This is part one of a four-series dive into the grief archetypes.
Grief is a vast and enormous landscape – a looming wood that despite whatever trepidation we may hold will demand our entrance after loss has pushed its way into our world. The one important thing to remember about this wilderness is that it’s ancient. And it’s one that every culture, every generation, indeed every creature capable of love and connection has entered before us. This fact alone creates in-roads of wisdom that we can follow – footpaths that give us a faint trail to follow as we make our way upon the journey of grief. In this series, we’re exploring each of these footpaths. And we’re starting with the pilgrim archetype.
The Pilgrim Archetype
Pilgrims are who I see most frequently in my practice. When life is flowing in a familiar way, Pilgrims are trusting and innocent, but they can become wary and unsure of the path before them during times of loss and transition. They are creatures of habit and rely heavily on sinking into the familiar in their lives. They tend to gravitate toward systems and structure (organized religion/faith-based groups, AA, social networks, work families, school systems, etc.), and feel a sense of comfort when they belong to a community or are part of a larger whole.
Nancy came to me after the loss of her husband Jim. She and Jim had been married for just a decade when he was killed in a car accident. Jim had two adult children from his previous marriage, and although Nancy had always shared a warm relationship with them during her decade of marriage to their father, she felt alone and disconnected in her grief after his unexpected death.
Perhaps it was her sense of “non-belonging” to her husband’s family system that led her to identify with the path of the Pilgrim. As we explored her grief, it was clear that her sense of isolation was adding significantly to her sorrow.
To help Nancy become more cognizant of the many connections she did have in her life, I suggested that we work on creating a personal “coat of arms” that could act as a shield to her grief. This coat of arms would act as a representation of the many ways she was fortified and protected by the systems and the people around her.
Art is a great way to bypass the critical mind during times of loss, and the art does not need to be sophisticated or “pretty” in order to yield insights into healing. Over several therapy sessions, Nancy was able to create a powerful coat of arms drawing, a visual that represented the support she had in her life. There was a dove to symbolize the faith community she leaned on, a grapevine to represent her Italian heritage and her connection to her family of origin, an airplane to represent her colleagues (she had been a travel agent for more than 18 years), a set of paw prints to represent the pet shelter where she had been a long-term member of the board of directors, and finally, two small butterflies that represented Jim’s two grown children. This visual allowed her to see the reality of where her true pillars of support were (the strongholds) and to honor the more subtle nature of the connection she now shared with Jim’s grown children.
For Nancy, this coat of arms was one small lantern to carry with her into the wilderness of grief. And for pilgrims as an archetype, art is a structured method of navigating grief that can be very healing. Other examples that similarly help pilgrims connect to a larger system are things like exploring one’s lineage (family trees), and writing one’s life story to be shared with future generations (there are many guided journals, virtual and actual, that can assist in doing this.
Click here to learn more about my grief kit.