Grief Metamorphosis: The Stages of Transformation After Loss
I never appreciated butterflies very much. When I was a child, classmates toted around fluorescent Lisa Frank folders covered in butterflies. With glittery gel pens, they doodled gaudy renditions of the insect along the borders of notes that were folded discreetly and passed to friends. Butterflies were a cliché. I rolled my teenaged eyes at the banality of a girl who loved butterflies. That being said, I recognize that it’s a tad hypocritical for a girl who pinned back her frizzy curls with shimmery purple and pink butterfly clips. What can I say? The 90’s spared no one from tackiness.
Indeed, I was quite the girly-girl overall. I played school and house, sang every Disney princess song, and delighted in twirling in dresses. Nevertheless, I just didn’t understand why girls seemed to favor butterflies. They were fragile creatures. One touch could destroy them. I didn’t admire that.
As my classmates grew into young adults and began inking their skin, often with a butterfly motif, I was again perplexed. Why would a girl tattoo such a frail creature on themselves? How did they find beauty in feebleness? In my eyes, beauty was seen in resilience. Beauty was strength and courage. My young mind reasoned that butterflies were an inappropriate symbol of beauty and an offensive idea of femininity. They were not the spirit animal that I thought was appropriate for my friends.
Though, lately, I’ve been learning, as I always am. I’ve been learning science-y things. It turns out that elementary school simplified the journey of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. I got the children’s adaptation of the truth. As a child, I was under the impression that a caterpillar, once stuffed from munching on plants and flowers, would swaddle herself inside a cozy cocoon. She slept peacefully while blooming into a butterfly. Upon waking, she would uncurl her wings and flutter off. It was only more recently that I discovered the transformation process necessary for a butterfly to emerge: caterpillar soup.
Perhaps, nothing is as resilient as a butterfly, for, when a caterpillar creates its cocoon (or chrysalis), it turns into caterpillar soup. No kidding, the insect basically digests itself, dissolving into mush. From that soupy form, it reconstructs itself into a winged creature.
At some point in our life, we all experience caterpillar soup. We experience a grief that undoes us. Whether that grief was caused by the loss of one’s health, job, relationship, or loved one, we are undone. Trauma and loss change us. It leaves scars and those scars change how we are seen and how we see. We fear more or fear less. We judge more or judge less. We trust more or trust less. We shut out love or let it in. It’s the nature of experiencing caterpillar soup. Heartbreak changes us. And not just changes us, but alters us at our core. We don’t decide to change. We simply do. Change is inevitable, but transformation is optional. Deciding to heal, grow, and thrive after loss, this is the grief metamorphosis.
Stage 1: Build your chrysalis.
We are but caterpillars in this life, until, wham!, caterpillar soup. Well, for me it was a “wham!” Maybe you experienced a gradual decline into soup.
When we experience loss, whatever that loss is, we grieve. Whatever you believe about the stages of grief, you need time to grieve. You need time to hurt, and you need time to rage in anger or to wail in agony. You need time to ache. It’s a vulnerable stage, but let yourself heal. Let yourself process.
In April 2018, my sister died, and I was devastated. I was numb and lost for days, weeks, months. I didn’t lose just a sister. I lost my friend, my nemesis, my co-conspirator, my counterpart. I grieved for the sister I lost, for the future we had planned together, for the future I had imagined for us, for the person the world lost, for the daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, cousin, beloved, and friend that her loved ones lost. I grieved for the future she lost, for the stories she would never finish, for the adventures she left unexplored, for the unfinished life. I grieved for the loss of what I knew to be true, and I grieved for the loss of her chaos and energy. I still grieve.
