I lost two close family members. This death has made me want to change my life – am I being rash? | Leading questions

Big changes within us can call for big changes in our environment, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. But give yourself some time first

I lost two close family members in the last seven months. It’s been a hard time. All this death has made me want to change my life and go freelance. I’ve always wanted to do it, and now I’m thinking if I don’t do it now, when will I? One of the family members was not at a good age to die.

My question to you is, do you think I’m being destructive or rash? I feel like I could make a good go of it. I just don’t want my life to be the same. But could I plunge myself into a stressful and uncertain financial situation?

Eleanor says: In my experience, shock works on a kind of hydraulic model in the soul. It has to go somewhere. Seeing death makes us want to grab life, big changes in us call for big changes in our environment: when everything feels chaotic within us, it feels wrong to keep existing in the ordinary.

This makes it all the more frustrating that near-universally, the advice after a bereavement is to avoid any big or irreversible decisions. Never do you feel more like making a big change than when pain is expanding in you, too big to be contained.

Even more frustratingly, sometimes the changes we want to make feel like genuine realisations – sometimes it takes a brush with death to finally see that our job is sucking our only life dry, or that our marriage isn’t what it once was. Sometimes the thoughts that come to us in the shadow of finitude are precisely the ones we most need to hold on to.

But sometimes they aren’t, and it’s close to impossible to tell from the inside what’s a valuable realisation and what’s just shock trying to get out. More than once it’s seemed to me that at last, finally, the veil of everyday humdrum has been lifted and I can see through to the precious truth – that what I need is a pair of expensive holographic boots or a violently new haircut.

I cannot responsibly say which camp your wish falls into, since I know so little about your financial situation and your freelance opportunities. But I can give you the tests I try to use myself.

First, is this desire likely to be stable? You write that you fantasised about quitting even before these terrible losses – in your gut, do you feel you’d be acting on that desire, or is it the nearest available distraction? What exactly is attractive about this change – can you describe its appeal to yourself in more detail than “the opposite of what’s happening now”?

Second, do you have the resources to undo or recover from this decision if you need to? The case against big changes isn’t just that you might regret them – it’s that if you do, your reserves have already been so depleted by grief that any additional recovery is very hard.

If sitting with both those questions still leaves you feeling this is a good idea, fantastic – start planning. Design your website, make some connections, think through the finances, work out a business card, let the fantasy give you some of the feeling of reinvention that helps the shock get out. Because unfortunately – agonisingly – the third test for whether a realisation is genuine is if it still seems true in a few months. And only time can tell you that.

That doesn’t need to be wholly bad news. If what you have here is a real insight into how you want your life to be, that’s a wonderful gift – it can buoy you even before you act on it.

Don’t discount your feelings just because they emerged during grief. But do give yourself the time and clarity to know they aren’t solely because of it.

* * *

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Eleanor Gordon-Smith

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