Initiation Dreams, Part II: Grief and the Underworld

Person walking in a dark tunnel of trees“Bereavement is the deepest initiation into the mysteries of human life, an initiation more searching and profound than even happy love.” —Dean Inge                                   

One of the most profound, and certainly one of the most tragic, human experiences is experiencing the death of a loved one. A death is life-changing knowledge, knowledge you have not asked for.

In my role as a therapist bearing witness to the grief of the people I treat, I see bereavement as a form of initiation. Bereavement can have both healing and transformative potential, when worked with on a deeper level—especially in the realm of dreams and myth.

Grief and the Underworld

In Joseph Campbell’s description of the monomyth, or “Hero’s Journey,” the initiate cannot fully transform before venturing into the Underworld. Depending on the myth, the Underworld may take the form of a dark forest, barren desert, a mountain, a cave, or even Hades or Hell itself.

Many of the people I see in my practice describe the death of a loved one as a dark forest, a black hole, or a wilderness. In The Wilderness of Grief, death educator and grief counselor Alan Wolflelt speaks of this:

“Think of your grief as a wilderness—a vast, mountainous, inhospitable forest. You are in the wilderness now. You are in the midst of often brutal surroundings. You are cold and tired. Yet you must journey through the wilderness.”

Before this descent, people may come into sessions feeling “raw” or as if they are living in another realm. They don’t feel as if they are part of this world anymore. They might feel numb or dissociated. Memory gaps often occur. Some might not believe the death is real, even though their loved one was ill for many months, or even years. This, of course, is quite normal.

They are in the wilderness of their grief.

Tasks of Grief

In many myths, the protagonists must perform tasks along their journey. Greek mythology’s Orpheus used music to gain favor of the many keepers of the gates in the Underworld to visit Eurydice, his dead wife, and bring her back. In Sumerian mythology, the descent of Inanna (goddess of love, procreation, and war) into the Underworld involved her removing seven articles of clothing, one at each gate, so she could attend her sister’s husband’s funeral rites.

For death educator pioneer Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, healing from the death of a loved may encompass several stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

But in The Six Needs of Mourning, Alan P. Wolfelt saw grief as more of a process that involved tasks:

  • Task 1: Accepting the reality of the death
  • Task 2: Letting yourself feel the pain of the loss
  • Task 3: Remembering the person who died
  • Task 4: Developing a new self-identity
  • Task 5: Searching for meaning
  • Task 6: Receiving on-going support

Performing these tasks (in no particular order, because grief is unique and cyclical rather than linear) has proved vital for many in the healing of grief. Many of these tasks are amplified in our dreams, especially when we are visited by the loved one who died.

Grief and Visitation Dreams

A visitation dream is the experience of the dead visiting us in our dreams. This experience might take the form of an in-person visitation, a verbal message such as a simple “Hello”, a sensation or sense of the person’s presence, or even an animal or another form. Many people I have worked with have shared they have been visited by birds and felt comforted, as if their loved one was sending them a message.

Many people have reported healing effects from a visitation dream, especially when they were in need of comfort and/or had been questioning their faith. This type of dream is a universal phenomenon that has been reported over centuries and around the world. When you know how to work with these dreams, they may have the potential to heal grief and restore hope.

Working with Grief

Each person’s grief is like a fingerprint: as unique as their relationship with the loved one who died. This is why I find working with dreams to be especially powerful. The state of loss can be very frightening and confusing, and dreams can offer a map to the terrain of their grief and serve as something tangible to hold onto in the face of the unknown.

When working with grief dreams, especially visitation dreams, it is imperative to trust in the process. There have been many controversies regarding the importance of whether or not these visitations dreams or lucid visions are real. I take the view that it is not an issue of what is real but an issue of what has been transformed by the experience. What remains constant, regardless through what lens or belief system a person holds to, is that these dreams and visions have brought transformation, as courage, calm, and even excitement, in the face of the biggest mystery of all: our own mortality.

In my next article, I will focus on the specific mourning task of Coping with the Reality of the Loss and how this task shows up in our dreams.

References:

  1. Bulkeley K., & Bulkeley P. (2005). Dreaming beyond death: A guide to pre-death dreams and visions. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
  2. Campbell, J. (1976). The hero with a thousand faces. Bollingen Series 17. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  3. Eliade, M. (1958). Rites and symbols of initiation: Mysteries of birth and rebirth. (W. Trask, Trans.). London, England: Harvill Press.
  4. Evans-Wentz, W. Y., (Ed.). (2000) The Tibetan book of the dead: Or the after-death experiences on the Bardo plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English rendering (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press
  5. Garfield, P. (1997). The dream messenger: How dreams of the departed bring healing gifts. Simon & Schuster.
  6. Moss, R. (2005). The dreamer’s book of the dead: A soul traveler’s guide to death, dying, and the other side. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books.
  7. Sparrow, G. S. (n.d.). The dream as a path of initiation. Retrieved from http://www.edgarcayce.org/are/pdf/sparrow_dreams.pdf
  8. Wolfelt, Alan P. (2006). Companioning the bereaved. Companion Press, Fort Collins, CO.
  9. Wolfelt, Alan P. (2007). The wilderness of grief. Companion Press, Fort Collins, CO.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Linda H. Mastrangelo, MA, LMFT, therapist in Campbell, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 13 comments
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  • Cami

