Brought to you by the Center for Loss and Life Transition - Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., Director
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
A paradox is a seemingly self-contradictory statement or situation that is in fact often true. The paradox of mourning we will consider together in this article might, at first glance, seem self-contradictory, but as I will reveal, it is actually a forgotten Truth with a capital T. It’s a Truth we must rediscover because it is essential to healing in the aftermath of significant loss.
The International Dark-Sky Association is a nonprofit “fighting to preserve the night.” Recognizing that human-produced light creates “light pollution” that diminishes our view of the stars, disrupts our circadian rhythms as well as ecosystems, and wastes significant amounts of energy, the association seeks to reserve the use of artificial lighting at night to only what is truly necessary.
As you read about Paradox 2, I would like you to remember this mantra of “fighting to preserve the night.” During our times of grief, we are also well served to fight to honor and preserve the sanctity and restorative powers of the dark night of the soul.
One way in which we used to honor the need to make friends with the darkness of grief was to observe a period of mourning. During this time—whose length and detailed customs varied by era, religion, and culture as well as by each mourner’s specific relationship to the person who died—mourners essentially withdrew from society. When they did venture out into the community, they wore clothing that outwardly represented their internal reality.
Such mourning “rules” or customs were a way of acknowledging loss and honoring the need for a period of darkness. They were superficial signs of a deeply profound, spiritual crisis. In fact, a significant loss plunges you into what C.S. Lewis, Eckhart Tolle, and various Christian mystics have called “the dark night of the soul.”
After the death of someone loved, the dark night of the soul can be a long and very black night indeed. If you are struggling after a significant loss of any kind, you are probably inhabiting that long, dark night. It is uncomfortable and scary. It hurts. Yet if you allow yourself to sit still in the blackness without trying to fight it, deny it, or run away from it, you will find that it has something to teach you.
Have you ever noticed that we tend to equate the dark with all things evil and bad, while light represents goodness and purity? Darkness is night, ghosts, caves, bats, devils, and vampires. Darkness is also ignorance and void. And when we feel “dark” emotions, we mean that we feel sadness, emptiness, loss, depression, despair, shame, and fear. Yes, the dark emotions are painful and challenging to experience. But are they really “bad”? No, they are not.
Feelings are not intrinsically good or bad—they simply are. They arise in us in response to what we are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling in any given moment. They also emanate more abstractly, from our thoughts. Feelings are essentially the bodily response to the existential experience of living and being.
And so we must turn to the dark emotions of grief. We must acknowledge them and allow ourselves to feel them. In fact, I often say that we must befriend our dark emotions. Befriending pain is hard. It’s true that it is easier to avoid, repress, or deny the pain of grief than it is to embrace it, yet it is in befriending our pain that we learn from it and unlock our capacity be transformed by it.
The pain of the dark night of the soul can seem intolerable, and yet the only way to emerge into the light of a new morning is to first experience the night. As a wise person once observed, “Darkness is the chair upon which light sits.”
Yes, when you are grieving, it is necessary to feel sadness and other so-called dark emotions. But why is it necessary? Why does emotional pain have to exist at all? Couldn’t we just move from loss to shock to acceptance without all that pain in the middle?
The answer is that sadness plays an essential role. It forces us to regroup—physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. When we are sad, we instinctively turn inward. We withdraw. We slow down. It’s as if our soul presses the pause button and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoaaa. Time out. I need to acknowledge what’s happened here and really consider what I want to do next.”
In fact, many of the acute symptoms of grief force us to slow down. We experience “anhedonia,” which means the inability to find pleasure in activities that we used to enjoy. In other words, we don’t feel like doing anything. We also tend to feel tired and sluggish. We are listless emotionally as well as physically. This is called “the lethargy of grief.”
Stillness allows for the transition from “soul work” to “spirit work.” According to the groundbreaking thinking of Carl Jung, “soul work” is the downward movement of the psyche. It is the willingness to connect with what is dark, deep, and not necessarily pleasant. “Spirit work,” on the other hand, involves the upward, ascending movement of the psyche. It is during spirit work that you find renewed meaning and joy in life.
