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The End is Hardly Ever Really the End

It was cold and gray when I was running on the levee above the river this morning. I found myself longing for those tall, shaggy, brown grasses to return to the green I see when I run this route on spring or summer mornings. It’s a pretty easy consolation, though, knowing that the seasons will change and the cycle will begin again. It requires nothing from me but to observe and appreciate that nature knows what to do. Attempting that same kind of trust in my own life is easier now that I’m as old as I am. But, it’s still never the first place I go when I’m lamenting the ending of something or the transformation of another.

The template for each of our journeys is handed to us in so many different ways when we’re growing up. If we’re lucky, we have the structure of families and school and soccer teams, final exams, graduations, meanderings toward jobs, relationships, more family, careers, retirement, travel, and some kind of security. Still, outside of basic laws about compulsory education, much of that structure is really just a guide. It’s a roadmap for how, generally, our lives go. When it’s presented to us, either incrementally or in romantic movies, it doesn’t usually include all of what can change, go wrong, cause us pain, or even move us in a whole new direction. It is as if life is a long and winding road that we travel until it ends. Probably in an effort to keep a positive spin on things, no one previews the many, many endings that occur along the way.

There is a very clear map provided for people my age, and a big part of it is focused on some of life’s biggest endings.

When they come—whether in the form of break-ups, illnesses, or something else that breaks our hearts—it’s hard to imagine we will survive. This wasn’t supposed to happen, we think to ourselves. I never dreamed I’d end up feeling like this. And yet, almost always, we eventually feel better. The first time I was in a serious relationship that came to an end, I was sure I would never feel happy again. It turned out it was just an end to that particular connection at that particular time. I survived, she survived, and we kept moving forward.

Now that I have a much larger and longer perspective, I see the same patterns in my feelings about the ends of ideas and concepts I’ve held close. When we are younger, we form our values based on what happens in our families and communities and schools. With each new connection and every new experience, we add to those beliefs, alter them, and even let some go—also not easy. We build ourselves with what we feel and believe, no matter how we formed those ideas in the first place. As our worlds expand and shift well past those original templates, we realize that some concepts just don’t work anymore, but it often feels like the end of an era. Often it's high time for a new view, but we mourn anyway.

I drove past my old high school recently. In the moment it took me to get from the hallway where my locker was to the edge of the baseball field, I remembered what it felt like to be 16—tortured by a lack of confidence and totally unsure where my road was headed. But I can still recall when I graduated and grieved for the loss of that time, those people, that place. That 16-year-old girl is still in me. She and I—and lots of other iterations of me—are on a much happier path these days, but letting go doesn’t get much easier.

There is a very clear map provided for people my age, and a huge part of it is focused on some of life’s biggest endings—retirements, downsizing into smaller houses, and the very worst thing—losing our people. I’m no more prepared now than I ever was. So I’m setting the map on the table, heading out with my own compass. If the road to the right looks short and treacherous, I’ll take the one to the left—or perfect my U-turn skills. I’m not in denial. I know things end in some form. Sometimes it’s a very good thing, and sometimes spending my energy on the journey and not the ending seems better.

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