Covid, Cancer, and Liminal Space

I first ran across the term “liminal space” when we were planning a rite of passage for our oldest daughter’s 17th birthday. Rites of passage are used in cultures all over the world to signify the passing from one phase of life to another. In our LDS faith, certain formal rites of passage exist such as baptism and marriage, but we wanted to create something a little more casual and fun to celebrate our daughter moving into adulthood.

In planning this event, I learned that across cultures, rites of passage have three distinct parts: Separation, Liminality, and Incorporation. In the separation phase, you leave behind what was. The incorporation is a re-entering the community in a new, changed way.

The liminality, or liminal space, is the in between, and this is where transformation occurs. It is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing.

At some point last year I entered liminal space. Maybe you did too.

For our daughter’s rite of passage we took her to the woods and set her feet on a path. Matt and I read to her several paragraphs of prepared remarks to give some context for what was happening. Then we told her to start walking because there were things for her to learn, things we had planned and arranged for her to encounter on her journey.

I really wish someone would have read several paragraphs of prepared remarks to me when I entered liminal space, but the Universe doesn’t really do that. My separation wasn’t gentle and it wasn’t soft. There was no context given for what was happening. It started with Covid isolation. It continued with a breast cancer diagnosis. Immediately following that, I retired from my career of 17 years–something I had planned and prepared for over a period of 2 years–but for various reasons the separation itself was incredibly painful.

In early July, after a double mastectomy, I found myself deeply wounded in every possible sense of the word. I was in physical pain 100% of the time. I couldn’t do simple things for myself, like raise my arms to brush my own hair. My husband cooked me food. My daughters helped me bathe. In a very short period of time so many of the benchmarks that I had used to define my worth had been completely stripped away–my independence, my productivity, my place in my community, my health, and my strength. Even parts of my body and my womanhood . . . were gone. A few weeks later, just as I was starting to feel a little better, my dad died. In our family my dad was our protector; he had been there providing strength and stability since the day I was born. The void left by his death was enormous, and his loss threw my life even more off-balance.

The thing is, I had been willingly headed for a life shift. I had wanted it. I had chosen it. I had been working towards it. I had my version of how this should go all planned out. But the Universe wanted to do things on its terms, not mine. I wanted to “make some tweaks”–it wanted a revolution.

And so began my rite of passage–and after my painful period of separation I have found myself in liminal space, where I have been fully turned into goo.

I found the above image on social media, which can surprise you sometimes with little bursts of wisdom in the middle of its insanity.

It’s true, nobody talks about this part, about what it’s like when you find yourself in life’s liminality–no longer a caterpillar and not yet a butterfly. I will try to describe what it’s like inside the chrysalis.

The first thing I felt was a great sense of loss. Pain. Woundedness. Grief. Anger. There is a sense of descending, of losing ground, and it’s scary. The forward momentum that was once an every day part of life is no longer there, or it’s greatly diminished. It is replaced with a feeling of suspension and a disassociation from time. Relationships start to shift–with some people assuming a more prominent and cherished place, and other people who once received a lot of time and energy fading into the background.

After a while, within the pain and loss and because of the pain and loss, you begin to have a sense of awakening. You start to realize that so much of what consumed you before–the hustling, the scrambling, the people-pleasing–massively missed the mark. You begin to know deeply that there is more. Much more. A further journey. A hidden door. You don’t yet have a complete sense of what this “more” is or what it means to seek it, but you feel the persistent pull towards it. You know you can never go back to the place you were before, nor do you want to.

At some point, largely because of all that has been stripped away, you start to discover your true self, your infinite self. The part of you that isn’t a sum of parts or a list of achievements or a machine of productivity–but rather, the part of you that exists eternally . . . worthy, strong, and at peace.

You discover your “I am.”

And she looks around. And she sees. And there is power in seeing.

And through all of this you pretty much feel like goo. Sometimes you are angry or resentful. Often you are sad and disappointed. It is physically tiring. It is lonely. But it is also a healing space. You heal because you allow yourself to feel all the feelings. And once they have been fully felt, they are released and begin to float away. The pain, anger, and grief eventually yield to stillness. And from this stillness comes rebirth.

Sometimes I run into people who know my life mostly from Facebook snapshots and whatever their imagination has filled-in between posts. People who have assessed my journey through cancer and loss and everything else and who say to me, “You look good. You look the same.”

And my soul looks back at them–through a galaxy and over a desert and weaving in and out of caves and from the heart of a dark forest and everywhere else this liminal space has taken me and–and says, “Is that so?”

I’m still in the goo. I don’t know how much longer I will be here. I don’t know what my life will look like when I emerge, or where exactly I will go when I do. I know that I am already very different, even if my outward appearance seems the same to some people.

I hope that in the end my walk through liminality will result in something beautiful like a butterfly. I’m not sure how to we go from goo to butterflies, in the natural world or in the metamorphosis of the soul, but I’m choosing to surrender to the process. If God can make magic with caterpillars, I trust He’ll do the same with me.