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+

5 Responses to “The Mythic Stages of Grief”

  1. Juliana Says:

    What a perfect desciption of the process. I could see where I had been and how far I’ve come. I believe that I am getting to the stage where I can accept I am alone. I’m not particularly fond of it, but I no longer fear it. I’ve spent most of my life dealing with abandonment issues. That certainly complicated my feelings of loss because it felt like another abandonment. However, I realize intellectually that he had no choice. Now if I only get my brain to control my emotions.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I atarted writing this article more to be clever than to be truthful, but as I wrote, I realized the truth — these mythic stages are the true stages of the grief process. It’s how we come to an accommodation with our new life.

      As for abandonment — Intellectually, we know they had no choice about leaving us, but emotionally, it’s hard to deal with. I still ask him (well, not him. I ask his photo) what happened to us, as if our relationship went bad and he left me because of it rather than because of a fatal illness. It’s hard not to feel abandoned, even without abandonment issues.

      I do believe what I wrote, that all of us on this journey are heroes. It truly takes a hero’s courage and commitment not to give up on life.

  2. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Pat, I nominated you for something on my blog. Please check it out at your leisure.


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