Apprenticeship with the Shadow of Loss

Could any of us watching Peter Pan struggling with his shadow -- to find his shadow, to keep his shadow and, ultimately, to "bind" his shadow to him -- have known that the shadow carries powerful psychological implications? We might have noticed that Peter seemed different once his shadow was firmly attached. He was still delightful and charming but slightly subdued and not quite so self-centered and irresponsible. A bit more... dare we say, grown up?

Shadow depends upon light -- whether it be the light of the sun, the light of creation, or the light of love. Try as we might to separate them, we can't. Light and shadow form a unit. Similarly, at an emotional level, what is stored in the shadow is necessary to make ourselves whole. We can't simply tip-toe past it and hope we'll come out all right. Peter Pan, after all, began to die without his shadow!

As Peter could tell us, the shadow is vague, elusive, and hard to pin down. It not only contains parts of us critical to our wholeness, (and therefore to our healing), it also contains immense energy. What we don't want to know; what we struggle to avoid, resist, deny, and disown carries a disproportionate amount of force. The unconscious mind, where the shadow lives, is like the iceberg under the surface of the ocean, as opposed to the conscious mind which is the tip (of the iceberg) which we can see. It was what was hidden beneath the surface that sank the unsinkable Titanic in mere minutes.

What is hidden in the shadow looms large, menacing, and sinister. When we turn on the light we are often relieved to discover it was an old hat or a coat hastily thrown over the bed post. Sometimes, when we turn on the light, we are thrilled to find in the shadow something we believed was lost, or worse, stolen.

The Shadow of Loss

Hidden in the shadow of loss is the power of the love we continue to carry for the person, place, or moment in time we fear is lost to us. When my dear father died, an event I had been preparing for all my life, an amazing quiet descended. In the emptiness of loss, a calm and peace as I had known only in deep meditation or prayer enveloped me. The voice on the other end of the phone, at 5:20 am, quietly told me my father had died. The light of my life had gone out. I waited in the darkness hearing his last words to me: "I've loved you more than life."

Life had not been kind to my dad. Though my brothers and I were raised into lives of relative financial ease, my father was a laborer. He drove a delivery truck for 30 years at night through harsh bitter winters, and hot miserable summers. He was lonely and ill for all the years of his retirement. Yes, his love for me had been greater than his love for life and, for me, he was everything. He was mother, father, sister, brother, grandfather, the whole family. Constant and unconditional in his love, I needed him like air or water. When he asked me if I was ready for him to die, I assured him that I was OK. My heart beat wildly. What was I saying? Then I remembered, I wanted to help him on his way. Go in peace.

Six weeks later he died. As I prepared myself to fly to New York for his funeral and then to Philadelphia to sit shiva, I continued to be surrounded by this other-worldly quiet. It was as if I were waiting for something. And then something came and landed in that open hole in my heart that had, for 44 years, contained my father. All the love, respect, appreciation, and admiration that I had given to this remarkable man -- this simple, ordinary man -- started coming back to me. As I flew across the sky in a jumbo jet, imagining our paths might be crossing (!), it was as if his emotional bank accounts were being emptied. He no longer needed anything. All of the deposits we had made, plus interest, were being delivered to me as his beneficiary. All the love, honor, and respect I had given to him were coming back to me. I had never thought or read or heard such a thought. Yet, here it was, happening to me, filling me up in that place that would have otherwise been forever filled with the pain of loss.

That was the beginning of my apprenticeship to the shadow of grief and loss. That experience, which has continued to shape me in the face of many subsequent losses, taught me that we need to stay open and present in the face of grief and allow the emptiness to be. If we fill it with our pain, there won't be room for anything else. Yes, the pain is there. The loss is real. Yet, there is the possibility of something else, there is the nascent possibility of receiving back everything we have invested in that friendship, love, job, marriage, home, or child.

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I learned that the pain of grief is also not having a place to put the love, the creativity, the passion we had given to our beloved. Hidden in the shadow of loss is the power, the sheer physical energy, to create something out of that love. The Talmud tells us that a person's life does not begin until after they die! How can that be? Because, during our lifetime, the impact we have on life is a result of our physical presence. But after we die, if our existence continues to be felt, we have attained eternal life!

Grieving can be one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences we will ever encounter. Loss challenges all of our fiercely held beliefs that if we just don't think about "it", "it" won't happen. The inevitable, perhaps even anticipated, result is that when "it" (the unthinkable) does happen, we will give ourselves and each other permission to collapse in the face of our disbelief. In "falling apart", we separate from each other. Together, we can acknowledge the reality that there are forces operating beyond our control. Together, we honor the vulnerability every single one of us carries whether we are poor or rich, beautiful or hideous, charming or misfits. Together, we all meet in a place called grief. And that grief, honestly engaged, will connect us all to the very nature of life. Life is loss and loss is life's shadow.

When we shine light in the shadows, the shadows disappear and we can see what has been lurking there: our anger, covering our fear of chaos and the unknown; our laziness, unwilling to be held accountable for our behavior; our self-indulgence that wants to hold on to the way it was "supposed to be". Even those parts of us that are promiscuous in our suffering and loss insist: "I earned this misery and no one is going to take it away".

From the shadows of the unconscious, the collapse around grief is what psychologists would call a "secondary gain". We are allowed and even expected to be out of control; we can indulge our rages and emotional excesses. We don't have to "behave". Our emotions have carte-blanche and there are no expectations we have to meet. The danger, however, in keeping to the shadow, is the danger of falling too far into any one of those trapdoors. The danger is that to prove our love we will respond to the expectations others have of us; if we are not "crazed" with grief, did we not love? 

So we wind up feeding the shadow instead of nourishing ourselves. The pain itself validates us. Our suffering makes loss a tragedy and we are seduced by the drama of that tragedy as individuals and as a culture. Anything that perpetuates that drama -- anger, blame, guilt -- is embraced. What we do not allow ourselves to embrace is the possibility that if we are not so singularly focused on the tragedies of loss, we might stumble onto the teaching, the wisdom, the initiation into the mystery of life that loss can be.

Einstein offered up one of the keys to that mystery by teaching us that energy can never be destroyed. It just changes form. Since every single thing on the face of this earth is some kind of energy, nothing can ever ultimately be destroyed. Perhaps the challenge to the shadow of grief might be to stand in the face of the onslaught of what could be overwhelming forces of destruction and find the forces of creation. What new form has this energy taken? How can I now interact with him, her, it? The greatest challenge to our grief might be to recreate ourselves in the face of the death of who we no longer are.

Good Grief: Healing Through the Shadow of Loss by Deborah Morris Coryell. This article is excerpted from the book:

Good Grief: Healing Through the Shadow of Loss
by Deborah Morris Coryell.

©1998. Reprinted with permission.

Published by The Shiva Foundation.

Info/Order book. 

Deborah Morris Coryell

About The Author 

DEBORAH MORRIS CORYELL has worked in the health field for more than 25 years. She conceived and directed the Wellness/Education Program at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. In addition, she has counseled families and individuals confronted with catastrophic life situations. She lectures and leads programs throughout the country. She is co-founder and executive director of The Shiva Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to education and support for those dealing with loss and death. The Shiva Foundation, 551 Cordova Rd. #709, Santa Fe, NM 87501. 800-720-9544.



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