We each build our own unique chrysalis, grieving in the way that works best for us. Mine was positioned away from the world. I moved into my own place with just my dog for company. I isolated myself, attended few events, and rarely was found in groups larger than 4 people. When I went out, it was with a smile and make-up plastered across my face. Make-up was my shield, downplaying the dark circles, blotchy skin, and pallor complexion with just some foundation, blush, and mascara. It was only when I returned to my apartment that I would give my body a rest and let the walls of my humble home keep the caterpillar soup contained. Few people were invited into my sanctuary.
Chrysalises are fairly vulnerable when they are first constructed. Throughout the chrysalis stage, dangers, like wasps, pose a threat. I learned a great deal about butterflies this past summer from my neighbor Gary. Gary planted tropical milkweed, which he explained is the crème de la crème for Monarch butterflies, and he tended and cared for the plants, caterpillars, and chrysalises over the course of the summer. I witnessed him shield precariously-placed chrysalises with cinder blocks. He literally fortified their protection with concrete walls. We all can use a Gary, reinforcing our fortitalice, monitoring our healing, checking on our progress, nurturing us to heal and transform.
My people kept watch over me, including a therapist specialized in young adults experiencing grief and trauma. Then, in moments when I got too deep in hurt, I had a dedicated Gary. I could say, “I’m spiralling.” I, as caterpillar soup, had times when I felt uncontained, spiralling a drain, at risk of disappearing forever. I learned I could reach out and she would be there. She stood guard over me, noticed signs of distress, swooped in for unsolicited hugs I desperately craved but struggled to initiate. She listened and allowed me to be un-okay, and she said this, in itself, was okay. So I was caterpillar soup. I accepted this stage, and, in my shiny chrysalis, I learned to heal with time and with help.
Stage 2: Transform.
Healing is an important first step. When your life has been altered forever, you need to allow yourself to grieve what you lost and accept this change. You will still miss what you lost. You may still have days of melancholy, times you need to mourn.
But there is a point when you have the power to make a choice. I’ve heard it said that people don’t change, but it’s not true. We all change. We are certainly changed by trauma and loss. But people don’t choose that. What people mean when they say, “People don’t change,” is that some people don’t choose to heal, adapt, and grow when change is thrust upon them.
We can choose to transform. When tragedy touches us, but we can choose how we change. All people change, but how they change is their decision. Will you heal? Will you grow? Will you metamorphosize and become something grander than you ever imagined possible?
After processing loss and after healing from the most agonizing of your wounds, you can begin to consider moving forward. It’s not moving on. You don’t move on and leave behind the pain, but you can move forward. In fact, forward is the only way to go. To stay caterpillar soup forever isn’t healthy. To stay cut off from the world isn’t healthy. You cannot live in a chrysalis. You merely survive this way. To live, you must eventually leave the chrysalis.
So this is where you get to choose: here in this stage between processing your loss and re-emerging in the world. How will you move forward? You have been undone, your life is altered, and you have to finish the reparations to your heart, mind, and soul so you can rejoin the living. Do you simply try to restore yourself as best as you can to your former self? Do you try to pick up the pieces and return as similarly as you can, trying to be a person you no longer are? Why? You have become soup. We know this. And you need to rebuild to function again, but why put limitations on your reconstruction? Why choose to return as a caterpillar when you can build wings and live a more full life than you ever knew before?
We must look to what is in our power. We cannot turn back time, we cannot undo a death, we cannot erase a traumatic childhood, we cannot force someone to return our love. We cannot make the earth spin westward any more than we can make life fair and love painless. We can, however, choose how we change, how we evolve.
I have chosen to build wings. I have chosen transformation. The devastation of losing my sister forced me to question all I knew and understood. In that, I began to rethink how I lived. I am unable to change my sister’s fate. I am unable to go back and undo the years we spent fighting. I am unable to alter time to allow us our dream adventure in Ireland. I am unable to have one more conversation to tell her to her face all that she means to me. I am unable to change the past, but I am able to change my future.
Losing my sister was terrible, unfair, and cruel, but, since I cannot change what happened, I am determined for it to make me a stronger, better person. I didn’t want it to destroy or define me, so I let it transform me. I built myself wings and I built them in honor of my sister.
