The Mythic Stages of Grief

Joseph Campbell was the first person to write about the motifs and archetypes underlying myths, stories, and spiritual traditions. Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, further developed this idea of the “hero’s journey,” making it applicable to writers, both in their stories and in their lives.

The hero’s journey is an endlessly fascinating structure because it is endlessly malleable, able to fit any character, any story, any life. We are all on our own mythic journey through life, but our lives are so much more complicated that the life of a character in a novel because we are dealing with quests within quests within quests rather than a single straightforward journey.

Growing up, falling in love, marrying, parenting, writing, making art, growing old are all quests of their own, though each quest is a but a step on our journey though life.

My most recent mythic journey has been the journey through grief. Grief has been, perhaps, the most mythic of all my quests, each of the stages clearly delineated. (In fact, these mythic stages of the hero’s journey are much more applicable to grief than Kübler-Ross’s stages.)

All of us who embark so reluctantly on this journey through grief are true heroes. It takes a hero’s courage and commitment to deal with everything grief bombards us with and come out on the other side stronger, wiser, and accepting of whatever comes our way.

The mythic stages of our heroic journey through grief:

1. Ordinary World. A hero’s journey begins with the normal world, and in the grief quest story, the normal world is the life we shared with our life mate/soul mate.

2. Call to Adventure. His (or her) dying calls us to grief’s adventure, though death is too traumatic an event to be dismissed as a simple call to adventure. There’s no warble of a bugle call; it’s more like the shriek of a smoke alarm that cannot be silenced.

3. Refusal of the Call. We are frozen with grief, reluctant to continue life alone, refusing to see that perhaps continuing alone could be an adventure.

4. Meeting with the Mentors. We go to grief groups for support, and we talk to others who have also lost their mates. Some of us go to bereavement counselors or read about grief to learn how to deal with this horrifying new world.

5. Crossing the threshold. We commit to grief, to whatever changes will come because of it. We allow ourselves to feel without blocking out the pain because we know that is the only way to find our way through the angst to a more peaceful time.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies. Grief encompasses all these aspects. Grief tests us, our strength, our commitment to life, our beliefs. Grief is an ally, changing us so we can become the person we need to be in order to survive in this new world. And grief is an enemy, bringing more pain than we could have ever imagined.

7. Approach to the Innermost Cave. Grief takes us further away from our ordinary world of a shared life. This is a stage where we regroup. We find a respite from grief for a few days or weeks, leading us to believe that perhaps we can do this after all.

8. Ordeal. Although all of grief is an ordeal, at this particular stage of grief’s journey, the greatest ordeal is accepting that we are alone, that although he is dead, we have to continue living. We thought getting through the initial raw pain of grief was our greatest agony, but now grief throws us even more anguish with the realization that he is never coming back. This new life without him is forever.

9. Rewards. There are many rewards for going through grief. We seize the sword of courage, we find the elixir of patience, we discover the crucible of greater insights. There are consequences, of course, and generally we pay for any rewards with a huge upsurge of grief.

10. The Road Back. The road back is not easy, especially when it comes to grief. Although we can never return to the ordinary world from which we came since that world was shattered forever by his death, we do return to an ordinary world, a world where grief is a companion that merely shadows us, rather than being the trickster that taunts us, the enemy that torments us, the shapeshifter that bewilders us.

11. Resurrection. The hero faces death and is resurrected, and in the case of grief, we face the death of who we once were. We realize we are separate from our life mate/soul mate, that he has his journey and we have ours, and hence we are reborn into a new life. A life that is ours alone.

12. Return with the Elixir. We all bring back from grief certain gifts, whether wisdom or patience or simply the knowledge that we survived the worst ordeal of our lives, and often we share this gift with others. Many of us end up taking care of aged parents, exhibiting a patience we never knew we had. Some of us write or paint to show the world our truth. Some of us go into grief therapy to help others. My magic elixir — my gift, my blessing — has been the unexpected ability to decode grief and write lyrically about the process, such as recognizing the mythic stages of grief and writing this post describing grief as a heroic journey and quest. A strange gift, indeed.

And so life’s journey continues . . .

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

The Two-Year Anniversary of the Worst Day of My Life

The worst day of my life was not the day my life mate/soul mate died. That particular day was sadly inevitable, one I actually had looked forward to. He’d been sick for so long and in such pain, that I was glad he finally let go and drifted away. After he died, I kissed him goodbye then went to get the nurse, who confirmed that he was gone. She called the funeral home, and I sat there in the room with him for two hours until they finally came for him. (They came in an SUV, not a hearse. And they used a red plush coverlet, not a body bag.) I might have cried. I might have been numb. I don’t really remember. All I know is that I sat there with him until almost dawn. I couldn’t even see his face — they had cleaned him and wrapped him in a blanket — so I just sat there, thinking nothing.

