The Bones of Liminality – Lisa Withrow

Lisa Withrow

Lisa Withrow is a Gestalt and Positive Intelligence coach, leadership consultant, and researcher-writer in the area of liminality and conflict. She has published 5 books and contributed to 6 others.

Waiting. In-between space can be chaotic, serene, frenzied, calm, anxiety-producing, hope-filled, or perhaps all of the above. Underlying each of these characteristics is the foundational waiting, no matter how active the transitional times. What will be on the other side of this threshold? Who will I be when we get there? How long does this transition TAKE?

Liminal space is especially difficult during the decline of a loved one’s health. At this writing, my father is lying in a bed in a hospice house, angry to be dying too soon after 81 years of health and vitality and until very recently, being mistaken for a 60-year-old. Now at 82, he looks 150, a skeleton with skin stretched over his bones except for swollen belly and feet. Nothing wrong with his brain.

The nurse called today. Time to gather loved ones, it won’t be long now. Waiting for four months since the prognosis is about to end. Dad is still angry, but sleeping more as his limbs turn blue and his breath shallows.

Meanwhile, his liminality is mine. Tears dripping down my face, I rush to make sure financial and property affairs are in order, family members are informed, and house is cared for, all at a distance, pseudo-calmly reassuring Dad that he has nothing to worry about. Chaotic, frenzied, anxiety-producing behavior as I walk alongside Dad in the dying process keeps me less prone to lying in bed miserably myself.

And yet there are tiny moments of calm, and certainly anticipation of slowing down when the threshold time is over. What will be on the other side of this threshold?  Who will I be when we get there? I have some inklings about the emerging future feeling a bit empty and busy and final, with an accompanying sense that I did all that I could to make this liminal passage as smooth as possible for my cheated-out-of-years father.

Waiting through the dying days—the ultimate liminal space. Such a space provides deep perspective about what matters and what can be set aside. Movement through it gets right down into the bones and skin, into the belly and feet. With no reliable muscle to push through, the pace is dictated by the frame and spirit. Basic. No frills. Life and death dance with each other, one leading, then changing places with the other. Light in the eyes sparkles, dulls, sparkles, dulls. The inner spirit prepares for flight, practicing good-bye and hello, moving in the dance until the dance is over, in this space anyway. I don’t know what the other side of his threshold looks like – but his will be different, as will mine. Who will I be?  A woman with a mother and a brother, deep friendships, and another new acquaintance: Absence.

Waiting for Absence. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. I have a few friends named Absence. There will be more gathering in my lifetime.  Each one has her or his own character, and each one has acquired a familiar feel now. Welcome to my own dance: Absence and Presence. Some call it Circle of Life, I call it Liminal Dance. We’re in the dance together and alone, with its harsh beauty and its potent ugliness. We live the paradox.

Grateful for our Dance. Serenity. Calm. Hope.


Addendum: Absence is now Present. My father suffers no more, but those in the aftermath do. The dance continues, with mystical presence instead of body. One day at a time.

Grateful for our Dance. Serenity. Calm. Hope.


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