Category Archives: Spirituality and Health

Navigating those Big Transitions in Life

Phyllooks2Everything looks the same – and nothing feels the same.  My wife has died.  The center of our family has been ripped out leaving the rest of us to hold onto each other, still alive –  but without our heart.  Nothing makes much sense in my world without Phyl.  The searing pain appears unexpected from time to time, and then fades back into a dull ache.  And the worst part is that the world seems to look sort of normal.  But nothing feels normal.  Nothing feels right.  Everything has changed…

We all experience big and often sudden changes in life, like going to college, getting married, having children, children leaving home, changing jobs, retirement, or the death of someone we love.  These big changes in life, we call transitions.  The following is what I wrote about transitions when my family moved from Illinois to Massachusetts in 1992.  It all seemed much easier then, but I think there is still something to learn from this essay today.

John M. Gerber
July 4, 2020


Navigating Life’s Transitions

Today there are revolutionary changes occurring in our society, our institutions, and for individuals that seem to come at us faster and faster.  Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason makes the case that “change is just not what it used to be.”  In the past, trends could be analyzed and future directions could be predicted.  This allowed for continuous, evolutionary transitions. Today’s world, on the other hand, is experiencing unpredictable, discontinuous, and revolutionary change.

While some people see this current period of rapid global transformation as an opportunity – for others it is a time of painful and reluctant adjustment to a seemingly confusing and chaotic world.  When faced with the possibility of change, most people choose the familiar – the status quo – perhaps due to fear of the unknown.

Letting go is frightening – its like jumping into a void. Henry David Thoreau seemed to be recommending the life of a change seeker when he wrote in his journal on March 11, 1859; “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”

William Bridge’s book, Transitions, reminds us that all new stages of life begin with an ending.  Letting go of the familiar is the beginning of beginning and requires two things; ceremony and grieving.  We are not good at endings.  We are a future focused society always looking forward and moving on to the next thing.  When taken to the extreme, this “treadmill existence” can be pathological.  Some of us leave destruction in our wake – broken relationships, incomplete work or unfinished learning.  You may recognize this trait in friends – or perhaps yourself.

The first gift I’ll share with you is the knowledge that endings are important.  And saying the words “goodbye” is an important part of the process of moving on.  It is not an ending if you leave a situation with a “see you later.”  Use the words “good-bye” when you leave your friends at school, a job or a relationship.   Try it.

The Neutral Zone

The second gift I’ll give you is the knowledge that there is a little-discussed period of time in between endings and new beginnings called the neutral zone.  It is a period of time that may be no more than a weekend or may take years, in which you may feel lost, empty and frightened.  This is good.  The neutral zone is a real thing.  To avoid it, or to not notice that it is happening isn’t healthy.

To manage this transition period, Bridges suggests you find a regular time and place to be alone.  This doesn’t mean lying around in bed all day, but rather trying something that you might not ordinarily do – by yourself.  Some people get up early and read, meditate, walk, or just enjoy a cup of coffee in the presence of the early morning birds.  The point is to be as completely unproductive as possible and just notice how it feels.

The next recommendation is to keep a journal or perhaps to write an autobiography of your life.  The journal should be used to record feelings not to make “to do” lists.  The paradox of this recommendation of course is that the neutral zone might be a time when “nothing is happening.”  If so, write how you feel about that.

The final recommendation is to ponder the question “what would be unlived in your life if it ended today?”  What is it about you that feels to be core to how you think of yourself, that others don’t know about or you haven’t done yet.

Bridges recommends that you spend time alone in a  new environment where nobody knows you.  This may be the modern day version of a Native American vision quest.  Don’t bring a book, a radio or CD player.  No outside stimulation to distract you from just being you.   Pay attention to details.  Journal about your feelings and thoughts.  Don’t worry about being productive.  Just be.  Stay awake one entire night with the only activity keeping a fire going or counting the stars, try it.  And don’t tell anyone what you are doing.

If it feels right, plan your own symbolic acts of emptiness.  You might simply sit outside, draw a circle around yourself in the dust – and just sit.  You might write a list of all the things you wanted to accomplish in the past year  – and burn it.  You might talk to the moon or carve a walking stick.  Find a ritual that works for you.

New BeginningsLetting Go

The last stage of transition is a new beginning.  We generally celebrate beginnings as a time of opportunity – but we also recognize it as a time of uncertainty.  It is like the first step a trapeze artist makes onto a high wire crossing Niagara Falls.  The first step is the most difficult and requires letting go of both the patterns of the past and expectations for the future.

Remember the scene in the Disney movie “Finding Nemo’ when Dory and Marlin (Nemo’s dad – the clown fish) are inside the belly of a whale  – trying not to get sucked down the vortex of water that seems to lead to death?  Dory tells Marlin “its time to let go.”  Marlin struggles to hang on – afraid. When they finally can’t hold on any longer and let go, they both get sucked down into the belly of the whale  – and then shot right up through the whale’s spout  – to find themselves exactly where they wanted to be on their quest to find Nemo!  Sometimes life is just like that but you will never find out unless you let go!


