Does Feeling Lost Feel Familiar?
If you were feeling lost last year, and if you felt that the world you knew had disappeared and that the future you imagined no longer existed, then you were in a liminal space. If everything felt like in flux, transition, and in crisis mode, then you were in a liminal space.
But by now you also know that you are not alone and that you are amongst millions of others experiencing similar feelings. We can thank or blame, COVID-19 for that.
Many, not just my clients but also friends and family, describe it as some part of their familiar life completely falling apart with the future uncertain. Darkness, loss, chaos, limbo, rudderless, voids, abyss, grief are the words frequently used.
These words and feelings resonate deeply for me. My husband, Tony, was diagnosed with colon cancer in August 2019 and after a valiant and brave fight, he died on the 28th of July 2020.
Given the mind space of my present writing, six months after his death, this is a disclaimer, or rather a conscious choice to reveal the context within which I now exist. It is an acknowledgement and a signpost to the biases and blind spots, and a certain tone and mood that may come with it. I am in a place that is sometimes still foggy, even though with time I am finding places of light and hope.
What is a Liminal Space?
Moments after the doctor revealed that Tony had stage 4 colon cancer, our world fell apart. Everything we had planned for and knew disappeared. Neither of us could rely on or count on anything, because the illness dictated all events, and as we learned, we could only count on its unpredictability. We were in a place where nothing, the past, present and future, no longer made sense. We were both in a liminal space.
Liminal is derived from the Latin word limen, which means an in-between place, a threshold or a transition.
Liminal spaces are generally characterised by unexpected events or life-interruptions, like death or illness. When COVID-19 struck, the entire world went into and to a great extent is still in a liminal space. To be in a liminal space is to be in transition, whether or not through choice. But what sort of transition it will be, or what sort of transformation it will bring, is not always clear.
The word liminality has wide-ranging uses. For example, certain life events, such as births, puberty, marriage, death, divorces, career changes, when you are moving from one stage of life to another, are all liminal spaces. Think of moving houses. From the moment you decide to move, from the packing, the moving, the unpacking and the feeling of being settled in, you will be in a liminal space. It would be hard to say exactly when you enter or exit this in-betweenness. Different members of the family will have different points on this journey, that will signify what feels stable and settled for each.
And that is the key question: even if we don’t feel at home in the in-between space we are in, how do we become a pathfinder to navigate and learn, to make even a temporary home, until we are ready to move into the future, or the future is ready to invite us in?
How Do You Navigate Liminal Spaces?
I have been in liminal spaces before. I changed my entire career in 2000 when I started my consultancy practice at the age of 27. My life changed again when I went through a divorce in my late 30s. For over eleven years, from 2007 to 2018, my studies, an MSc and a PhD profoundly changed who I was and how I wanted to be in the world. When Tony and I met and he retired from the Royal Navy in order to move to Sri Lanka to be with me, both our lives changed.
I am sharing these lessons whilst I am still learning to be in this new liminal space. I recognise some feelings of fear and uncertainty from my previous experiences, though this feeling of desolation is alien to me. But I am using all my lessons from before and from similar journeys of others, to navigate the grief journey of partner loss.
Several things happen and feed each other when an unexpected event, a life interruption, sends you into a liminal space. Confusion and fear. This is what Tony and I first experienced. How could this happen to us? Will he (we) survive this? And then there is also an overload of information and misinformation to deal with. What is the best treatment? What are the pros and cons of surgery? It is sometimes hard to see the wood for the trees. One of the hardest things to deal with is the uncertainty, when everything has been upended and you are making decisions either in the dark, from a limited set of choices, or in the absence of viable alternatives. Sometimes you have to wait. There is nothing you can do. Nothing is linear and you are not in control. Something else is. So, you look to your science or spirituality or your friends or your family. Anything. You look to whatever gives you a sense of hope, faith, stability. And wait. And you make plans. Not the plans that have concrete goals, but the kind of plans that talk about ‘making this choice in all good faith, with the available information’. You make ‘what if’ plans, even though you can’t know all the what-ifs. And you regroup and re-strategise when those plans don’t work. And you take one step at a time and pick yourself up or ask for help when you fall.
Conversations with others on the effects of the current global pandemic reveal similar feelings and conundrums. Some have lost jobs whilst parents work full time from home whilst homeschooling their children; children are unable to visit their aged parents, whilst leaders struggle to keep their businesses open and to remunerate and motivate teams still working for them; overworked healthcare workers in the frontline rendered helpless and unable to save the lives of their patients, whilst many have lost their loved ones to the virus. The losses last year may have been different for different people, but the feelings resonate equally for all. And it is in the spirit of acknowledgement and recognition that many have experienced similar feelings that I am sharing a few of the lessons and reflections from my liminal space journey.
Fear Forward into Courage
Courage is not the absence of fear but taking choiceful actions, even tentatively, amidst and despite the presence of fear.
Easier said than done. Often, we might find ourselves spiralling down into our fear or trying to deny and suppress the fear rising in our throats. Naming and feeling the fear might help in avoid being drawn into its vortex. At least it might give a point of reference to reel yourself back up. Become acquainted with how fear manifests in your body. Recognising the way your body responds to fear may give you a heads up, rather than being taken unaware by it. Name the stories about that fear. Identify the stories that keep you stuck. Explore alternative explanations and meanings for the events, re-story them. This will open up more possibilities and reveal choices you might not have seen before and give the courage to act, to take even a small step.