Soul work comes before spirit work. The spirit cannot ascend until the soul first descends. The withdrawal, slowing down, and stillness of the dark emotions create the conditions necessary for soul work.
Grief lives in liminal space. “Limina” is the Latin word for threshold, the space betwixt and between. When you are in liminal space—or limbo—you are not busily and unthinkingly going about your daily life. Neither are you living from a place of assuredness about your relationships and beliefs. Instead, you are unsettled. Both your automatic daily routine and your core beliefs have been shaken, forcing you to reconsider who you are, why you’re here, and what life means.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable being in liminal space, but that’s where grief takes you. Without grief, you wouldn’t go there. But it is only in liminal space that you can reconstruct your shattered worldview and reemerge as the transformed you that is ready to live and love fully again.
Most of us know we harbor darkness inside of us. We secretly feel not only pain and fear but also hate, cruelty, lust, and other emotions we judge as shameful. We have thought and done things that we hope no one else ever learns of. Often parts of our grief, too, inhabit this world of shameful, hidden thoughts and feelings.
In Greek mythology, Persephone becomes the queen of the underworld. It is not a throne she sought after, however. Living happily on earth with her family, she is kidnapped by the god of the underworld, Hades, and, after some trickery and back-and-forth, is forced to remain there with him six months of every year. From then on, Persephone embodies the duality of winter/summer, evil/good, darkness/light.
All of us are Persephones, really. The trick is in awakening ourselves to the reality that our underworlds are not shameful. Rather, they are simply pieces of the complex puzzle called being human.
I think that sometimes insomnia, like our dark emotions, has something to teach us. Wakefulness during the dark hours offers us quieter, more mysterious opportunities for reflection than those we may encounter during the day.
Of course, I understand that the dark hours can also conjure our darkest fears. When we awake in the middle of the night, we may lie in bed ruminating over what we have lost as well as our fears for the future. Even if someone else is sleeping nearby, we may feel deeply alone.
If you experience such nighttime despair, try to remember that this is an opportunity to embrace your pain. It is a normal and necessary part of your journey. Consider giving it movement by getting up and out of bed for a while. Keep the lights off or low and pace as you think. Step outside into the moonlight and breathe the night air. Or try writing down your nighttime thoughts and feelings in a journal.
When people are sympathetic to you, they are noticing and feeling concern for your circumstances, usually at a distance. They are “feeling sorry” for you. They are feeling “pity” for you. They may be offering a simple solution, platitude, or distraction. Sympathy is “feeling for” someone else.
Empathy, on the other hand, is about making an emotional connection. It is a more active process—one in which the listener tries to understand and feel your experience from the inside out. The listener is not judging you or your thoughts and feelings. She is not offering simple solutions. Instead, she is making herself vulnerable to your thoughts, feelings, and circumstances by looking for connections to similar thoughts, feelings, and circumstances inside her. She is being present and allowing herself to be taught by you. Empathy is “feeling with” someone else.
In your time of darkness, the loyal empathy of just one other human being can be the candle you need to find your way through to healing.
Paradox 2 says that you must make friends with the darkness before you can enter the light. But what is the light? There really is no set destination on the journey through grief. The light of healing in grief is not exactly like the light at the end of a tunnel. Reconciliation is the goal, but it is not a fixed end point or perfect state of bliss. At least here on Earth, bittersweet is as sweet as it gets.
The Chinese yin-yang symbol represents the duality of many experiences in life. The shape of the symbol is a perfect circle—in other words, a unified whole. But comprising the circle are two comma shapes—one black (the yin) and one white (the yang). And within each comma shape is a dot of the opposite color.
The symbol is a visual reminder that everything is comprised of both darkness and light. Yet the darkness and the light are not opposing forces. Rather, they are complementary twins that only together form a whole. What’s more, the drop of white in the black yin and the drop of black in the white yang remind us that nothing is purely dark or light, good or bad. Instead, life is made up of people, places, actions, things, and experiences that are mixtures of both.
And so, think of the light as the thoughts and feelings you want to experience more of. Hope. Gratitude. Happiness. Joy. Love. Peace. The more you make friends with the darkness, the more your capacity for these thoughts and feelings will grow.