My Year of Living Backwards – The Art of Letting Go


Ever find yourself “in the question?” Read on:

My mother had six sisters who survived to adulthood. As the seventh-born daughter, my Aunt Myrtle was said to possess secret powers to cure warts. She herself was doubtful but gamely gave it a try when I, in desperation, called upon her gift. My grandfather was delighted with his seven girls, but never really gave up hoping for a son. He called my mother Mike. Her younger sister Sadie also became Mike in her turn.

All but one of the daughters married and bore children. My mother gave birth to five. As one of seven, my dad also came from a large family. They reproduced in turn, so that I grew up surrounded by cousins. My maternal grandparents lived in our backyard and my dad’s father lived a few kilometres away. There was a lot of family. At Christmas, my tiny grandmother was buried under a giant pile of presents.

There were so many of us in fact that the island could not hold us all. Cape Breton has a centuries-long tradition of bidding farewell to expatriate sons and daughters. As almost all of us left to find work, the family shrank to a shadow of its former size.

I was reminded of this over this past Christmas, as my husband, daughter, and I sat staring at the small pile of gifts under the tree. No one was buried under a pile of presents this year. As we sat there sipping our Baileys-spiked coffee, we couldn’t help thinking of the years when all three kids were home and the living room was a blizzard of laughter and wrapping paper. Like Scrooge, we were caught somewhere between a joyful Christmas Past and an unknown Christmas Future.

It was then I had my epiphany.

“We’re in the question!” I announced triumphantly.

Confused faces stared back at me. (It was still a little too soon, they knew, for the Baileys to be kicking in.) Spurred on by their blank stares, I began to explain.

“Being in the question” was a phrase frequently used by my former boss, Deb Bryant, to describe a time of transition. As career practitioners, we worked closely with people who were traumatized by job loss. Mourning the past, caught in a fairly bleak present, and unable to conceptualize a brighter future, they came to us for help. Luckily, help was available in the form of the Job Loss Cycle.



As you can see from the graphic, job seekers begin by experiencing shock and denial in the face of a major life change. In this case, it’s job loss but the model can be used to manage any life transition, including lonely Christmas mornings. After an initial period of worry and anxiety, we begin to rally somewhat, only to be dismayed again by the difficulty of the road before us. All these feelings are natural and healing in their own way. The moment of choice comes afterward, when we face a dangerous turning point: continuing to mourn can leave us stewing in our own juices for months … or years. Left too long, we may never find our way back. The other option is to start looking for the possibilities in the new situation. This is known as resilience.

While “being in the question” is painful, it`s also a time of growth. Sometimes we’re so busy living that we forget to explore our options. There’s no time to experiment, no time to think about what we really want to do with our lives. Job loss gives us that opportunity. We career practitioners tell our jobseekers that this is their time to set a new course, to ask themselves, “What is it that I really want to do?”

My husband and I were run through this wash-and-tumble cycle a few years ago, when his business was decimated by the 2008 downturn. We watched in shock as contracts began to dry up. On the one hand, it seemed clear that life would not return to what it was. On the other… well, we hoped. In the end, we hoped too long. Year turned into year, with the situation growing ever bleaker. By the time we finally faced the reality that we would have to leave our home and town, we had almost run out of resources. Given another year of hope and waiting, it might not have been possible to escape the situation.

Whenever I look back on such times, I recall one of the final scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy has followed a diary to an ancient, booby-tapped temple. He eventually finds himself on the edge of an abyss, even though the diary urges him forward. In a moment of crisis, he forces himself to stretch a foot over the abyss. At the very moment he shifts his weight, a walkway appears beneath his feet, letting him safely pass. Watching that movie all those years ago, I knew even then it was a metaphor for life. Sometimes, we have to do as Indy did: just take a leap of faith over the abyss.

Luckily, Mark and I jumped just in time. We packed a few possessions into a friend`s RV and set off for the north … in February. As it did with Indy, the road sprang up to meet us. It was as though our new friends, new church, and new jobs had been there waiting for us all along. First, however, we had to release our death grip on the past.

A newly empty nest, financial upheaval, illness, the loss of a relationship … these times of transition (aka “being in the question”) are among the most stressful events of our lives. While it’s healthy and good to indulge in some grief, we must also learn to recognize and seize our moment to move forward.

As for Mark and me, well none of us has any idea what the future will hold. But my oldest son marries in May and we’re all hoping hard that, on a Christmas morning not too far into the future, there will once again be riotous scenes of little children around the tree.

Letting go is an art. The trick is to do it with grace and courage. Hopefully, it`s one of the skills we acquire in our years of living backwards.


Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.

“As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou – my first novel – I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.


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One Response to My Year of Living Backwards – The Art of Letting Go

  1. Kerri Lynn says:

    Wonderful article. Thank you Susan for sharing your wisdom and thank you Drewen for continuing to publish this column.

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