The worst day of my life came fifty-five days later, exactly two years ago. I spent all day cleaning out his closet and drawers, and going through boxes of his “effects.” He had planned to do it himself, but right before he could get started, he was stricken with debilitating pain that lasted to the end of his life, and so he left it for me to do. I would not have undertaken the task so early in my grief, but I had to leave the house where we’d lived for two decades and go stay with my 95-year-old father, who could no longer live alone.

I knew what to do with most things because my mate had rallied enough to tell me, but still, a few items blindsided me, such as photos and business cards from his store To Your Health (where we met). Every single item he owned was emotionally laden, both with his feelings and mine. The day was like a protracted memorial service, a remembrance of his life, a eulogy for “us”.

How do you dismantle someone’s life? How do you dismantle a shared life? With care and tears, apparently. I cried the entire day, huge tears dripping unchecked. I have never felt such soul-wrenching agony. I’ll never be able to do anything else for him, so the work and my pain was my final gift to him. I was glad I could do that one last service, but I sure don’t want to ever go through anything like that again.

The only good thing about living the worst day of your life is that every day afterward, no matter how bad, will be better than that day.

I’m not particularly sad today — the sadness came yesterday. Despite it being Saturday, my sadder day, and a day of sporadic tears, I woke with a smile. I’d dreamt we were cleaning out the house (which is odd considering that I did not remember until afterward that today was the anniversary of when I went through his effects). In the midst of the usual chaotic dream images, there was one short clear moment. We were sitting side-by-side. He smiled at me, kissed me gently, and I rested my head on his shoulder.

This was the first time in almost two years that I’d dreamt about him. It was lovely seeing him again, if only in my dreams.

I Got Kicked Out Of My Grief Support Group

I got kicked out of my grief support group. During the last meeting, the facilitator told us there was going to be a big influx of new people to the group, though why there would be an influx and how he knew this, he didn’t say. What he did say was that if we were able to function, if we were able to go about our daily activities, we were supposed to leave the group. He also said the group was too social, but isn’t that the purpose of a group? To support each other? We did talk before and after the meeting, but during the meeting, we stuck to the subject — grief — which was why we were all there. It was the only place we could continue sharing our sad tales and talk about what we were feeling. The rest of the world has passed on, leaving us alone with our emptiness and our tears.

In order to break up the group, the facilitator said he was going to cancel meetings for a month so we could evaluate ourselves, and then if we really, really, really needed the group, we could return. This stunned the heck out of me. Because he thought some people had overstayed their welcome, he was going to leave the newly bereft without any support for a month!! With Father’s Day almost here? He finally agreed to cancel only a single meeting, but still, the whole concept is appalling.

Apparently, a group in another town turned into a social gathering, and to change the focus, that group was cancelled for a month. Only two people returned after the meetings resumed, and the facilitators congratulated themselves on a job well done. But no one checked to see why the others didn’t come back. Perhaps, like me, they felt betrayed. A place that was supposed to be safe suddenly became dangerous. Sure, I could go back, but I’d never be able to open up again. I’d always be wondering if I was being judged, if I wasn’t going through grief fast enough to suit the facilitator, if I were depriving some other poor soul of a say, if I were being too social or too articulate. (Apparently, my ability to talk articulately about grief is a drawback. Though why, I don’t know. Just because I can put into words what others feel does not mean I’m not feeling grief myself.)

The facilitator kept saying, “This is hard for me.” He never even looked at the shocked faces of the group participants, just kept saying how hard it was for him. Who cares how hard it was for him? He shouldn’t have said anything in the first place. (I’m not supposed to talk about what goes on in the group, but since I am no longer a participant, I can say what I want. Besides, it was more my group than his. I understood what people were going through. He didn’t. How could he? He still has his spouse. Until you’ve lost a long-time mate, you cannot know, cannot comprehend the vast physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual changes such a death brings to one’s life.)

We were originally told we could keep attending meetings as long as we needed. In fact, Medicare demands that hospice provide bereavement counseling for a minimum of thirteen months. Nowhere in that regulation does it say grievers are prohibited from attending if they could function in the world. Besides, if we couldn’t function, we never would have been able to attend in the first place.

I’d stopped going to the bereavement group for a while, then returned to help support a friend through the worst of her grief, but it’s come full circle and I need the group for me again. I was okay for the first two months after the anniversary of my life mate’s death, but the truth — that he is irrevocably gone — has seeped into the depths of my being, and I am feeling heartbroken. I need to be with those who understand this upsurge in grief. Who don’t mind my tears. Who know that the calendar means nothing when it comes to grief. Who realize that yes, the newly bereft need support, but so do those who are further along.

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