In March of 2020, life on planet earth changed. And just like Max in the beloved children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, millions of us were sent to our rooms. We called it quarantine and it gave us a good long time to think and reflect. After this lengthy time-out, when we gingerly cracked open the door of our lives to peer out at what awaited us in the world, the manicured lives to which we were all accustomed had been replaced by a wilderness that seemed to grow up, over, and through all that was familiar.
As the days turned to weeks, and the weeks to months, the old landscapes of our lives continued to recede. And as we wake each day and try to micro-adjust to whatever new reality has emerged overnight, many of us are beginning to realize that we aren’t just “having a moment.” Instead, we’re on a journey that unfolds with each step we take. Although we may not know exactly where this journey is leading, the rugged terrain that many of us are finding ourselves struggling to adapt to each day is similar — and it has a name. It’s called the wilderness of grief.
That Feeling? It may be Grief
Describing grief as a wild terrain is quite appropriate. Few who have been to the no-man’s land where grief transports us would argue that loss can transform one’s world into a jagged cliff that seems to have no bottom. It’s a hard journey — whether it stems from the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or any of the stark realizations that the year 2020 has brought to humanity.
One of the most important things to remember, however, is that grief is a known path. Once we land in its inky darkness, if we can quiet ourselves and begin to look around, we learn that those who have gone before us leave lanterns behind. And if we’re wise, we’ll pick up one of these lanterns. When we follow the known ways of those who have traveled before us, it can bring a sense of order to our journey. Research tells us that even when we think we are finding our own footing on the path of grief, chances are we’re simply falling into step on one of the trails left behind by those who have come before us.
How long these foot paths through grief have existed is somewhat surprising. Anthropological studies show that Neanderthals practiced dedicated grief rituals more than 40,000 years ago. Those rituals that early mankind engaged in live within each of us, in some form or another. Science confirms that we all carry what is known as genetic memory. And it’s a good thing — it implies we possess an innate intelligence or understanding for navigating grief.
Most grief theorists and clinicians agree that human beings do seem to be hardwired to find a path out of the wilderness of grief. It’s certainly what I’ve seen in my 25 years of practicing grief therapy. After all, there are only so many ways up the mountain, and when struggling through a loss, we as a species tend to follow one of a handful of well-traveled paths.
Learning Your Path
With this in mind, and with reverence to Carl Jung’s work on archetypes, I created a quiz that can help you understand your journey forward from a higher perspective.
And before you decide that a test about grief doesn’t apply to you, remember two things:
- Grief arrives, not just when we lose a loved one, but when we lose a way of life, an ideal, a job, an expected event, etc. The daily losses we are all facing are bringing a collective grief to the planet, and it’s unlike anything else we have seen in our lifetimes.
- The way we travel upon the path of grief and loss is a mirror for the way we travel on the path of anything difficult we might encounter in our lives. Within the micro, you can always find the macro.
Grief, change and uncertainty are the travel companions with whom most of us walk these days. They’re a tough crowd, but when we are huddled against them, we often find some of the deepest and most profound personal growth of our lifetimes. That growth is the silver lining to all of this struggle.
When the path forward isn’t clear, we can always pick up the lantern of our grief archetype and allow the light of the past to illuminate our journey toward the future.