Change: Loss, Grieving and Opportunity for the New.

By Arlene Kahn Therapy • October 26th, 2012
"No man ever steps in the same river twic...

Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”


Change can be one of the most difficult experiences to negotiate in life.  When there’s a company take-over, fear takes hold among employees.   What will the change bring?  A young couple prepares for the birth of their first child, unsure how the change will affect their relationship, the closeness of their bond.  Abrupt change such as death of a loved one or unexpected job loss can be shocking to our system, leaving us bereft with a feeling of nothing to hold onto and in a state of grief.

In our political arena, the issues of the impending election invoke the tentacles of change as they reach into the economy, education, health insurance, taxes.  All is in flux and the flux creates turmoil.  In the natural world, earthquakes, forest fires, hurricanes destroy the present.  Then nature (and men and women) rebuild tomorrow. The charred and blackened forests give rise to new and lush growth, New Orleans is a safer  place than it was before Hurricane Katrina.


In the 1970’s there was a book called “Don’t Push The River.”  It  showed how useless it is to try to hold back the flow of life.  Still, many of us resist change.   We want things to stay the same. In our marriage, a changing partner or change in ourselves can feel frightening–where will it lead?  We are afraid of the unknown.  And, change often involves Loss.  I am aware even as the season changes, I mourn the loss of the warmth of summer, the brightness of the day, the energy of the sun.  Okay, I love the leaves drifting down from their tree branches, the colors of Fall, and even the coolness is refreshing. Still…..


Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher (c. 535-475 BCE) is most famous for his well-known saying : ” No man ever steps in the same river twice.” He insisted on declaring the ever-present change in the universe.  He further emphasized that because there is constant change, each object that exists is itself  a harmony between a building up and a tearing down. In other words, he believed that despite the struggle of staying the same vs. creating the new, the created object becomes a harmony of a new whole.  So in the loss of change is also the emergence of the new.


Heraclitus’ philosophy of change coincided with Buddhist philosophy founded in India about the same time, in which Impermanence is one of the three marks of existence.  Buddhism holds that it is our attachment to the things and people we come to depend on that is the cause of future suffering.  When a loved one dies or leaves through death or other separation, it can be excruciatingly painful. We rely on our attachments.  Even an adult child appropriately leaving home can be painful for a parent.

Heraclitus became known as the “Weeping Philosopher.”  He suffered from what was then called Melancholia and what is today called Depression.  Could there have been a connection between Heraclitus’ acute awareness of ever present change and his sadness?  Could the loss in our attachments be one of the sources of our suffering, as Buddhism suggests?  When our attachments leave, when we lose the connections to the people and activities that support us, often there is a pervasive sense of aloneness that may be expressed in depression, addictions and other symptoms, rather than allowing the outright grieving that’s necessary to feel complete again.  Within the state of grief are often opposite pulls to want back what was lost, to resist the change vs.the pull to go on with life in a new way, to welcome the new.


1.  When faced with a conflict or opposing thoughts or feelings, try “holding the opposites” in your body/mind.  Give yourself a minute at a time, several times during the day, week or month,  until they loosen and begin to  transform.

2.   Rather than making a quick decision about buying a house, leaving a relationship, taking a new job, when there’s indecision and conflicted feelings, try focusing on the inner conflict, creating an image of it, waiting till something inside “shifts.”.

3.  Stay in the experience of “now”, even when the now is painful.  Allow it to find its resolution.

4.  Often, meditation can help us slow down and wait for the new that emerges and transforms.  How unproductive it would be to force the pupa to release the butterfly before it’s ready!  Waiting, giving it space and time encourages it’s natural birth and creation.


When I read Heraclitus’ statement that “the path up and down are one and the same,”  I was reminded of the autobiography of the academy award-winning actress Bette Davis who wrote that her mother used to tell her “be kind to the people you meet on the way up, because they are the same people you meet on the way down.”  What she meant is that Bette’s success may one day ebb and if she treats others badly on the way up, they may spurn her on the return trip.  

I think it’s also important to be nice to yourself on the way up because it’s the same you that you will accompany on the way down.”  Knowing and accepting who we are at our core is the key to handling success well and coping with life’s disappointments, or unexpected reversals when they occur.   We can’t achieve the sense of wholeness, the flowing stream, only by what we do on the outside.  That helps.  But it is gathering the felt-sense of the pain that heals.  Then there’s a shift inside, that brings the gift of inner harmony.

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