Stage 3: Re-emerge and fly.
After you create your glorious wings, it is time to re-enter the world and put this new perspective and attitude to action. You have emerged from your chrysalis, you will always carry the loss in your heart but you are ready to live a full life, having healed. This is the time. Breathe in, breathe out, and take flight.
How many people do I see who know they need to change, mentally have changed, but seem terrified they aren’t quite done and so they keep waiting? They seem to doubt the integrity of their wings and keep marching along the ground.
Did you know that, in its span as a caterpillar, the creature may travel 30 feet total; however, as a Monarch butterfly, she may travel 50 to 100 miles in one day? How ridiculous would it be to see a Monarch limit its world to just 30 feet?
Another butterfly fact, but this one is tragic: the survival rate of metamorphosis is low, terribly low. Less than 10 percent complete the process to emerge as a butterfly. I read somewhere that it’s as low as 2 percent.
The success rate of the grief metamorphosis is just as discouraging. Healing fully, changing intentionally, and living audaciously are beautiful, challenging steps. People don’t always make it through the stages. They feel guilt at being happy, they feel shame when outsiders confuse moving forward with “moving on.” They created wings and still they inch along the earth.
If the choice is to be crippled by trauma or to use it as fuel to empower a more intentional, vibrant life, choose the latter. If the choice is to be bitter and angry or to have faith and trust your newly knit wings, choose the latter. Flying after trauma is beautiful. Resiliency is beautiful.
The more I embrace my present and myself as I am in the aftermath, the more I find freedom. I acknowledge that I can never return to the comfortable caterpillar I was. Fighting it just makes me miserable. So I perch and ponder and learn to love this metamorphosis of myself. I uncurl these new pieces that contain wisdom and courage that caterpillars lack, and I find I have wings to fly.
I choose to live a larger life, I choose to explore and flit off towards sunsets, I choose joy, I choose risking heartbreak. I choose adventure and family and friends. I choose seeking the good things in life. I choose to fly.
I’m not always happy, nor joyous, nor grateful. But it’s okay. I don’t have to fly every moment of every day. But in a life where my sister died too young, I’d rather live a life that was bolder in honor of her than to let her loss be the loss of my hopes, dreams, and self. I’d rather make my suffering serve as food that nourishes a better life than poison that destroys me.
Metamorphosize and thrive. Be a butterfly.
I was incredibly mistaken about the butterfly. I was wrong to only see butterflies as delicate, frail bugs that were a terrible symbol of femininity. This creature, born without wings, utterly destroys its composition in order to build itself wings and fly jubilantly to new adventures. What began as a wingless creature becomes, in its destruction, something more than it ever was. This is a symbol I can stand behind. This is resilience and strength and beauty. To be completely destroyed and- rather than surrender or even rebuild- to decide instead to reinvent into something more powerful and magnificent than ever before is utterly badass. No wonder that butterflies flit around with spastic joy. What I judged as ridiculous behavior was a celebration of freedom.
So what is it going to be? Are you feeling inclined to tattoo a butterfly on your skin? Are you up to making them your mascot in the trenches of grief? Once trauma hits, you’ve already begun to change, you are undone. And I’m so sorry about your pain. I’m so sorry for the hurt you’ve experienced and are experiencing. The betrayal, the loss, the grief, the devastation. I’m so sorry you have become soup. It sucks, and, even though I wish I could, I can’t undo the suffering. Yet, I can urge you to choose to heal and to heal well. I can urge you to rebuild yourself with wings to fly. You have been changed. I cannot undo change, neither can you. But you can live again. You will carry the loss with you, so why not construct wings and use them to make the burden more bearable?
For all the deep valleys of grief and sorrow that you have been pushed into, you are not banned from mountain peaks. You can rise after destruction. I wish for you to rise. I hope for you to fly.