This all still seems like a really good idea!  Its much harder in practice…..


The First Two Weeks

Phyl’s spirit was more grand than the Grand Canyon….

I read somewhere that the first two weeks after the loss of a spouse was the “easy part” since there are so many things to do, visitors, cards, practical arrangements, and just plain “busyness.”  I’m not sure it was “easy” but I can attest to the “busy” part.  Family and friends have been keeping me company while I try to navigate the early days of grieving.  Here is a brief update….

Phyl’s ashes have returned home in an urn that she made and picked out for herself.  She made one for me too.   They have both been sitting in the basement for years with our names on them and we were not planning on using them for a long time.   Our plan was “to get old together.”  So much for our plans.  So her urn and ashes have come home and if you are a “local” you are welcome to come by to see the urn (its beautiful).  It is residing on our window sill looking out over Phyl’s beloved deck and gardens….


I’m not making any plans or decisions regarding the future.  I’m trying to  live in “the neutral zone” which I’ve written about here.  Otherwise, I’ll be in Rhode Island from August 8 to 29 at the same house we rented near the beach last summer.  I have two online summer classes that run from July 6 to August 14 and our fall class schedule starts early this year, on August 24.   I’m able to do a bit of work on classes and then my stomach knots up and a sinking feeling rises as I realize that Phyl is really gone.  So I work a little bit at a time.   My most important job is keeping Phyl’s gardens weeded and walking our dog Riley.

Frankly, I’m just putting one foot in front of the other and trying to do “the next right thing.”  I learned this practice in my 12- Step kristenProgram, but our granddaughter, Elena, tells me that this particular saying, “when you are lost, just try to do he next right thing”, comes from the movie Frozen 2.  In any case, it seems to be all I can accomplish right now.

Our sons have been amazingly supportive in both holding me up and doing their own grieving.  Phyl built a robust and resilient network of family and friends that is a source of strength for us all.  Lots of people are bringing food and my brother Dan and family stop by often to make sure I’m eating.  Sleep is a bit elusive but getting better.  While the pain is beyond comprehension, I’m still walking through each day, one step at time, thanks to all of this support.  I hope you too are able to think about Phyl, talk about her with others, and cry.  I’m certainly doing a lot of all three.

I’ve read several books (actually I started but didn’t finish several books) on grieving the loss of a spouse and found them to be mostly crap.  They don’t tell you about the searing pain that feels like a knife entering my chest when I think about her.   They don’t tell you that everything you do again for the first time without her takes your breath away.  But I did find one book that I’m sharing with folks that seems mostly consistent with my own experience and feelings.  The title is “It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay” – and I’m a long way from being “okay”.   If you are curious and need some help grieving honestly yourself, you might want to listen to the introduction which I’ve linked below.  If you prefer denial and distraction (which are useful tools for dealing with unbearable pain) don’t listen to it.   The introduction chapter is about 9 minutes long. 

So, if you just listened to the audio recording, to finish her sentence, she said “here is what I most want you to know: this really is as bad as you think.”  You will need to get the book to learn more…. sorry. To continue…

Jake, Brian, Jeremy, and I are beginning to think about a memorial in the fall.  It is a bit tricky with COVID but we hope to build something around the Western Mass ALS Walk-a-Thon which has been moved from September 13 to Saturday, October 3, 2020.  We still hope to have it at Look Park in Northampton, but as of today, there are strict limitations on the number of people who can attend any event.  We’ll keep you posted but please don’t make travel plans as everything could change.

You are welcome to share your own thoughts in the “reply” box below.  For now, please join me in celebrating and grieving the life and spirit of the love of my life, my best friend, and the center of our family.  We knew this would be hard and miss her more than we ever could have imagined….

On day 15….


The letter I never wanted to write

TO:  Family and Friends….

This is the letter I never wanted to write.  Your friend, family member, and my wife of almost 48 years passed away peacefully last night, surrounded by her children, lots of flowers and Beetles music.   Phyl just ran out of time.  Her breathing has been getting worse for the past year and finally her lungs quit on her, even with the mask and respirator.

The past two weeks have been tough as she struggled to breathe and lost her ability to communicate.  When she experienced air hunger, we gave her morphine which gave her some relief.  Yesterday morning I helped her dress and took her into the dining room in her power wheelchair.  She had three doses of morphine before she got comfortable, but this also made her groggy.  We didn’t think she was aware of what was going on around her, but when she heard our grandchildren playing at the dining room table Phyl perked up and waived to them weakly.

We kept her comfortable all day with morphine.  She seemed to perk up when her brother Howard call, but she slept most of the day.  Her breathing became weaker and weaker all day and we knew she was transitioning when her oxygen level began to drop.  Jake, Brian, Jeremy and his wife Sam, and I held her hands, rubbed her legs, talked to her, and cried until her breathing stopped altogether at 2:45am.  It was a relief as she was suffering.  She passed very peacefully.

