About Transition (Or, Why the Butterfly Never Turns into a Caterpillar)

I always thought of grief as being linked only to loss. When I was young, I don’t think I even heard the word except when someone died, and over time I learned that grief could be the result of any kind of loss, big or small, and sometimes even a loss we’d consider “good”, such as leaving a job for an exciting new one. We can still grieve that old job, the friends we worked with, the time and heart we invested there.

Recently, I’ve started to look at grief differently. Instead of being connected only to loss, grief is actually a response to change. We often look at life the same way we live it. We say it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Birth, Life, Death.

Transition is the thing that throws that perception into reverse,

because when something in our life transitions, or we transition through something,

we deal with the ending first.

The most likely metaphor for true transition is the caterpillar that turns into a butterfly. This transition starts with the end of the caterpillar’s life. From there, the caterpillar’s body goes into the “goo phase”, preparing and transforming into something new and beautiful. I would imagine that the caterpillar enters this process with no regrets, knowing that building it’s cocoon is the next required step in it’s life cycle.

Humans, especially those enmeshed in Western thinking, are not too crazy about the idea of transition. We don’t like to acknowledge endings, unless they’re big and finite, such as in the death of a loved one or in a tragic national event. We’re trained to move forward, move on, never let anything truly get us “down”. And this is a terrible, destructive response to change.

If I was to compare the way I was taught about grief, transition and change to the metaphor of the caterpillar, I’d have to say that I was taught to ignore building the cocoon, then reel at the tragedy of a loss or unexpected change. The goo phase is something to be skipped entirely, because it’s considered an “unknown”, and it’s messy.

We’re expected instead to go directly into butterfly mode. And because we haven’t allowed time for transition or acknowledged the purpose of that process, we end up unable to fly and fulfill our next phase of life.

What I’ve learn is that within any transition, great or small, is an opportunity for Transformation. There is a process, a beautiful one, that allows us to move into something new, to become something new, if only we allow it.

About two years ago, our family suffered a terrible tragedy. To many of us, it was unexpected and of such a dark and violent nature that it felt as if reality were a nightmare for a time. I was fortunate that I met weekly with a counselor who had a very solid understanding of the nature of grief. At the time, he didn’t talk to me about transition or change. But he did encourage me to “go into the grief” and sit with it. To experience how it felt in my body. To sleep, and practice self-care above other priorities.

So, I did. I built my little cocoon out of a willingness to experience this situation fully. I gave it time every day, when I turned off the television and phone and other distractions. I talked and listened to my body. At one point I had a week of feeling depressed and unable to get off the couch much. But I kept on, allowing myself to feel.

Self-care during this time included connection to my family who was also suffering, especially to those closer to the tragedy who were traumatized. It wasn’t time for them to process anything. They just needed all the love and help I could give them. Another part of self-care was calling in sick to work for a couple of days, and then going back to work when I felt that connecting with other people outside the grief would help. It also included a measure of allowing and listening. And during the times I allowed myself to go into the darkness of grief, I found that my perception changed. I discovered in a new way that while grief is loss, it’s foremostly Love. As I sat in that sense of love, I found in the darkness a beautiful night, deep and full of shadows. I lost a lot of my fear of the unknown in allowing myself to process that grief. And I came out of the experience with an understanding of the beauty and healing power of love that I’d never known.

So yes, that was a process of loss and grief, that resulted in transformation. But it’s true of any transition, and it’s true of what the entire world is going through right now.

Last night I deeply felt grief for those who were losing their health, losing loved ones, losing their jobs, their support systems. I felt helpless to do anything of great merit.

Then I remembered the process of transition, and that grief is a part of it, fear may be a part of it, but the ultimate reason for this process is transformation. I don’t know what each of us will experience as we go through this time. Some will have considerable loss. Others will be merely inconvenienced. Some will, and have, lost their lives.

Death too, is a transition. We learn to be frightened of it, but I take my cues on death from nature. Nowhere on earth is there an ending that doesn’t precede a new beginning. And every ending, be it a human life or the life of tree, an animal, or a system, can provide nourishment for the life around it.

We have a fear of the unknown that is constantly capitalized upon by the culture around us, but to know the secret of the unknown, you must go into it with a whole heart. And the secret, or one of them, is that the unknown is a place of creativity. It’s the seed beneath the ground that we cannot see, processing and transitioning so that in the spring it can sprout and show it’s new life.

It’s the unseen processes that take place in the goo

that surprise us with the delicate beauty of the butterfly.

We are currently experiencing a huge transition across every culture, every country, every spot on our planet where humans reside. And with that transition comes loss, grief, and so many beautiful gifts. Butterflies are already emerging in the form of health workers, first responders and public servants who sacrifice so much to keep us healthy; average people staying in and helping to flatten the curve of the onslaught of the virus; people working to keep our supply chains intact and make sure we can buy food.

This isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. We are unaware of the countless kind, loving deeds that occur every day, from the patron who leaves an extra tip for the people carrying food to their car at restaurants, to landlords who willingly go without receiving a month’s rent, to neighbors who shop for those around them who are more susceptible to the virus.

When this is over, and it will be over, we’ll see the results of the time we spent in this crazy goo. And the best part is that we can each choose what to create with this time. If we emerge with new ideas for how to make the world better, how to help each other live, if we have more compassion and love and gratitude, then we’ve used this time well. The old saying goes that every man is the captain of his own ship. But to you I say,


Be creative, seek wisdom, and maybe even have some fun deciding who you want to be when the world starts rolling again.

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