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Maria Shriver: A Woman in the Midst of Change

By Sheryl Paul
May 10, 2011

I can only imagine what Ms. Shriver is feeling as she sits at the crossroads of several transitions: a divorce, a move, an end to her identity and role as First Lady of California, children that have left or are preparing to leave the nest, midlife, and the recent loss of both of her parents. Her personal world is crumbling and I imagine she feels like she's sitting in the ruins.

Transitions are the great equalizers. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, how much money you make, you profession, your age, your religion, or how famous you are, when life pulls the rug of the familiar out from under you and says, “It’s time to change and leap into the unknown,” most people feel an agonizing mix of grief, fear, anxiety, excitement, and loneliness.

What makes transitions even more challenging is that our culture fails to provide a roadmap for what to expect during these turbulent times. We send a tacit message that says, “Be happy! Be grateful! You’re getting married? You must feel joyous! Having a baby? You must be thrilled!” Even in the difficult times, culturally we have little tolerance for allowing time to heal and trusting that when we accept the difficult feelings instead of resisting them, we lay the groundwork for profound transformation to occur.

And as if this isn’t enough to send even the sanest individual into an anxious tizzy, transitions seem to arrive in clusters of twos, threes, and fours. A couple gets married, moves, and changes jobs in the span of six months. A woman becomes a mother, endures a job transition, and perhaps loses a couple of good friends. Loss triggers loss, and in the cascade of losses, with the absence of a roadmap and proper support, life can start to feel unimaginably overwhelming and sometimes hopeless.

That said, I can only imagine what Ms. Shriver is feeling as she sits at the crossroads of several transitions: a divorce, a move, an end to her identity and role as First Lady of California, children that have left or are preparing to leave the nest, midlife, and the recent loss of both of her parents. Her personal world is crumbling and I imagine she feels like she’s sitting in the ruins.

But here’s a little-known secret about transitions, one that provides a life jacket when you feel like you’re drowning: after your world falls apart, when everything that is familiar comes crumbling down around your feet, after you’ve endured the normal and healthy grief and fear of the letting go stage of transitions and the loneliness, disorientation and vulnerability of the liminal phase, a new birth awaits you. In shedding the layers of your old self that are no longer serving you, you open to the possibility of a new beginning and becoming a softer, more compassionate, more fulfilled version of yourself. Just as spring always follows the shedding of autumn and the hibernation of winter, so the potential for a new emergence follows the death experience of enduring multiple transitions.

However, in order for this potential to be actualized, there must be a willingness to slow down and feel the grief, fear, loneliness, and disorientation. And here, again, our culture interferes with life’s natural processes and encourages us to move on, as indicated by Ms. Shriver’s honest and vulnerable comment, “It’s so stressful to not know what you’re doing next. People ask you what are you doing and then they can’t believe that you don’t know what you’re doing ”. We have so little tolerance but allowing time and space for the hard stuff to just be hard. We want people who are struggling through a natural life change to “get back on the horse.”

It’s this dysfunctional message that spawned my work around the wedding transition fourteen years ago and inspired me to write The Conscious Bride, as I could clearly see that telling a newly engaged woman that she should be happier than she’s ever been truncated her ability to do the work that needs to be done during this life-altering transition: namely, grieve her old life, explore her fears of marriage, and come to terms with the fact that by committing to one person she’s taking a leap of faith and diving into the unknown.

Following a natural course, I then delved into the transition of becoming a mother and found that the same expectation for unilateral bliss applied. And from there my passion for transition bloomed into addressing all of life’s changes: from moving to job change, losing a loved one to passing through the seasons. One of the through-lines I discovered is that one of the core needs that emerges during transitions is that of support: we simply feel alone and need to know that others have gone through their own dark night of the soul and make it through to the other side, hopefully stronger and more healed than before.

I imagine this is where Ms. Shriver was coming from when she bravely and humbly asked for support on this youtube video. 

As I read through the comments, I was astonished as the level of cruelty that many people expressed, taking stabs at her appearance, her age and  her character. To this end, I felt compelled to offer my support – and if any of you who have grown through your own transitions feel drawn to do the same, please do so. She’s clearly suffering and could use several doses of kindness and consciousness to see her through this dark time.

She asks for three things that have helped through your personal transitions. Here are mine:

1. Make time and space for the range of feelings to emerge. Grieve, shout, dance, write, talk. And cry for as long and loudly as I need to. Remind myself that there is no rush to do anything or figure out the next stage. Trust that it will emerge on its own timetable.

2. Get support. Talk to someone who understands transitions and can guide me through the darkness while holding out a lifeline of light and hope.

3. Watch, listen to, and read anything by Pema Chodron (“When Things Fall Apart“)

Sending Ms. Shriver – and anyone else enduring the underworld of transitions – a big virtual hug and a reminder to trust that with each ending comes an opportunity for a new beginning; it’s an irrefutable law of nature.


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