The 5 Stages Of Grief, As Applied To A Cross-Country Move

In the movie, Garden State, Zach Braff’s character observes, “You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? All of a sudden even though you have some place where you put your shit, that idea of home is gone… I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.”

Here, Andrew Largeman discusses the familiar idea for any twenty-something: how the transition from childhood to adulthood irreversibly alters the family dynamic and the idea of home. But what happens when it’s not a group of people missing the same imaginary place? When the imaginary place still exists in a very real way for everybody else except for you? When you’ve left home and everyone that created that world alongside you?

Just over eighteen months ago, I made the decision to move across the country, from the northeast to the southwest.  It’s a five-hour plane ride on a good day, and a three-hour time difference everyday.  Undoubtedly, as with any major life transition, I had a serious adjustment period.  I moved one month and one week after graduating from college, which only compounded how quickly and how drastically my life changed in such a short period of time.

Given the significant passage of time since I moved, I have gained some perspective on this move and its effects. The five stages of grief, which are the benchmarks of many important changes in the cycle of life, are absolutely applicable to the cross-country move.

The five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—were first introduced in 1969 by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying.  In the beginning, the five stages were applied exclusively to the death of a loved one or a person’s own terminal illness.  Since then, psychologists have concluded that the five stages of grief are relevant to any serious loss in life—loss of a job, the end of a relationship, etc.  Moreover, modern research emphasizes that a person can experience the stages in any order, and people often fluctuate between the stages before finally reaching acceptance.  Once in this stage, a person comes to terms with his or her new place in life and position in relation to the world.

The following are how the five stages of grief occur when a person’s decides to uproot his or her life and relocate to a new place far away from home:

1. Denial

“I’ll be back in two years.”

“I’m not going to stay there forever.”

“I’ll keep in touch.  I promise”

“I’ll call you.”

When I first accepted the job that prompted my move, a two-year teaching program at a low-performing urban school in Nevada, I remember repeatedly telling family and friends that I would never stay out here forever.  “I am meant to be in Boston or New York,” I would tell them.  At graduation, I comforted many friends with the promise that our kids would grow up next door to each other somewhere in the suburbs of the Northeast.  I imagined one day working at my alma mater.  I had dreams of Sperrys and Vineyard Vines, of scarves and the leaves changing in the fall.

Was I lying to them, to myself, or both?  At the time, I honestly and wholeheartedly believed these things.  If denial is a river, I was drowning in it.  And happily.  I believed all the things I told other: I would come back to the East Coast.  I would keep in touch.  I would call and text and Skype and write all the time.

A year and a half later, I admit that none of these things are true anymore. I have probably known this all along, but it was definitely easier at the time to pretend otherwise.  When I first decided to move, I thought one big adventure, living in Las Vegas, would be enough to satiate me for the rest of my life.  This is no longer the case.  It could be that I am still looking for more new experiences.  I don’t feel like I’ll ever want to stop trying new things, and I enjoy a challenge.  If you believe in astrology, it could be that I am a Sagittarius and therefore, crave travel and independence.

The most likely reason is that even if I did return to the East Coast, it would not be the same place I left.  This is proven to me time and again when I go home to visit.  The decision to move away is like a chemical reaction.  Once it takes places, the elements involved are permanently altered.  They cannot go back to their original state.  My relationships with are like this.  My interactions and bonds with my family, my friends, and myself have all changed in the last eighteen months.  Some have gotten better.  I feel like I can pick up right were I left off with my friends from high school.  My sister and I have more meaningful conversations.  I finally understand and appreciate how my parents raised me.  Other relationships, however, have not been so blessed, which brings me to…

2. Anger

When I started my job out here, in many ways it felt like I was seeing the world for the first time.  Up until then, I had a very comfortable and sheltered existence.  Living where I do and doing the work that I do has shown me firsthand so many problems that plague our society today that had previously been remote things I read about in the newspaper or saw on the news.  This experience has forever and irrevocably altered who I am as a person and who I want to be in the future.

Trying to convey these aspects of my life to people back home who have never seen these aspects of my life can be very frustrating.  It’s hard to explain what my everyday life is like, even to people with whom I am very close.  I want to share things about places they’ve never been and people they’ve never met.  In addition, coming back home can be an isolating experience because it is now so far removed from my everyday existence, attitudes, and routines.

For the person who moves away from home, our world is not the world of our family and friends, yet we still selfishly feel like their world still somehow belongs to us.  We greedily believe that we are still a part of it, even though we are apart from it.  We understand your commutes, your work, your weather, and your friends because we have lived those things, and as a result, we will sometimes—wrongly—trivialize them.  Sadly, I have lost a dear friend of many years because when we would talk, I treated her problems like they were less important or less serious than my own.

