August and September are poignant times for most of us. The days get shorter and signal the end of summer. Evenings begin to cool off ,letting us know that winter approaches. The end of the summer growing season is at hand, and yet we are expected to begin anew. Yet many feel a contradiction when the happy changes in season bring challenges with grief and memories of loss.

Most of us long ago have forgotten that September is the big time for new beginnings. We have let it slip from our memory that every September (August for some), for 13 years, we have started school (if we went to college we added 4 years, and graduate or technical schools might add even more). New teachers, new classes, new friends: a whole new world arrives every September with the start of school.

The Changes in Season Bring Challenges with Grief

This new world brings with it challenges that we only glimpsed and tried to guess at. Before the start of school we tried to find out which teachers we would get, if we got the schedule of classes we wanted and whether or not we would be with old friends. Thus many of us faced these new challenges with a heavy load of hopes and fears.

After so many years the rhythm of new beginnings captures our emotions every September. And it is a poignant contradiction that the school schedule runs directly opposite of nature’s schedule. Spring, the natural season for new birth, actually is the end of the school year. Fall, nature’s end of the growth cycle, becomes the birthing time for our most important human endeavor. This central contradiction adds up to more confusion for children, because it rarely even comes into our awareness and almost never gets discussed.

The Power of ‘Back to School’

We forget the power of the new school year. First, we are concerned about meeting our new teachers. In elementary school we only have one teacher! What an enormous disaster it is, when we don’ t like that teacher. Schools make no allowance for the fact that many children and teachers don’t mesh and should not be placed in the same classroom. This poor match could be caused by many different factors.

Personalities might clash. Pacing and energy might be in opposition. The slow-paced student who is hurried along by a fast-paced teacher, experiences real pain. Teachers may not be intellectually curious, and may discourage a bright student. Some students need lots of drill and repetition to learn best. Other students are bored to death by repetition.

The horror of spending an entire year with a teacher that doesn’t fit remains with us for a lifetime. This horror is magnified in elementary school, because we can’t leave and switch classes, like we do in high school. And even this switching of classes can cause real pain. Some students do poorly with multiple authority relationships, and they need to have the security of one or few adults to relate to.

A Conditioning With the Changes of the Season

Thus the way in which we faced new beginnings in school, has conditioned us to patterns for dealing with authority figures in later life. We often face new beginnings with the apprehension of a little child who might get stuck with a dreaded authority figure for a whole year.
In addition to worrying about teachers, we also panic about not getting the schedule of courses we want or need. Some people are held back from graduating, because they couldn’t enroll in the mandatory courses. We tense up when thinking about all the requirements that have to be met in order to graduate. The higher up we go on the educational ladder, the more significant this becomes. The more serious we are about learning, the more important it is to actually get the teachers and courses we seek. And yet the educational bureaucracy rarely individualizes enough to take our desires into account.

So it is that as we deal with educators, we may allow them to reinforce feelings of low self-esteem. Each time that the system does not meet our unique needs, it implies ! to us that we are not worthy enough to get what we need. Believing that we cannot get what we need can vastly expand our mountain of anxiety.

In addition to coping with new teachers and new schedules, we have to cope with the potential loss of old friends, and the difficulties of making new friends. Adults tend to underestimate the importance that friends hold for children. In therapy I have seen many people slip back to a time in childhood when they had to move to a new school. Invariably, grief and sometimes even trauma, are the results. Often, this underlying loss of friends causes much sadness and depression.

We as adults may have been traumatized by a childhood move and yet we have repressed it in our memories. We have had to make many moves as adults. Changing jobs, changing cities, changing whole careers, has forced us to adapt, often at high cost. While some of us are fully aware of the toll that moving takes, most of us have tried to put it our of our minds. Thus it is hard for us to listen to a child’s pain, because it may reawaken that pain inside of us.

Contradiction: When Happy Changes in Season Bring Challenges with Grief

So, September carries with it many contradictions, most of which we have long since forgotten. If, however, we want to better manage the new beginnings of this time of year we need to allow these memories to resurface and find ways to drain them of their intensity. Not going it alone is a good start. Mentors, therapists, sponsors, friends, trusted relatives, can all be approached. Usually we don’t need help with advice or problem solving. Instead, we often need to be listened to. It is rare to find good listeners, but we have to keep searching. We also can develop a positive self-talk, in which we remind ourselves that we are no longer little school kids. As adults we have choices. We are not helpless to change bad situations. A person does not really need a therapist to have this kind of therapy session.

Another important factor is to begin to reframe the pain and turn it into a challenge. It is helpful to turn the experience of a new beginning into a learning activity. We should carefully consider what we can learn from! the new beginning and make that more important than the outcome. If we let go of the outcome and invest in learning, we set up a situation that allows us to succeed no matter what happens. Finally, we need to use our imagination. Our brain power is woefully underutilized. We can visualize a successful conclusion to the new beginning. If going to a job interview, you can visualize yourself leaving the office while the interviewer is telling you how well you have done, and imagine feelings of pride and competence. We can stand to spend some time fantasizing about successful conclusions. September is a good time for that.

by Jerry Rothman, MSW, PhD and David Fireman, LCSW