What to expect after a life changing event

life changing event
life changing event
Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

Going through a major life changing event is one of the most disorienting and hellish experiences one will ever know. About five years ago, I found myself internally prompted to begin climbing out of the rock bottom pit of despair that I was in after my 13 year old stepdaughter had taken her life. I was reading tons of books, taking workshops and intensive trainings, looking for signs, seeking words of wisdom…ANYTHING that might help me feel better. This “new normal” that had developed as a result of experiencing one of the most painful losses of my life was extremely foreign. The petrifying stillness of grief was no longer serving me. I needed to find some way to move forward.

This was when I reached for Martha Beck’s book, Finding Your own North Star. It was like something/someone had heard my begging and actually placed this book in my hand. In her book, Martha talks about a 4-part model of transformation called The Change Cycle. I’m sure there are other models out there like it, but the way she explained it made SO much sense to me. You can also read about them in her post, Growing Wings: The Power of Change.

This model completely transformed the way I was looking at what had happened, and eventually led to me signing up for her life coach training certification program (totally beside the point).

I’ll be honest. This transformation process hasn’t been easy. And chances are that if you find yourself reading this, you’re feeling the pain of your own transformation process. I’ll tell ya…it’s bumpy, and it can be downright nasty. The most painful part is simply not knowing what the hell is happening. It can feel a lot like hopping on a motorcycle with a blindfold on.

BUT…it don’t HAVE to be that scary. In fact, the Change Cycle is almost like a manual for navigating major life change…with minimal drama and trauma.

Click the button below to get your checklist.

  • Know what to do after experiencing major life change
  • Self care practices to help you each step of the way as you navigate life’s changes.

The Change Cycle – From Rock Bottom to Full Flight

It may not seem like it now, but life will get better. This isn’t to say that there won’t be struggle. In fact, change simply isn’t possible without struggle. Some of the most painful struggles that folks experience are the ones that wind up turning out to be the most transformative, life changing, and even awakening.

I won’t go into super duper detail about this 4-part cycle since Martha does it so well in this post: Growing Wings: The Power of Change. I will provide a basic run-down and my experience with it. The most important thing to know right now is that Martha (just like most people on the planet) uses the butterfly lifecycle as a metaphor for each stage of the cycle. The most intriguing part about this, however, is how each stage (or square) is broken up.

Square 1 – You experience a life changing event…and it knocks you completely out of your element.

life changing event

This is also known as dissolving and it is what happens immediately after you experience a major life changing event. Be it the birth of a baby, a marriage, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or a tragic accident, this is a time in life when you realize that life as you know it will never, ever be the same. For some, it’s not just one of these events that take place, but (as Lissa Rankin describes in her book Anatomy of a Calling), many of these events can combine to form the “perfect storm”.

If we were to compare it to a butterfly’s life cycle, this is the point when the caterpillar’s hormones signal that it is time for it to find a safe space so that its shedding skin can form a hard shell (the chrysalis). Everything that the caterpillar once was dissolves. It becomes “bug soup” inside its hard casing. The outer shell of the chrysalis cares for the mysterious metamorphosing being inside. A soupy substance of imago cells (that hold the information of what is destined to become the butterfly) is all there is in there. And there it sits.

At this stage, the mysterious “being” inside the chrysalis doesn’t have what it takes to do anything quite yet. This is key to remember as you find yourself in the swimming pool of Stage 1. At this stage, there is no doing. There is only being. Attempting to DO will only lead to more dissolving…more time in Stage 1.

Even though it may not seem like it to our Westernized minds, this time is sacred. It’s a time of deep introspection. Nothing is expected. Breath will be your friend and your guide.

One thing that is important to remember…

Things will not stay this way.

At this moment, it may not feel like it.

