“Jonny is dead.”
These were the first words out of my wife’s mouth. When I took her call, I was standing next to my friend Jeffrey Lauterbach in a golf bunker at Bandon Dunes Resort in North Bend, Oregon, learning how to hit balls from a sand trap.
At the time, Jeffrey was earning his Ph.D. in psychology, and he was in the early stages of writing his dissertation, titled Golf in the Collective: Playing in the Liminal Space.
Upon answering that devastating phone call, everything dropped away, and the sole matter in my mind was getting home to Chris, my wife of nearly five decades, and Katie, my then-23-year-old daughter, as quickly as possible.
The fourth anniversary of Jonny’s death is this Saturday—July 27—and I am still struck by the synchronicity of life and the timing of that phone call. As I began my own journey through the most challenging liminal space of my life, I happened to be standing next to a man writing his dissertation on the very topic.
At the time, I did not know what a “liminal space” was. Unless you have studied psychology, you likely do not either. Yet, as you sit reading this, consider that if you are in the midst of grief, your journey out of grief might begin right now, as you read the next few paragraphs and begin to understand the liminal space.
The word liminal comes from the Latin word limen, meaning “a threshold.” It is the place wherein you have left one phase, one set of rituals or traditions, but you have not yet established new rituals. You no longer hold your pre-ritual status, but you have not yet begun to transition to a new status of rites and rituals. During the liminal stage, you are standing on the threshold between your previous way and what will become your new way.
To put it another way, when you enter a liminial space, where you are, as well as who you are and what you are, is not where, or who, or what you were before you entered the liminal space. This you already know.
Here is what you might not have considered: Where you are today, as well as who you are and what you are, is not where, or who, or what you are going to be after you travel through this space. You are in the process of being something new.
It is as though you are taking a trip. You have left your hometown, and you have flown to a connecting airport, where you sit waiting to catch the flight to your destination.
The liminal space can seem permanent, and certainly so when grief accompanies it. Deep grief stems from the loss of a relationship or an extreme shift in conditions that changes the dynamic and balance in such a profound way that the circumstances of joy that persisted before the liminal space cannot be recaptured.
This loss can seem enduring. After all, how can you be okay when the joy you once had can never again be realized?
Yet, the liminal space need not be permanent. You can come out of it, and you can eventually see a future of happiness and joy.
You pay need not shackle you.
So how? How do you exit the liminal space? The answer is this: You begin to transition out of the liminal space when the future becomes a larger conversation than the past. Envisioning a future that exists without your loved one: This is the tipping point.
We all travel through the liminal space at various times in life. We see couples enter the liminal space when they become newlyweds, navigating the waters of living together. They enter the liminal space again when they become parents and again when they become empty nesters.
Throughout our lives, most of us transition from elementary school to middle school, from child to adult, from student to employee, from single to married (and perhaps to divorced), from one house to another house, from one city to another.
From with Jonny to without Jonny.
Sometimes, the liminal space lasts a moment, a day, or years. Some people enter the liminal space and never exit, their world getting snagged in a Twilight Zone of sorts. Those around them, and the world, move on, but they teeter on a precipice, unable to step back and not wanting to step forward into new routines and rituals that exist outside the context of their loss. The old rituals that they shared with their deceased loved one no longer exist, and all of the new rituals involve mourning that loss.
This is the Twilight Zone that I wished to avoid.
The beginning of my liminal journey happened on that golf course. The moment I answered Chris’s incoming call, I entered a transitional phase that took me years to exit. The new routines and rituals are still being established, but I am sure that they exist without Jonny.
I have been redefined as a man with a dead son, and I am finding my place in the world within the context of this new definition. And this is what I am finding: The memories I have of my son enrich me. I have felt more pain that I have ever felt, but this pain has expanded my capacity for joy. The colors are richer. The moments are deeper.
Jonny’s death left a hole in my heart that will never close, but I am also growing because of that hole. At times, I am even hopeful. My family dynamics have changed, but we are perhaps more resilient. Yet is much to be determined.
Today, nearing four years since his death, I am sure that Jonny’s death has made me a better person who is more capable of experiencing life.
I share this with you because your liminal space might seem permanent, but it need not be. There is a future in which your life exists with joy and hope and happiness.