Ultimately, anger exists for both parties: the person who leaves and the people who stay behind.  I can admit to feeling angry with my college roommates for growing much closer in my absence, and I am sure that they have also been angry with me for not calling when I say I am going to.  I am angry that I don’t get as many visitors as I was originally promised, but I also visit home far less often that I originally intended.  And of course, my parents are angry that I have made plans to move far away again when my job contract ends.

If an effort to keep valuable relationships off life support, the cross-country mover often resorts to…

3. Bargaining

“How about I call you next Tuesday at 7:00 your time, 4:00 my time?”

“I can come see you the fourth weekend of February for half of that Saturday.”

As I’ve said earlier, I am not good about keeping in touch with other people.  As time has gone on and I’ve grown more and more comfortable in my new city and my new life, I find myself keeping in touch less and less frequently.  There are people I cried with at graduation and in whose yearbooks I wrote we’d be “friends forever” that I haven’t spoken to in over a year.  It’s not malicious.  It’s not even intentional, really.  It just happens.  It’s life.  This is part of the bargaining process.  You have to decide who is worth keeping around and who might just get a text or call on the holidays.

With those friends with whom I try to keep in contact, arranging time to talk or visit is a delicate dance and one that has become more difficult to navigate as time goes on.  Figuring out schedules, time off work, and travel arrangements can be a logistical nightmare, even for someone like me who loves color-coding and spreadsheets.

When I see some of my old friends, I can see that their circle has closed off, and I’m no longer on the inside. The first time I visited my college friends, I stayed for three days.  Now, my trips are less than twenty-four hours, and I am not even sure when the next one will be.  When I do visit family and friends, I often feel like I am burdensome or intrusive, and I know that I have made at least two people, one of whom was my mom, feel that way when they visited me.

As much as the cross-country mover would like to believe that we will return to a perfectly preserved world with all of our relationships and structures still intact, it is not like this.  Not even in the slightest.  People change, whether we want them to or not, whether they move away or stay close to home.  Sometimes, we will wonder whether it’s worth it to go to all this trouble.  It will seem that no one cares whether you took a plane, a train, and an automobile (a bus to be exact) to get to them.  It can be very isolating and lonely, which can lead to…

4. Depression

Moving to a place where you don’t know a soul when you step off the plane can be one of the loneliest experiences of a person’s life.  You miss your friends and family.  You miss the places you used to go and your routines.  My family always gets take-out on Friday nights. My high school friends and I love one mall near where we live.  In college, my friends and I always ate dinner at 5:00 to beat the dinner rush in the dining hall and went to the same bar on Thursdays.

I find myself feeling especially nostalgic for my old life when things in my current one are not going smoothly. I recall looking up jobs at the companies I interned at during a particularly difficult period at my job.  There have definitely been many tears shed and many sleepless over these last eighteen months.  I have felt lonely and scared countless times. This is the depression.

The depression can worsen if something truly terrible happens.  In the spring, my grandmother passed away.  She had been very sick for a very long time, so it was almost a releif when she died.  Fortunately, I was able to go home for her memorial service, and I was able to be with my family during that time.  When I came back to Vegas, her death did not affect me at first because I was too far away from the situation.  It didn’t feel real.  These things, which were at first my crutch, eventually became my anchor.  I was weighed down by the fact that I was not there to say good-bye.  Even though I knew she didn’t have much time left, my family shielded me from how grave the situation had become in her final weeks.  I was also so far from home and from other people who were mourning the loss of this amazing woman, and I struggled with the fact that I couldn’t grieve with the people around me.

Thankfully, I have been blessed enough to have amazing friends in Las Vegas who took the pieces I had crumbled into and put them back together.  They held me up and kept me going.  I was not allowed to wallow.  Anyone familiar with the “Footprints Prayer” would recall that at the end, God tells the man that when there was only one set of footprints in the sand, God was carrying him through a difficult time in his life.  This is what they did for me.  This is what has led to my…

5. Acceptance

My life will never be the same because of my friends, my job, and the city I now call home.  I would not trade it for anything else in the world, and I cannot imagine being anywhere else in the world, including back with my friends and family on the East Coast.  My life and my friends here have not replaced my old ones.  They have merely enhanced it.

Because I moved across the country, I have become so much more appreciative of the relationships I do have with others. As the immortal Carrie Bradshaw says in Sex in the City, “things change, so do cities, people come into your life and they go. But it’s comforting to know that the ones you love are always in your heart… and if you’re very lucky, a plane ride away.” TC Mark

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