Loss and grieving: Descending into the underworld

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The way ahead


One of the fundamental things I learned as a therapist is to avoid (as much as possible) saying “I know how you feel.” Because we never do. Not really. Even if we have lived through apparently similar events, we would have experienced them differently and invested them with different meanings, unique for us. More and more, I think that each person is like an entire world on their own. Through empathy and love we can glimpse something of that world but never fully inhabit it.

Yet in our daily interactions we constantly brush away the attempts of another person to share with us what is happening in her or his inner world. Instead of staying with that person and inviting them to tell us more we tend to respond ‘Oh yes, such and such thing has happened to me (or to my friend/colleague/relative).’

This especially applies to situations when somebody shares with us their distress. It is very difficult for us to stay with the other’s discomfort because of the uncomfortable feelings it induces in us. So we feel the urge to get rid of our discomfort by ‘fixing’ it for the other person. And ‘fixing’ may involve advice, generalization, switching the subject or issuing a statement on how we should or shouldn’t feel in certain types of situation.

Grid on grief

While these kinds of interventions and responses are unhelpful in all situations, they are particularly hurtful and even harmful when it comes to grief. As a therapist, I also work with people who have suffered bereavement of some kind. For most of them, their recovery was impeded by the externally (or internally) imposed assumptions on how the process of grieving is supposed to unfold. These assumptions included specific time limits as well as the hierarchy of losses, for example: grieving over a grandparent ‘should’ take less time than grieving over a parent; and grieving over a pet for more than a couple of weeks is ridiculous.

Entertaining such assumptions results in us getting stuck and locked in pain. We try to fight it, to suppress it, to ignore it, and all these efforts drain our energy while the pain is still there, not moving anywhere and we are not moving anywhere. And then it begins to get worse as we begin to feel frustrated with ourselves, powerless and hopeless of finding the way forward.

What we need to do in order to get unstuck and move forward is to acknowledge the pain and allow ourselves to experience it and process it in the way that is natural to us. To allow it to flow and to go with the flow. It sounds very simple, but is much easier said than done. There are many things that get in the way. One of them is that we may be afraid of the pain, afraid that it will engulf us and we will drown in it. Another is what I have already mentioned: that we have many preconceived ideas about grieving and how we ‘should’ deal with it. (I put ‘should’ in quote marks because really there are not and cannot be any ‘shoulds’ with regard to feelings.)

Universal within personal

There are many books and articles written on grief. Some authors, like Kübler-Ross, identify distinct stages of grief (such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). It is not my purpose to try and replicate their efforts here or summarize their work. What I want to do is to share with you my personal meaning of grief. How I came to make sense of it for myself.

I said in the beginning that nobody can understand completely what the other person is going through, yet there is also an element of the universal in our individual experiences as human beings. Without that universal dimension, empathy wouldn’t be possible and we wouldn’t be able to respond to poetry, literature, music. So I hope that perhaps what I’ve got to say will resonate with you in some way, maybe stir some thoughts and invite a reflection that will help to unlock new personal meanings for you.

The loss

Grief and grieving are the names to describe an internal experience that accompanies a loss. Any loss. It could be a loss of a person who has been close to us and died. It could be a loss of a person who has been close to us and the relationship broke down. It could be a loss of a cat, a dog, a bird. A favourite toy (for children). An object of sentimental value. It could be a loss of a part of our body or bodily function through an accident or illness.

It could also be a loss of a hope, of possibilities (past and future), a loss of a fantasy or a dream or a loss of self-identity. These latter types of loss are rarely considered compared to losses through death or separation, yet they are as real and can be as painful as the former.

What is common to all type of loss is that we lose something that has been an integral part of us, of our being. Whether losing it and letting go of it may help us grow and develop in new ways is a different question. The process is painful and, as I came to perceive it, it is an experience of a partial dying. It is as if a part of our soul (or heart) dies within us. And so we are split. Part of us remains in the realm of living while another part has passed away to the world behind the veil.

How can we live with this split? How can we get on with the daily tasks when our being has literally been torn apart? We want to follow our lost part, to find it, to bring it back.

Descending into the underworld

For me, the ancient Greek myth about Orpheus expresses this anguish and the longing to be reunited with our lost part most evocatively. When his beloved wife Eurydice died after being bitten by a viper, Orpheus followed her into the underworld. He poured his grief into music and song with such penetrating power that it has touched the hearts of the very rulers of the realm of shadows and they agreed to let him take Eurydice back…

What happened in the second half of the story is a metaphor for another kind of challenge and I may write about it some other time. What I am trying to express here is that it is both normal and natural to undertake Orpheus’s journey into the underworld. In fact, I find it necessary. It is a way of paying a tribute to and honoring that person, or pet, or dream that used to be an intrinsic part of our being. And also honoring that part of us that has died with their departure. It is a way of saying how much it meant to us, how much we value it. It is an equivalent to mourning ceremonies, but performed internally. And they have very profound meaning.

As I said in the beginning, there are no set rules on how one grieves. Very often grief comes and goes in waves and we may undertake Orpheus’s journey more than once. It’s okay. It brings solace to one’s soul as there – in the underworld – it is temporarily reunited with the lost beloved.


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One thought on “Loss and grieving: Descending into the underworld”

  1. Renee

    Very profound and powerful. Thank you. I felt 2 “objections” through the reading. One is “saying “I know how you feel.” I think we certainly can say it and feel it. it doesn’t mean our inner experience was exactly the same. it just means that we can understand (generally) another person’s feelings and let him/her know that we understand what he/she is talking about. for ex. – when my friend talks to me about her strange fears and thoughts through her pregnancy I definitely know what she is talking about. I think when we say “I know how you feel” it is some kind of code just to let the other person know our empathy and will to understand. Nothing more. No claim of total or supreme understanding.

    The second was about underground journey and reunion. I think it was a great tragedy and mistake of Orpheus to make it. As for any of us, too. While it is parted from us – we should let it go. Yes. honor it, value it. grieving. straggling to live without. but not to search for reunion. Because it is reunion with shadow. and it does not lead (in my opinion) to no good, only to the realm of illusion…

    Thank you a lot for you article!

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