors are acted out of these emotions and beliefs. We respond by stereotyping the person as angry, bitter, despondent, unbelieving. They are too willing to accept the role we give them. We foster and create the worst outcomes, establishing the negative experience base for the next change. This prevents others from moving into the acceptance stage. It ties us up into the drama so that we unwittingly spend energy keeping the person in the role or stereotype.

We can help each other through change by:

Trying to understand what is causing the emotion. This requires a questioning attitude, listening with respect for the person.

We can affirm the reality of the situation.

We can acknowledge the emotion of the person, and affirm the right to feel that way.

We can ask the right question, one that creates the hope of the best outcome, of growth, of acceptance. Once a person has thought, spoken about a best outcome, it is difficult to hold the process of acceptance back. With time and understanding, the result is movement to the final stage of acceptance.

-- Bob Chadwick

More information on managing conflict, change, power, and scarcity.