cross gravestone against blue sky background

Death as the first stage of transformation

Image by Gábor Bejó from Pixabay

Each of us faces death of some part of our self-identity many times over a lifetime.

Sometimes these deaths are initiated by external events, when the loss of a job, of a significant relationship, or our health may force us into letting go of some part of our self-identity.

Other times, these deaths begin within as some internal shift in how we understand ourselves and our world push us into re-evaluating our identity. These often eventually lead to changes in our external lives as well, as we attempt to bring our internal and external worlds into alignment.

While each of these deaths is painful, each one is also an invitation into the powerful process of transformation. Yet for us to fully enter into the transformation available to us in these times, we must first face this self-death eye to eye and move completely through that death process.

There are two common ways that people get stuck at this stage that make the process of transformation more difficult.

One way people get stuck is to become overwhelmed by the loss involved in this death and refuse to move into the later stages of transformation. This happens most often when the death of some part of one’s self-identity has been caused by a painful external event.

It is easy to become stuck in a place of seeing oneself as a victim of what has happened to prompt the ending that we are experiencing. To move through the death process and eventually into the new beginning stage of transformation can feel like a self-betrayal when we find good resulting from what may have been a terrible thing.

It’s not easy to allow for the kintsugi gold of healing to take shape when we have become attached to nursing anger or resentment over the broken edges.

The problem with this approach is that the transformation process will continue moving through its usual stages, but rather than being transformed into a better person, we wind up transformed into resentful, angry people whose lives revolve around the death we had wanted to avoid.

The other way people get stuck in this place is to refuse to acknowledge that a death has happened at all. This happens most often when someone has willfully chosen the change that prompted the death or when the change that caused the death was one that would be considered a good thing.

For example, many parents may find that the birth of their first child brings such radical changes to their lives that it begins a transformation process in their self-identity. Although this is a change that they chose and that they consider a good thing, there is also a part of who they were before children that dies in the face of demands of parenthood.

It may feel like betrayal of their love for and delight in their new child to admit that there is any feeling of grief or loss surrounding their old self-identity, so they try to pretend that they are not experiencing that death.

This might also happen with a sought-after promotion, a new marriage, living away from home for the first time, or a desired career change as those changes restructure one’s self-identity. To admit that there is some part of a self-identity that has died due to these welcome and chosen changes can be hard to do, but without allowing the death to unfold with full awareness, we can stunt our ability to move as fully into the new self-identity that transformation can bring into being.

Looking back, I can see many times when I blocked the full fruit that I may have gained from any number of major changes in my life by either refusing to admit that some part of my self-identity had died or by staying stuck in resentment over the ending of the-way-things-were. Both approaches blocked me from living into the greatest benefits that transformation could have brought.

As you consider past cases where some part of your self-identity died due to internal or external changes, how well did you face and move through this first stage of transformation? Have you ever fallen into either of these two challenges to the process?

If you are in the midst of a transformation process now, can you identify the part of your self-identity that has died? Are you dealing with that death in a way that will allow you to move into the following stages of transformation as smoothly and as fully as possible? If not, what might you change about your approach to get more from the transformation you are undergoing?

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  1. Currently, transformation is a major part of my life. I find it fascinating now but have not in the past, even the recent past. I find myself considering the butterfly most often, especially the monarch butterfly. All butterflies have four, distinct lives from larvae to flying, a complete metamorphosis in each life. And the monarch butterfly plays its role in a remarkable journey of nearly 3,000 miles so that its species survives. I find the butterfly story inspiring for whatever partial metamorphosis I might know. Thoughtful post as always, Kenetha.

    1. The story of the butterfly’s lifecycle – especially the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly in the chrysalis – was something I clung to when I was deep in the midst of the most intense part of my recent transformation. The steps of the “death” of the caterpillar, through the undefined goo in the chrysalis, to the re-birth as a butterfly so closely mirrored what I was experiencing that it gave me a way of processing my experience through that lens. I’m glad that story is now speaking to you as well.
      I hope your current transformation goes as smoothly as it is possible for these journeys to go. I find these periods to be unbelievably intense on so many levels, but always worth it in the end.
      Thanks so much for your comment! Many blessings to you!

  2. I am coming to terms with the fact that my career may have nothing to do with the education I received, at least from my prospective. My education has given me things like the ability to critically think, research, and summarize data. And I also have excellent written communication skills. So I have to understand that my experiences have given me things that I can use no matter what I do. Now I just need to settle on figuring that out!

    1. It sounds like you are deep in the “death” stage of a part of your self-identity here, but I’m also hearing signs of movement toward re-birth as you wait in that middle, undefined stage, where what was is no more and what will be is not yet here. Such a hard place to be!
      Thanks for the comment, Kristie! I’ll definitely be thinking of you as you move through the process of figuring out what’s next.

  3. […] of the newly transformed one. In this empty space in between, we can only see what the death of the first stage has brought us without having a clear idea of what the rebirth of the third stage may yet […]

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