What has happened to you in the wake of the death of a loved one and why no one understands
“For us to enter the healing ground after loss, we need rituals.” – Weller
In approximately one minute in the early hours of September 19, 1985, approximately 100,000 buildings collapsed and crumbled in the mega earthquake that destroyed Mexico City.
The historic city Centre was in shambles as concrete columns of 5 – 15 story buildings toppled to the ground in a sea of dust. In El Centro, Cathedrals, hospitals, museums, and other monuments to Mexican history were destroyed.
“The Hotel Regis, once the neoclassical centerpiece of the downtown area, was all rubble and ash”.
“Mexico faced what is known as intensity 8 shaking defined by Modified Mercalli Intensity scale as “violent” — enough to shift a structure off its foundation.”
The death of someone who is the centerpiece of your life - like the Hotel Regis in Mexico City - produces similar results: the devastation of a magnitude 8 earthquake.
At least, that is how I felt when my mother died.
Instead of the physical structures and buildings that are destroyed during an earthquake, what has happened to us has happened on an invisible landscape – the landscape of your mind or what I call the Psychescape.
If you have experienced death and loss, you might feel lonely and isolated in your grief and it is my hope that through this article you can understand what has happened to you, why you might feel so lost and disoriented and what you need to do.
The Mainshock – What has happened to you
Psychescape – Context & Background
As humans, we have an innate need to impose meaning on our life experiences and we do this by creating and maintaining different stories about who we think we are and our place in the world.
From our early childhood experiences, we begin to gather autobiographical memories like Legos, different identities based on social context, and what is relevant in our time and space which together make up our self-concept – our idea of who we think we are.
And if the conscious mind or the psyche is a city, then by the time we are adults, our city is now sparkling with a cornucopia of “buildings” and “structures” represented by identities, self-concepts, and self-images.
For some people, their self-image could be grounded in the roles they play in life as mother, father, wife, husband, or company CEO. Their identities could be anchored around sexual orientation, race, gender, ethnicity, and religious beliefs. What’s more your sense of self could be centered around your physical abilities as a star athlete, and your talents as an artist.
In addition, the foundation of our cities is mortared and tarred with our values, core beliefs, and assumptions about the way the world works and provides a lens through which we make meaning of it.
And every city has its downtown – those collections of buildings that ground and anchor the city, that give it character, and worth, like the Hotel Regis in Mexico City or the Empire State Building in New York.
For you maybe your downtown is made up of your role as a parent, spouse, or pet owner and it is these bonds that validate your worth and right to belong.
For another person perhaps it is their race as a white person or person of color, that high-rolling job they landed, the Ph.D. they achieved, or status as a bestselling author that endorses their sense of self.
So, it makes sense, that when you hear the news of the death of someone who is basic to who you are, how you define yourself, and who has anchored your sense of self, in that instant, it is as if a seismic earthquake of magnitude 8 has occurred.
The mainshock brings your Psychescape to the ground and you are surrounded by utter chaos: the rubble and ash of who you thought you were.
The Aftermath – The Dark Side of Grief
“I expected grief to be unbearable sadness, but it wasn’t that at all. It was profound instability. Losing bearings, losing identity, losing your coherent self." - Lisa Schulman
In the aftermath, you realize that your identity consists primarily of the relationships you have – those bonds and attachments that endorse your self-image and validate your worth and right to belong.
What makes it even harder to bear is that no one seems to understand what has happened to you.
Unlike earthquakes of this magnitude where the destruction and immediate impacts are visible to everyone, the people in your life and around you, cannot see the scope of the devastation left in the wake of death.
If they did, they would not disappear after the funeral the way media outlets do after a tectonic earthquake occurs or try to quantify your grief and place it on a hierarchal scale where one person’s grief is more valid than another’s. You would not have to defend the validity of your pain or fight for your right to be a complete mess a month or even years later.
They would know that, even though the shaking and aftershocks eventually stop, the impacts of the death of a loved one, like an earthquake can last decades.
Cleanup and rebuilding are long processes. The psychological reconstruction of identity – your psychescape – can last many decades if not a lifetime.
So how do we do it?
For those of us that have experienced this catastrophe, how do we begin to excavate ourselves from the rubble and dust of our shattered identities?
