Living and Coping with transitions

Rabbi Arturo Kalfus

We all experience transitions throughout our lives. Like it or not, it is an essential part of living.

Life’s transitions are hard to avoid, whether it is buying a new house, or changing jobs, starting a new career, having a new baby, getting married or divorced, relocating, becoming empty nesters, retiring or learning to live with a newly found difficult diagnosis.

Transitions in life, even transitions that are planned and welcomed, can cause disruption, confusion and sadness.

Those going through transitional change in their lives, even happy ones, will often ask- “Will my life ever be the same again?”

The question I wish to deal with this evening is simply- How do we cope with transitions in our lives? How do we manage the hurts, and how do we move forward so that our lives are not placed in a perpetual chaos or holding pattern?

I would like to share with you now, part of the 1977 commencement speech that Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross gave to medical school graduates at Wayne State University  here in Detroit.

Dr. Kubler Ross told the new doctors that she learned a great deal about transitions, or crossroads as she put it, from her dying patients.

This is what she said:

“Life is a chain of little deaths, of hellos and goodbyes, like the day of graduation is a celebration…but is also is an ending. You have to learn to let go, to say goodbye to friends, to start on your own feet…”

“Every crossroad in your life is a question whether you will have the courage to say hello or whether you avoid saying hello”.

Kubler Ross says- There are too many people that she sees at the end of life and they look back and say- “My God, was that all there was to it?”

Don’t look back too long except for glimpses of happy memories- do not worry about the future, but try to live in the now, because it is only the now that you have!

And Kubler Ross concluding words to the graduates were…

“I wish for you a life FULL of hellos and goodbyes!”

Those of us who spend a significant amount of our time with people in the last days of their lives know, it is important to find the strength in something larger than ourselves. How do we find the strength and courage necessary to live with transitions? How do we find the strength and courage to die with dignity and meaning?

Dr. Kubler Ross attempts to answer this question as well. She says, you will find this strength and courage in the spiritual side of you, the facet of Divinity as we call it. This is the part of you that will help you in your life to master hardships, that gives you serenity in times of storms, that gives you the courage to climb the highest mountains and dream the impossible dreams that will help you to stick your necks out, rather than to stay inside and not dare anything.

Dr. Kubler Ross remind us- “life is a series of hellos and goodbyes and having the courage to move to the next hello in life-,

Rabbi Hillel Silverman offers his own prescription for coping with transitions in life—

He writes-“How can we cope with transitions? How can we accept wounds and hurts? How can we go forward with life? The key to coping with transitions is as follows:

Freedom from the past.  Focus on the present.  Faith in the future.

We have to unshackle ourselves from depending on the past- the past is gone- treasure it, if we wish, the memories will remain in our mind, but at some point we need to let it go- or as Kubler Ross put it- “don’t look back too long except for glimpses”.

Focus on the present- for the Hayom, the today, is what we have now- we can’t change the past, we cannot recreate the past nor bring it back. All we have is today- so run with it and live!

And finally, we need hope in the future- hope, for without it, we could not last even one day!

There is a story about Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a Holocaust survivor who said he learned his most important theological lessons, not in Yeshiva or Rabbinical school, but in a concentration camp.

During the winter of 1944, he was interned in the same camp as his father. The elder Gryn announced that it was Chanukah and produced a clay boul. He lit wicks immersed in a bit of margarine taken from the daily rations. When the younger Gryn protested over the waste of food, the father looked at him and said,  “You and I have seen, that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived three days without water. But we cannot live properly for even three minutes without HOPE!”

If we are to make it through the transitions of life, we must be prepared  not to despair, not to give up, but to weather the stormy emotions which have the potential to unravel our equilibrium, for as Kubler Ross reminds us, “it is through the tragedies in life, through the pains in life, that we can grow!”.

Dr. Ira Byock, a professor at Dartmouth Medical School wrote a book on this topic entitled, “The Four things that matter most”, where he draws upon his years of experience caring for the seriously ill and dying patients.

Dr. Byock suggests that 4 simple phrases contain the key to a healthy and spiritually peaceful dying. The ability to say these simple phrases made all the difference in how a person dealt with his or her imminent mortality. I would suggest that these 4 phrases apply also to us now, during these High Holidays.

Having the ability to say to our loved ones:

Please, forgive me

I forgive you

Thank you

I love you.

Let me relate something I have not yet shared with you that happened to me about 8 years ago. While I was spending part of a summer in Israel, I was forced to face my own mortality. I was attending a Rabbinic conference at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem while my wife Phyllis and our children Ari and Lilah were vacationing in Mexico. I began to feel ill. When these feelings did not subside, I removed myself from the ongoing class I was in, and found an empty office to sit in. I continued to feel worse and worse- I don’t need to give you all the details. When the ambulance arrived, medics told me that I was probably experiencing a heart attack. I became fearful.

I became very aware that I might not have the time to say anything meaningful to the people who mean the most to me, to Phyllis, to our children, to my mother and sister in Argentina, and other family and friends.

I felt as if I was given my last opportunity, and I had missed it. I wanted more time to say all the things that needed to be said, to apologize, to ask friends, family, colleagues for forgiveness, to assure others that I had forgiven them, to say thank you for all that they have meant to me, to kiss my wife one more time and tell her how much I love her. To hold my children for the last time- I felt my opportunity for all this was lost!

I was experiencing my on personal Neilah, the closing of the gates of my life.

It was 30-40 minutes before I had the angioplasty that instantly relieved my symptoms.

And at that moment- in the operating room surrounded by machines and doctors- at that moment-, I felt I was given a second opportunity to live. And I don’t mean just to continue to breathe. I was given another opportunity to really think about my priorities. And this is what we all should be doing today.

Hopefully, by the end of Yom Kippur, all of us will be given another opportunity to live. What would YOUR priorities be?

I know, from the depth of my soul, that life is not just about eating and sleeping and going to work. Life should be much more than that. These days of AWE give us all an opportunity to live again. I implore you- take the opportunity given to you as your name is written in the Book of Life for the new year. Say with me now the four powerful phrases which can make a real difference in your life:

Please forgive me

I forgive you

Thank you

I love you.

May we have the courage “not to worry about an uncertain future, but instead try to live in the now- because it is only the now, that we have!!”

May God give us the strength to weather the storms and the crossroads which will come throughout our lives!

May we learn to say:

Please forgive me-  I forgive you- Thank you and I love you, with the meaning, and dignity our friends and family deserve.

May we always be able to recognize when we are given a second opportunity to live. And may we live it well!

Ken Ihie Ratzon,

May this be God’s will.