The subject of endings is rarely discussed, probably because it evokes the most painful of emotions. Most people spend a lifetime trying to avoid facing the negative feelings which arise from endings, but we are bound to face them sooner or later. Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian neurologist, once said that in the unconscious, nothing is ever completely lost. Experiences and the emotions attached to endings remain in the depths of our minds and influence the way we perceive and interpret later situations which resemble previous ones. This suggests that any ending or loss in early childhood has the potential to influence much of our thinking in the future.
Most of us embrace a new beginning to varying extents, but what we rarely talk about is how challenging it can be to manage the endings that must take place before we can free ourselves to move forward. Life is full of endings. Regardless of the source or nature, it is natural to want to push past an ending as quickly as possible in order to minimise the discomfort and move on to more positive feelings associated with new beginnings. Our overall attitude towards change is certainly important, but simply being aware that there is a natural progression to a period of transition can go a long way towards easing the process. Regardless of the circumstances of the ending, coming to terms with what is ending in our life is the important first step.
A baby is born without the motor ability for independence, to source food, comfort and life-sustaining warmth, to protect against danger. The baby is utterly dependent on another for support, to provide for needs and hold in safety. This most dramatic ending/beginning, occurring in a state of helplessness, leaves in all of us potentially a deep fear of falling, disintegrating, being lost, helpless and overwhelmed by terror in the face of the new and unknown. An ending evokes fear of un-connectedness. How do we survive and come to feel that there is a lifeline to sustain us? We gradually come to feel safe when there is reliable, attentive support from an adult which exposes us only very briefly to terrifying aloneness.
How you manage endings will either enhance your sense of well-being and make you stronger and more resilient, or add to the stress and your emotional ride by prolonging the period of transition as you struggle to deal with the changes in your life. Relationships and our surroundings, at least in part, define us. When these change, especially if the change is forced upon us unexpectedly, it can be disorienting because it shakes up our identity. Once we acknowledge something as an ending, the next phase is normally disengagement from the activities, relationships and settings in our previous role. This then leads to unplugging from the interpersonal and social world that once gave us identity. It may seem this happens in a moment, say for example when we leave a job and walk out the door for the last time, but the old habits and practices that associated our identity to that job will likely take time to dismantle.
Every ending gives us the chance to rest, to breathe and reflect on the conclusion of one journey so we can prepare for another. Endings come in all shapes and sizes. Some pass in the blink of an eye with little notice, while the residual effects of others may linger on for years. But we can learn to manage and stop struggling with endings if we acknowledge and give ourselves time to adjust to the change.
The end of term or the end of the year may seem to us an insignificant ending, but anxieties are stirred up in children by any endings because of earlier losses. A temporary break needs many weeks of preparation, a final ending of an ongoing, well established relationship may need many months of planning. To explain how long this takes we must consider processes associated with mourning. As Freud pointed out, this occurs not only in bereavement but accompanies all experiences of loss, whether a relationship to a person, the loss of childhood, the familiar school building and teacher or of peers.
As a school community we need to be the safety net for children when they need us. We must support them through change and endings, remove any fear of losing connection with their worlds and help them to see an ending as natural in life’s development. As an eternal optimist I know I have a tendency to focus on the positives of any ending, seeing it as the popular “One door closes, another door opens” analogy. On reflection, it is natural to feel sad about an ending and perhaps, sometimes, we must allow ourselves and our children to be sad, to grieve for the loss. However, once the acceptance has come we must move on to new ventures in the knowledge that our past will continue to influence our emotions.