A fear shared recently by a friend affected by possible downsizing was that he didn’t know what the future held, and it paralysed him. Does that resonate? It did for me at a personal level and from talking to many others I knew that neither he nor I were alone in it. A story I (and Tony) had to let go of was our belief that we could control the future. Control was an illusion, we realised. During his many stays in hospitals, we sometimes knew only what the next hour would look like. It was that turbulent. We focused on what we could influence and we walked with and through our fears. The Coronavirus pandemic is similar. We don’t know what the spread would be like in one month or even a week, when borders will open, or whether our jobs are secure. But we can choose to wear a mask in public, keep physical distance, wash our hands, turn up for that Zoom call today, play with our child who’s missing his friends. We do what we can right now.
Name your fear. Feel your fear. Identify the stories you are telling yourself, the way you are making meaning of what is going on, and how it is feeding your fear. At least you know what you are dealing with. Share your fears with people you trust and feel safe with. Ask for help. Take one step at a time. Rest if you feel tired, and when you feel stronger, take the next step. And fear may come along with you, but you are at least not buried beneath it.
Be Informed Not Overwhelmed
Can you remember the beginning of the pandemic, when there were many articles and forwards of how long the virus lived on different surfaces? I recall my neighbour saying she washed the vegetables with soap and water. We both laughed at the absurdity of it, yet she continued. Then she stopped when with more research we learnt that if you wash your hands well after touching a surface and if you minimised your exposure to others, you were likely to minimise risks.
Right at the beginning of Tony’s illness, we made a conscious effort to protect our sanity from the multitude of advice from well-meaning and caring people. We chose doctors who were the best in their field and we trusted they were doing the best they could for Tony. We consciously stopped ourselves from Googling every known treatment and side effect and confined ourselves to verified and trusted sources. And above all, I trusted Tony to let me know what he felt and how he was doing and to learn to read what was going on for him. He was my most important source of information. It was the only way to do what was best for him.
Start separating the wheat from the chaff. Become discerning.
Check the sources and validity of the information, re-evaluate information for accuracy and make choices about how deep or how wide you will dig for information. Knowledge and information are power, but if you do not have the bandwidth to process it, to make it relevant in times of crisis, you may find yourself in paralysis.
Ask yourself ‘how is this information serving you to make decisions’? Is it useful? Or is it just adding to the clutter and overwhelming you? If it is not serving you, park it or cut it out. And accept that sometimes we have to make decisions with imperfect information.
Be Present to Find the Future
When your foothold in the past is lost and the future you planned has disappeared, it is very unsettling. But you have no choice but to land in the place you find yourself. Find your ground, even if it feels shaky. It is only when you understand the terrain you are in that you can start mapping a path.
If you find yourself in a terrain you have been in before, then it is easier to see your way through, as you might know, what to expect around the corner. For example, last year there were many references to other pandemics, for instance, the A(H1N1) flu in 2009-2010, and the most severe pandemic the world has experienced in recent history, the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. We look back as a reference, seeking lessons and signposts of what to do or what to expect.
This pandemic has taught us that the challenges (and also solutions and opportunities) of our times and context are also unprecedented and different. We have to pay attention to this moment, this place, and this story. How are we being asked to show up at this moment? What is this situation demanding from us?
Use past experiences as a reference point, even if it is the experience of others. Look around and understand where you are standing, what is going on around you, and also what is going on inside you. It is a kind of ‘active waiting’. Find some support to steady yourself from the fall, so that you can strengthen yourself whilst you look for or create a path in front of you, even if it is one step at a time.
Possibilities Instead of Plans
Neat, linear plans with clear targets and goals become impossible when you are in a liminal space, because ‘normal’ no longer exists, and everything is in flux. Human beings crave stability. We like to think we are in control. And plans give us the illusions of stability and control. A way to ‘actively wait’ is to give up the notion of certainties and to entertain possibilities. A warning, you should not become like Chidi in ‘The Good Place’ in the Netflix show, where he would come up with so many possibilities that he was paralysed into indecision and inaction. At some point, you have to choose a possibility and take a deep breath and step on that path. Sometimes you may have to double back. But that’s what it takes to move with and through the liminal space.
Let go of any attachments to carefully laid out plans. You make decisions with the best available information. And you act. Take a step. Re-evaluate when necessary, repeat if needed, trusting that you are doing the best you can.
I am not sure whether this is a way to navigate or whether it is a state of being. You decide.
Tony and I were happy and excited and planning for our wedding, and then we were not. When our world fell apart, who we were, our identity as individuals and as a couple, changed overnight. And it required a deep and profound vulnerability on our part to become those people, a patient and a primary caregiver, whilst still trying to hold on to each other as a couple. In the last 11 months of his life, in the midst of three surgeries, chemotherapy, months in hospitals, we still found ways to find joy and love. And having thrown our meticulous plans of a wedding out of the window, we organised one in 6 days and got married, three weeks before he died. It was the happiest day of our lives together.
During his illness, I was consumed by caring for him. He was consumed by trying to get better. We both gave in to what was going on without knowing how or when it would end, but we were both committed to the journey. It is a form of submission and acceptance of the hand that fate dealt us.
Looking back, I think we practised a kind of fierce grace. We accepted this tragic turn of events that our lives took. He was the bravest man I had met, willing to submit himself to whatever his body could take to get better. He wanted to live out the life we had planned together. But life had other plans for us.
I don’t know what else life has in store for me. But that is true for all of us and the world. We don’t know what is in store, but we can imagine possibilities. I say this even whilst it has been hard to imagine my life without him. But as I write this, I imagine he’s watching me, happy that in two years for the first time I wrote something that whilst rooted in my personal tragedy is also beyond it. I think he might be happy that in some small way I am finding my way through, finding my way back to the world of my work and living.
To practice ‘fierce grace’ is to stand on the ground you find yourself on, even with shaky legs and a quivering heart, and to submit to the tasks asked of you at this time.
May you find ‘Fierce Grace’ in these liminal times.
Mihirini de Zoysa