How do we survive the chaos and calamity of the early days when aftershock after aftershock of grief and triggers in the environment brings us to our knees and shakes us to the core?
The world you used to know has been destroyed.
How do you bridge the massive gap between the way the world should be, with your loved one alive, and the way the world is right now – smoke and dust?
Friends and family have returned to their lives, and we are left to organize our own rescue and relief mission to clean up the mess. After leaning into my African heritage and culture, I realized that contrary to popular belief, time does not heal wounds. Healing rituals and community do.
b. Rites of Passage Rituals
One of the most important features of a ritual is its ability to not only mark time but create time. Rituals define beginnings and endings to different phases in life like baby showers, graduation ceremonies, weddings, and funerals which help us structure our worlds and how we understand time, relationships, and change. They help us move through periods especially the most difficult transitions like divorce, job loss, and ultimately the death of a loved one.
When we experience the death of a loved one, we especially need a specific class of rituals called “rite of passage” rituals a term that was coined by French ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep.
These types of rituals help move us from one state of social being to another: for example, from child to adult, woman to mother, and life to death.
Victor Turner an American anthropologist who popularized rites of passage rituals talked about three key phases of such transitions:
- Phase 1: Separation – where people are removed from their prior social role – it ends forcefully through death and you are transported into an alternate reality which I have come to call Arogg (the alternate reality of grief & grace)
- Phase 2: Liminality – which is that in-between place – state of timelessness characterized by disorientation and existential tethering where you don't know who you are anymore or your place in the world
- Phase 3: Reintegration – where people are reintroduced into society into their new role and find their way to what I call the light side of grief
This process of transitioning from one role or identity to another is an awesome and monumental task that usually requires careful attention and mentorship of knowledgeable people to ensure that the transition is successfully made and any potential is properly channeled.
To ensure that you reach the light side of grief.
The problem is that many of us remain quarantined in a state of prolonged liminality. Our lives as we know it is distinctly over. Your child might be dead and you no longer have to clean up messes, make beds up, do homework, or go to schools games you are in this place where you don’t know who you are anymore, or what role you have to play in the world and your place of belonging.
The Dark Interval
So, we languish in this in-between state, what Rilke calls the “The Dark Interval” neither here nor there but suspended in a state of timelessness and alternate reality.
We live in a grief adverse society where there are no guides or roadmaps. Instead, we are isolated and alienated as though contagious.
Because the average person is afraid of death, rites of passage rituals that can help us make the transitions are missing, and so we experience a profound sense of dislocation and alienation that is existentially psychologically, emotionally, and physically painful and exhausting. We struggle with enduring life because our life as we knew it has lost its structure and rhythms.
We never make the transition from the role of wife to widow, pet parent to petless, or daughter to motherless daughter. Instead, we enter into a state of profound disorientation and existential tethering.
We feel frozen in time, and end up being stuck in the middle of a cycle which never completes.
This might be the reason why even years after a loss or an ending, you still feel destabilized, and yearn for a clear path forward – a way to lift yourself out of the blackness, the constant ache for your person, the dead feeling inside, and the meaningless of your life which feels robotic.
You are struggling with emotional and psychological disorientation. You feel disconnected, unmoored, isolated, and lost, and activities that used to bring you joy feel empty. For some anxiety spikes or depression deepens.
Please know that these are all very normal responses. We are not meant to live in isolation, with life and time unmarked, we are not built to live in liminality, and we are certainly not meant to grieve alone.
So, what can you do so that you don’t feel like you are stuck during this phase, and can still move forward?
There is a way forward using rituals that act as mentors and guide us through the different spirals of grief to the other side: the light side of grief.
The Light Side of Grief
Although these periods of deep grief are scary and full of anguish, in the aftermath of loss, a rite of passage ritual provides a roadmap: the much-needed directions from the dark side of grief to the light side of grief. They can give us the assurance and confidence in our hearts that we will get where we want to be.
With time as you begin to find your bearings, through grieving and mourning rituals, you enter a deep process of reorganization, where you have an opportunity to start clearing away the rubble of outdated identities that no longer fit, excavating latent talents and skills, and finding new purpose.
Rather than trying to reconstruct your old identities, you begin to put more weight on expanding the boundaries of your psychic city, pioneering new belief systems that would allow you to integrate this loss into your life story and evolve your relationship with your loved one beyond their physical life.