Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Beginnings That Follow Endings

It can be hard for those who have experienced a significant loss to believe that deep sadness and hopelessness can eventually give way to joyful memories, to hope for a better future, and even to new beginnings.

But my volunteer work with Arbor Hospice grief support groups over the past five years has taught me that these outcomes are possible for the vast majority of participants, as inconceivable as that may seem at the time of the loss.

We are naturally accustomed to thinking of our lives in a linear way - beginning, middle and end. We are born, we complete important life tasks and we die.

Grieving individuals, though, have shown me that we can think of life's inevitable endings in a different way, a prelude to new beginnings that more often than not lead to a kind of fulfillment that may not have seemed possible during grief's darkest days.

The interval between the suffering of an ending and the uncertainty of a new beginning is often disorienting, a time that William Bridges in his book Transitions calls "the neutral zone."

Bridges describes the neutral zone as "an important empty or fallow" period in one's life that offers an opportunity for self-renewal that can lead to an improvement in the quality of the new beginning which will eventually emerge.

Because this growth isn't automatic, however, Bridges recommends solitude and retreat to listen for "inner signals" that will help us understand what we really want at this time in our lives, and to ponder "what would be unlived in your life if it ended today."

A glimmer of the new beginning, Bridges says, may come in the form of an image, impression, idea or comment that resonates and provides direction.

Sources of guidance

In my experience, and from what others have told me, inspiration and guidance can be found in long walks, time spent in nature, journal writing, meditation and various spiritual practices among other activities.

Grieving individuals may also benefit from exploring their new-found insights with family members and friends, support groups or therapists.

This combination of inner wisdom and community support often leads the bereaved out of the neutral zone into new ways of celebrating holidays and special events, an expanded social network or even college degrees and new careers, to name just a few examples.

Through these processes and others, those who have been forever changed by loss learn how to incorporate sustaining memories of their loved ones into these beginnings, a blending of enduring love with new possibilities that offers hope during difficult times.

How have you experienced the "neutral zones" of your life, and by what methods do you sense the seeds of emerging beginnings?

This blog entry was written by Dennis Sparks, Arbor Hospice Volunteer. You may contact Dennis by commenting below or emailing him at


  1. Until recently, I conceptualized the "neutral zone" in grief using the term "the space between breaths." I happened upon this term when I was researching the loss of a child; Space Between Breaths is also a DVD containing interviews with parents who have experienced the death of their children (you can find the DVD here:
    Whatever you call it, this time in the grief process is, at its best, disorienting and at its worst terrifying for grieving individuals. I have often imagined myself or others currently navigating the "neutral zone" as being out to sea in a boat without direction or power. Personally I have found it helpful to reassure myself that "things won't always be this way" and ask myself what I really want and need during this time of difficulty. I have, more often that not, been able to discover what I want and need and ultimately regain power and direction.

  2. "Out to sea" is a great metaphor for the neutral zone, Becca. "This too shall pass," is time-honored wisdom that many use for reassurance in difficult periods. Buddhists and others use the term "impermanence" to remind us that change is inevitable, whatever form it may take, and that whatever is will eventually take some other form. I wonder what other sources of wisdom readers have found useful during difficult or fallow times in their lives.