I’m not here to paint the pain that you’re feeling with rainbow colors and glittery sprinkles. I’m also not here to commiserate with you. I am here to tell you that I completely understand what it’s like…one moment you’re walking on Cloud Nine and feeling on top of the world. Then the next moment, some BIG cataclysmic event happens and everything…I mean EVERYTHING seems to be taken away.

It’s beyond painful. It’s dreadful. If your life was a sponge, it’s as if some force is wringing you out until there’s nothing left.

Square 1 feels like hell. In fact, the mantra for this stage is

I don’t know what the hell is going on…and that’s okay.

-Martha Beck

But here’s the deal…

You will make it out of this.

I did. Not only that time, but I did multiple times before that. The key in this stage is to simply be honest with yourself and your process. Allow yourself to sink into it. Don’t resist it.

Trust. Surrender. Let go.

Some of the emotions that come up will be super intense. This is why I created this Emotional Power Meditation. It will help you move through this stage much more effectively.

Click Below for Your FREE Emotional Power Meditation

  • Trade painful emotions for power.
  • Connect with what is true for you through the wisdom of your body.
  • Get emotionally unstuck.

Just remember…breathe. Let’s move to Phase 2.

Square 2 – Let the Dreams Begin

dreaming and scheming

At the beginning of this post I talked about feeling the need to reach out and find resources that could help me dig myself out of my pit of despair, I was beginning Square 2.

Yes, that means that I sat in Square 1 for a whole TWO YEARS. I’m telling you. It takes TIME!

Eventually, I got sick and tired of being all mopey. My body and my mind felt like it was time to move on. Finally! I had more energy! My dreams became more vivid and promising. For the first time in a long time, I felt as though there was hope. Martha describes this time as “Imagining”, and it’s a time when a great amount of dreaming and scheming comes in.

It is FUN. It’s probably also one of the most manic stages. It’s exciting. It’s full of possibility. I began daydreaming like crazy. I began wondering how I could take the painful experience I had endured and turn it into something beautiful. I wanted to reach out and make others’ lives richer in some way. I decided to start a blog (and here I am today!). I also daydreamed about starting a business. And traveling. And doing ALL THE THINGS.

My bucket list began to grow! Life began to taste much sweeter.

Square 2 is a beautiful stage where it’s okay. to dream. The mantra for this stage is:

There are no rules…and that’s okay.

-Martha Beck

If you find yourself in this stage after a life changing event, it is a signal that you are about to be reborn. You realize that what once defined you no longer works, and the only way to go is forward.

This is a great time to do things like journal, make art, share your dreams to close friends, create a vision board, and start a bucket list. It is true that this phase has NO rules…and that is completely okay. Allow yourself to DREAM, and DREAM BIG! This is the time when you’re revving up that internal engine of yours so that you can step up to the next phase, which is…

Square 3: The Productive Struggle (aka The Hero’s Journey)


Whew. This stage is so crazy bitter sweet. This is the part where the rubber meets the road. All of that dreaming and scheming you do in Square 2 is put into action.

Clumsy, imperfect action.

This stage after a life changing event is so much messier than Square 2! For me, it’s been like a roller coaster. This is the stage that most people find themselves lingering for a LONG time. This is because it IS so messy. What happens is you’ll pick up a dream, make a plan to execute it, and then you’ll find it doesn’t work. You end up back in Square 2, wondering what in the world you were thinking.

This is the Hero’s Journey, if you’re at all familiar with it. Just think about Indiana Jones, or any other movie where there’s a hero. Joseph Campbell’s work immortalized this concept. In a nutshell, this is what you’ll experience in this stage (check out the graphic below):

The Hero's Journey

It’s a party, I tell ya. Notice that a good chunk of your time is spent not knowing what the hell is going on. I know…at some times, it can feel like you’re being knocked down to Square 1 over and over again too.

Actually, the mantra for this stage after a life changing event is:

This is much worse than I expected, and that’s okay.

-Martha Beck

As for me, it’s meant going ALL IN, pulling back, testing the waters…pulling back. Crying, biting, punching, trying, kicking, diving in again.

