The landscape of loss is wild, and grief is unpredictable. Still, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross recognized certain universal features of the territory and offered them as signposts for those of us who find ourselves exiled to the wilderness of the heart when someone we love very much dies: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. We all navigate this journey in our own way, and it is almost never a linear process. Nor is it a matter of checking each of these stations off some psychological checklist, at the end of which we will be “over it.” Grief is not a virus. It is a natural response to shattering loss, and conscious grieving is a path to integration and wisdom.
In Kubler-Ross’ map, depression is a necessary and appropriate response to radical loss. When a loved one dies, at first we grapple with disbelief (denial). A kind of dreamlike haze descends and we float through our days in a mysterious bubble. When our psyche can no longer protect us from the unbearable reality of what has happened, a powerful rage may rise and we are tempted to lash out at any moving target, including the one who has left us (anger). Next, we try striking a deal with the Universe. We endlessly replay the tape of what happened in a futile effort to make things turn out otherwise, and this unrelenting internal monologue makes us feel like we’re going insane (bargaining). When we fail to solve the problem of death with the tool of the mind, exhausted by the effort, we finally sink into sadness. We feel our feelings at last – the full depth and breadth of our broken heart (depression). It is only after we surrender to what is that we can begin to integrate what has happened and meet our transfigured life (acceptance).
The station I find to be most fruitful for awakening is depression. Maybe this sounds like a contradiction. We tend to associate depression with a kind of spiritual tundra – dry and frozen. Yet a naked encounter with emptiness is an opportunity for union. The great mystics from every tradition celebrate the non-dual state and the annihilating fire that opens the gates to unitive consciousness.
There is a connection between profound sorrow and mystical experience. When the fire of loss sweeps through our lives and takes everything familiar to the ground, we are stripped of our habitual mental conditions and given a direct glimpse into the heart of the Great Mystery. This is why we often have a sense of abiding in sacred field at that same time that we have been crushed by a great loss. The most terrible thing we can imagine may have happened, and yet the veil of illusion that normally shrouds reality is wrenched aside and for a moment we have access to the Holy in a way we have always longed for. We experience the beauty in every fiber of our broken being.
I have had a lifetime of great losses, but the one that eclipsed them all was the death of my fourteen-year-old daughter Jenny in a car accident in October of 2001. Jenny’s death reawakened me to my lifelong yearning for God. Missing her reconnected me to the intensity of devotion. Grief became a portal for intimacy with the Beloved. Utterly incapable of changing reality, I was compelled at last to surrender, and in letting myself down into the arms of that fire, I was able to get out of my own way and taste the transcendent in the very center of the human experience.
I have written about the connection between the death of my daughter and the teachings of the Dark Night of the Soul, which I translated, in my new book: CARAVAN OF NO DESPAIR: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation (Sounds True, November 1, 2015)