And you think your transition is brutal. Imagine the disciples of Jesus. Caravaggio above, illustrates their painful journey from the cross to the tomb, carrying the body of Jesus. “Nothing is heavier than a dead preacher,” one of my parishioners used to say. Jesus had begun their transition weeks before this. As they left peaceful Galilee, Jesus warned them that their relationship with him was about to change. He was going to Jerusalem to die. They would go on alone into the wilderness of a post-trauma world. Each of the five pictured above grieves differently.
The wilderness of grief is an essential step in any transition. Its purpose is to enable to let go of what we must leave behind. Grief powers our acceptance of loss. We will hold on to what used to be, if grief doesn’t pry it from our fingers. Grief works through it own five stages in order bring us to acceptance. Something deep in the nature of love and human beings requires us to travel this god-forsaken path. We aren’t abandoned by God. But, like the disciples above, we feel cut off in our sorrow. We only reach the plateau of acceptance by letting go, grieving, and putting one foot in front of the other.
How long were the people of God in the wilderness with Moses? Forty years. Not because Moses was lost, but because it took them that long to journey through their grief. They had to weigh their losses. Stop longing for Egypt. Reach a state of acceptance.
How long was Jesus in the tomb? Three days. Not because it took Jesus that long to find the light switch and turn on his resurrected life. It took three days for his disciples to be ready to receive the new reality of Easter. He waited while they negotiated a highly abbreviated grief period. They sat shiva. In grief’s wilderness, we like the disciples are brought low. We say, “I will never understand why this happened to me.” To this, Jesus says, “Give it time.”
We never get to determine the length of our transition. Grief and the acceptance of loss is often the longest of the five steps. As we walk the wilderness we let go of the past. Piece by piece we release it. We cannot take hold of what lies ahead until we have forsaken our old loves. Until we have accepted loss. Until we have sat low with grief.
The night I lost you someone pointed me towards
the Five Stages of Grief. Go that way, they said,
it’s easy, like learning to climb
stairs after an amputation.
And so I climbed.
Denial was first.
I sat down at breakfast carefully setting the table
for two. I passed you the toast— you sat there. I passed
you the paper—you hid behind it.
Anger seemed so familiar.
I burned the toast, snatched the paper and read the headlines myself.
But they mentioned your departure, and so I moved on to
What could I exchange for you? The silence after storms? My typing fingers? Before I could decide,
puffing up, a poor relation its suitcase tied together with string. In the suitcase were bandages for the eyes and bottles sleep. I slid all the way down the stairs feeling nothing. And all the time Hope flashed on and off in defective neon.
Hope was a signpost pointing straight in the air.
Hope was my uncle’s middle name, he died of it.
After a year I am still climbing, though my feet slip
on your stone face. The tree-line has long since disappeared;
green is a color I have forgotten.
But now I see what I am climbing towards: Acceptance
written in capital letters, a special headline:
its name is in lights. I struggle on, waving and shouting.
Below, my whole life spreads its surf, all the landscapes I’ve ever known
or dreamed of. Below a fish jumps: the pulse in your neck.
Acceptance. I finally reach it.
But something is wrong.
Grief is a circular staircase.
I have lost you.
I've seen fire and I've seen rain. I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end. I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I'd see you again.
For James Taylor, the images of fire and flood speak of his struggles against heroin addiction and mental illness. His lonely sojourn in a mental institution, forms the second of three stanzas about deep loss. Fire and rain seem appropriate metaphors for James to use to describe the wilderness that surrounded the suicide of a friend, the brutality of shock therapy, and the breakup of his band and friendships at Apple records. In time, he exited the Abyss.
The Hero’s Journey is an archetypal literary theme that underlies stories, such as, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Homer’s Odessy, the Old Testament story of Jonah, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Lukas’ Star Wars. It is fiction’s mirror for the common human experience of going through transition. Pictured as a circular journey with a series of steps or stages (Joseph Campbell noted 17 stages), grief and the acceptance of loss lies at its bottom (the Abyss). The hero can’t make it back to the top without dealing with their grief and accepting what they have lost.
There are five points of this journey that are relevant to those who seek a healthy transition from trauma to another life.
1) Begin with Normal. In stories like Cinderella, normal is not that good for the heroine. She has a wicked step mother and a lot of chores. But everyone begins transition thinking they are living the best life available. The journey down into grief is also a gradual revelation why we couldn’t remain where we were. Accepting loss is impossible at the beginning because we can’t see any other life for ourselves. We also begin to realize that while God’s plan is mysterious and often painful, it is not malicious. The soul has lessons to learn that can’t be grasped in the normal world.
2) The Calling. We think of Moses at the burning bush or Bilbo Baggins when Gandalf shows up. Someone who is wise to the importance of the journey announces that the hero/heroine must leave. Some transitional journeys are voluntary (marriage, military service, retirement), most are not (adolescence, loss of a loved one, war, unemployment, etc.) At the time of the calling, we often complain that we aren’t being given a real choice. Part of grief’s transformation is to realize that our soul was waiting for the call. We knew that change, loss, and pain, would come. We are not an exception to the universality of tragedy, even if our calling made us feel unique. Accepting this teaches us compassion.
3) The Abyss. Every story has its moment of maximum conflict. The disciples of Jesus reach it as they are carrying his body to the tomb. There is, it is said, the darkest hour just before the dawn. Entombment and resurrection are often side by side in our stories. We are caterpillars, spinning our cocoons in grief. By the bottom of the circle we are fully committed to actions that we previously couldn’t imagine ourselves doing. The young caterpillar isn’t planning its metamorphosis while it chomps its way across the leaf. In fact, before the journey the hero/heroine lacked the awareness and language they needed to participate in their own resurrection.
4) Acquiring new Knowledge and Skills. In the story of the Exodus, Moses receives the ten commandments. Luke Skywalker becomes a Jedi. The disciples of Jesus are brought to Pentecost and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. What lies ahead for you in your transition?
5) Return. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy returns to Kansas with a more mature understanding of the people around her and the direction of her life. The last step in our transition is to reformulate our personal mission in life. We begin to see and value the future in a fresh light. You can’t step in the same river twice. You can’t return from your transition unchanged.