- Grief is an individual journey—but there is a map.
- The stages of grief are not only conscious feelings. They have an unconscious dimension in the shadow.
- As we attune to the shadow, grief becomes a rite of passage.
With aging, a key part of our emotional repair is learning how to live with our grief. As the losses keep coming, whether today from the virus or another illness, a divorce, a home, a role, or the passing of our beloveds, we begin to inhabit grief. Or does it inhabit us?
Like aging in general, grief is an individual, subjective journey. It’s not a tidy, linear road with a beginning and end, or with a right and wrong way to do it. It happens in contexts: alone, with families, with support groups. It happens whether we hold religious or spiritual beliefs, whether we live in urban or rural areas, and whether we are wealthy or poor.
Thankfully, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her work on death and dying and, subsequently, on grief, drew a map for us. It’s not a set of steps but a pattern that can help us to identify the specific moment we are in while grieving. Its landmarks have become as renowned as the landmarks on the California Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Francisco.
However, as I sat with my own grief one afternoon—climate grief, democracy grief, and personal, aching sorrow—I realized that I needed to add another dimension to her framework. I’m not redrawing the map, but adding the portals of shadow-awareness, pure awareness, and mortality awareness to expand and deepen it. It’s as if the map was drawn before we did the inner work of age and had a 360-degree view of our lives.
This has been a central theme throughout my new book, The Inner Work of Age. It’s buried within every inner obstacle to the shift from role to soul. But the psychological defense of denial also has a value: It gives us time to adjust to shocking news, a diagnosis, a loss. Just as we titrate a medication to the right dose so that our bodies adjust, we titrate our awareness with denial. We avoid the full truth for a while; we distract ourselves with less weighty things. And it helps us to acclimate by allowing in only so much information and only so much emotion.
At some point, we can begin to attune to our feelings and inner voices. From the shadow, we hear, “No, it can’t be true. Maybe the doctors are wrong and it’s something else.” “No, he can’t be leaving me now. Who am I without him?” And we detect denial.
Hidden within it lies denial of mortality awareness. “It’s not my time.” “I don’t have limits.” “My mother lived to 100.”
When this feeling wells up, the shadow looks for a target to blame: “It’s her fault, her lifestyle.” “It’s that surgeon. He messed up.” “It’s my boss. He’s ageist.” “I hate God. He’s so unfair.”
But beneath this secondary emotion lie deeper, more vulnerable feelings of fear, abandonment, frustration, and betrayal. In our helplessness, our inability to control a situation that seems out of control, anger gives us a momentary sense of power. It energizes the fighter in us and can motivate us to act on another’s behalf or on our own behalf.
Anger also blinds us to mortality awareness. As adrenaline sweeps through the body, we don’t feel the vulnerability and deeper truth of limitations and death.
At this stage, we are telling the story of our loss in an effort to find meaning in it. We are negotiating with doctors, loved ones, or higher powers to change the outcome that we’ve been given. The shadow says, “If only ... then I will ...” When you detect this quiet, prayerful voice, you are in a moment of bargaining.
For some people, beneath the negotiation, self-blame lies dormant. If we are carrying unconscious guilt and secretly blame ourselves, we are bargaining to atone for a sin. The shadow, in this case, is targeting the bargainer. And it’s essential to tune into this unconscious process and decide, more consciously, if we are accountable in some way for this situation, or if this is an ancient pattern of self-blame in the shadow.
Now, the fighter concedes. The bargainer rests. And we sink into an empty, meaningless moment of despair. The shadow speaks: “Without that job, I’m nothing.” “Without her, I’m no one.” “There’s no future for me now. I’m hopeless.”
For some, depression is an appropriate response to a crisis or loss. Overwhelmed with feeling and bereft of meaning, we sink with the heavy weight of the new reality. But it’s vital to move through it without getting stuck. (In Romancing the Shadow, I wrote extensively about depression as the descent to soul, if the descent is done consciously.)
This is what I call being present with what is. It’s not a passive, impotent response to a situation; it’s no longer an attempt to change or fix it. Rather, it’s an active quality of adjusting to a new reality. And it’s a deep trust that there is some invisible purpose, some evolutionary direction hidden in the suffering.
As I contemplated these stages, I realized that they, too, describe the steps of a potential rite of passage: Loss always involves letting go, the struggle to release precious attachments to loved ones, loved objects, and loved belief systems. We may be forced by circumstance to let go suddenly and grieve against our will. This may bring up denial at first, then anger and bargaining. Or we may choose to let go, of a job or a family home, for example. But in each case, the loss requires the release of a past reality and its meaning to us.
Depression is a liminal time in which we float for a while, unmoored from our past reality. This period, between the past and the future, in which our identity and meaning are lost, can be frightening and disorienting.
Eventually, we emerge into another reality: We are ill, widowed, retired, caregiving. The word “acceptance” doesn’t quite imply the full outcome of a rite of passage. Renewal, rather, suggests that we have undergone a transformative transition and accepted that we are, now, a different person in a different reality. We are shifting from role to soul.
For grief to initiate us in this way, we need to experience pure awareness. Each loss carries us beyond the ego’s control. Each loss carries us toward a sacrifice. With a practice that offers the experience of pure awareness, we can more easily witness our sorrow and disorientation, more easily return to center and remember who we are.
I’m not proposing that shadow awareness, mortality awareness, and pure awareness are “cures” for grief. Rather, I’m suggesting that they can deepen our journey through grief so that it becomes, like age itself, a rite of passage enabling the evolution of soul.