Phyl will be cremated and we are planning a celebration of life sometime in the fall, hopefully associated with the ALS Walk-a-Thon in Look Park on Sunday, September 13.  More on that later.  We’ll also ask for donations in lieu of flowers etc. for the ALS Association of Massachusetts which has been very good to us.  Here is the link if you would like to help;

I’ll tell you more in another letter, as I’m exhausted and can’t think.

Love to you all…..


Click here for Phyl’s obituary

After her passing……  a few more posts about John:

June 28, 2020 – The first two weeks

July 4, 2020 – Navigating Transitions



Thoughts on life and the afterlife

I’m really not sure why anyone would be interested in my thoughts on the afterlife but it helps me to clarify my own thinking when I write.  So I did.  I’ve been thinking about death a lot as several close friends have died recently and the corona virus has surely put death in the news.  These sort of ponderings seem to happen to many people as they age.  I offer these ideas in a public forum in hopes that some readers might share their own thought/feelings about life and death (in the Comments box below). 


First, I’m not terribly fond of the word “afterlife” – even though I used it in the title.  Most people know what is meant by the term afterlife, so it is useful.  But the word “afterlife” feels too final as I have come to believe in the continuation of consciousness after the death of the physical body.  For me, the death experience appears to be more of a transition to another form of existence, a continuation – not an ending.  I need a better word to describe the “condition of being that follows once the spirit-self has left its bodily container.”  Perhaps you have a suggestion.

I surely don’t have a picture in mind of a heaven with “pearly white gates, hanging out with old friends playing harps in the clouds etc.”, I do understand why that description might be a useful story to tell children and I suspect it can be a comfort to those who believe.  But it’s just a bit too easy for me to accept what seems more like a fairy tale than a thoughtful depiction of the state of existence that continues following the demise of the body.  Nevertheless, I believe that we live forever, as suggested in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic book, The Secret Garden.

Continue reading Thoughts on life and the afterlife

When someone is grieving….

I wish I had written this myself…..

John Gerber

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” ~Henri Nouwen

It’s hard to stand at the edge of someone else’s grief.

There’s the awkwardness. You always feel a little like an uninvited guest who arrived late and missed the first half of the conversation—a conversation that turns out to be a wrestle between another person and the deepest parts of their own soul.

What can you say when you realize you’ve barged in on an interaction so intimate, so personal that you just want to avert your eyes and slink quietly away?

Then there are the triggers. Continue reading When someone is grieving….

Why I bother with God….

In a recent episode of the TV series The Crown, Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Phillip, had a brief conversation with his mother Princess Alice of Battenberg, who asked him casually “so how is your faith?”  After a slight hesitation he replied, “dormant.”   The aging Princess told her middle aged son bluntly….  “That’s not good, let this be a mothers gift to her child … find yourself faith, it helps, no… not just helps … its everything.”

It is easy to imagine why the husband of the Queen of England might find himself too busy to worry about his faith… too busy to “bother with God.”  After all, there are all those royal ceremonies to attend!  But what about you and me?  Why and when did we let a sense of the divine, the spiritual or the sacred slip out of our lives?  Or maybe we are hard core materialists (if you can’t see it, then it doesn’t exist) and have never had any sense of the spiritual in the first place?  If so, you would not be all that unusual in the secular world in which we live today.  Most of us today don’t “bother with God.”

Continue reading Why I bother with God….

Beyond a Job: Doing The Great Work

Adapted from an Interview with Matthew Fox by Mary NurrieStearns

Much of our life is spent in the world of work. Our time, energy, and even identity are wrapped up in what we do and how much money we have. Therefore it is important to explore how work is associated with prosperity. At times, work is a job an exchange of effort for money. But work can also be vocation. When work is vocation, it is where we express our unique talents, find meaning, and contribute to what Matthew Fox calls “the great work,” the work of the universe.

To discuss this subject with Matthew Fox was like finding a gold mine. The author of many books, Fox describes in “The Reinvention of Work” a new vision of livelihood. In his envisioned world of work intellect, heart, and health come together to celebrate the whole person. He is a true teacher of what he espouses. He was dismissed by the Continue reading Beyond a Job: Doing The Great Work

Want to be a plant scientist? Look at a leaf…

FROM: Lab Girl (pp. 3-4) by Hope Jahren. Knopf Doubleday Publishing

“People are like plants… they grow toward the light”

PEOPLE LOVE THE OCEAN. People are always asking me why I don’t study the ocean, because, after all, I live in Hawaii. I tell them that it’s because the ocean is a lonely, empty place. There is six hundred times more life on land than there is in the ocean, and this fact mostly comes down to plants. The average ocean plant is one cell that lives for about twenty days. The average land plant is a two-ton tree that lives for more than one hundred years. The mass ratio of plants to animals in the ocean is close to four, while the ratio on land is closer to a thousand. Plant numbers are staggering: there are eighty billion trees just within the protected forests of the western United States. The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred. As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them. Since I’ve discovered these numbers, I can see little else.

So humor me for a minute, and look out your window. Continue reading Want to be a plant scientist? Look at a leaf…