If it weren’t for that dang life changing event, I wouldn’t have so much drive to make it work.

So now I have a life coach and a therapist because eventually I realized that I simply can’t do it alone, and without really diving in to do some DEEP, heavy-duty inner work.

You get the picture.

The Hero’s Journey/The Productive Struggle isn’t pretty. People very rarely, if at all, escape from it without any scars. It’s not clean. It’s got lions, tigers, bears, monsters, dragons, demons, dungeons, trolls. You name it, you’ll come face-to-face with it.

I have no idea how many times I’ve wondered if I could just stay in Square 2. I’ll even attempt to go back there, but then there will be some annoying fire within me that will be like, DO IT! It’ll be fun!

Click the button below to get your checklist.

  • Know what to do after experiencing major life change
  • Self care practices to help you each step of the way as you navigate life’s changes.

And you know what? It totally is. It’s scary as all heck. It’s risky. But it’s also what makes life worth living.

It’s jumping and not knowing whether or not there will be a parachute.

You’ll think you’re crazy. You know what? Everyone else will, too. Your relationships will change. Those that aren’t meant to stay will leave (usually after a blow up of some kind). At the same time, you will make connections that will enrich your life forever.

There will be both small and major wins, and both small and major losses.

In comparing this part of the change cycle with the lifecycle of a butterfly, this is much like when the butterfly has re-formed and it is forced to struggle its way out of the chrysalis.

Watching a butterfly struggling to break out is frustrating as a bystander. You just want to jump right in there and help it! The thing is, it NEEDS this struggle to build the wing strength that is required to fly. If you help it, it will not build strength, and it will not survive.

This is true for you, too. If you want to be able to fly and to soar, you need to build up the strength to do so.

Flexibility is key. Be willing to ask for help when you need it (in the form of resources and tools…not expecting people to do things for you).

And now, for your viewing pleasure: check out this butterfly escape from its chrysalis. The video is a little elementary, but it does a great job of explaining the process.

Square 4: Full Flight

Eventually, after you’ve experienced a life changing event and you’ve been through Squares 1-3, you will get to Square 4. This stage is dubbed, “The Promised Land”. I can say that there are a number of areas of my life that are at Square 4. For that, I’m grateful. I’m sure this is true for you as well. When a part of your life gets to Square 4, it’s time to simply enjoy, tweak to make small improvements, and know that change is right around the corner.

At which point, you’ll find yourself right back in Square 1.

You’ve got this.

There are a few notes that I want to leave you with.

First, it doesn’t necessarily take a major life changing event in the form of a catastrophe or a tragedy to bump you back to Square 1. Like they say: the only constant is change. If you pay really close attention to the parts of your life that are in Square 4 and you look for signs that a change needs to happen, you may find yourself gently stepping into Square 1.

Sometimes life signals that things in our lives are naturally coming to an end. This often happens with relationships. I just experienced this as a result of my children leaving, and we are now empty nesters. I now find myself in Square 1 of empty nesting, but Square 4 with my relationship with my wife.

Next, Square 4 is totally beautiful. At the same time, as we grow and mature, we learn that everything in life has seasons. It’s not necessarily healthy for all things in life to constantly be bearing fruit, or in full flight like the butterfly. Everything has seasons. Even though some parts of my life are bearing fruit now, I know that it is possible that this won’t always be the case. I will look toward the dryer, “Square 1” seasons in my life to see what they have to teach me through yet another cycle of change with an open heart.

life changing event

What square are you in?

Consider the different parts of your life and what squares they are in right now. It is true that there will be one big, over-arching square for the place in life that you’re in right now. Can you identify where it falls? How about all of your relationships? Your career? Having a close relationship with your body can actually help you navigate through each of these stages. Be sure to check out this post: Make Better Decisions Through the Mind Body Connection. Feel free to reach out to us at any time at toni@toniandkim.com.

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