    Cami

    July 27th, 2016 at 8:29 AM

    I try and try to look for any meaning that I can find in the loss of my family members, but that meaning is never clear to me. I know that everything happens for a reason, but there is only so much pain that one person can bear.

  • Linda Mastrangelo

    Linda Mastrangelo

    July 31st, 2016 at 4:56 PM

    Thank you so much for you comment Cami. Yes, it is so difficult! Bearing witness to my clients’ deep pain, I hold the grieving process with much reverence and compassion. I am in awe of the courage it takes to come into session after session and face the pain of loss. I have found in this raw state, with support, tending to the grief and self care, true transformation can occur if we can trust in the process.

  • buck

    buck

    July 28th, 2016 at 7:06 AM

    Funny how the things that we tend to want to bury and forget still manage to emerge in our dreams

  • Linda Mastrangelo

    Linda Mastrangelo

    July 31st, 2016 at 4:59 PM

    Thank you for that comment, Buck! This is why I love working with dreams. Dreams often go to the heart of the matter in a gentle way.

  • Malcolm

    Malcolm

    July 29th, 2016 at 7:50 AM

    Losing a loved one, while a life lesson for sure, it is not one that any of us really ever want to have to experience.

  • Linda Mastrangelo

    Linda Mastrangelo

    July 31st, 2016 at 5:01 PM

    Thank you so much for your comment Malcolm. Death of a loved one is the number one life changing experience. It takes so much courage to tend to our grief.

  • Pam

    Pam

    July 30th, 2016 at 7:50 AM

    I love what you said, ” I take the view that it is not an issue of what is real but an issue of what has been transformed by the experience. ” that is so important I think, to believe the dreamer’s perspective so they don’t have to defend their opinion while also trying to work with dream.

  • Linda Mastrangelo

    Linda Mastrangelo

    July 31st, 2016 at 5:03 PM

    Thank you so much, Pam! I am happy to hear that you appreciated the article and its message.

  • carter

    carter

    July 30th, 2016 at 11:11 AM

    Still not sure I exactly know what you mean, bereavement as a form of initiation? Into what?

  • Linda Mastrangelo

    Linda Mastrangelo

    July 31st, 2016 at 5:15 PM

    Great question, Carter! As I have witnessed both in my own personal as well as my clients’ journeys, bearing witness to a death of a loved one is life shattering. In many respects it is a rite of passage that forces us to look at our own mortality as well as those around us in a new and profound way. We are forever changed by it. If we look at many cultures, initiation ceremonies focus on symbolic death of the old self so a new self can emerge. You will often see motifs that represent this idea of death and rebirth including dismemberment and being swallowed by a monster. You might enjoy Part I that speaks more about the idea of initiation and how this process shows up in our dreams. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/initiation-dreams-part-1-big-dreams-that-change-our-lives-0602165

  • Elaine M

    Elaine M

    August 4th, 2016 at 10:53 AM

    I look forward to sharing this wonderful article. I’m looking for part I, but haven’t found it yet. I’m a student of Jung since 1970, a writer, a student of mythology, and a bereavement group leader. I agree that grief can feel like an inhospitable forest but, for me, the forest or nature is the most hospitable and healing place to be. It’s where I felt my place in the Great Cycles of Life and Death. I experienced many visitation dreams after my husband’s death eight years ago. I haven’t counted, but there must have been hundreds. I worked with them with a Jungian therapist, wrote about them, painted the most poweful, and took great comfort from them. I understood my dream husband as the positive masculine within. This sentence feels just right: “I take the view that it is not an issue of what is real but an issue of what has been transformed by the experience.” Thanks again.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    August 4th, 2016 at 1:36 PM

    Hi Elaine,
    Here’s Part I! https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/initiation-dreams-part-1-big-dreams-that-change-our-lives-0602165

    :)

  • Hope

    Hope

    September 11th, 2016 at 2:02 AM

    For me the death of my soulmate was a real awakening, which actually began at the moment of his death when I didn’t yet even know he was gone. I sometimes feel like on some higher level he had to leave so that I could wake up, sort of a sacrifice. But I don’t feel guilt, but gratefulness, because I know he still is and will always be with me. I have been blogging ever since his passing to capture all the amazing and transformational experiences, signs, visitations and my journey back to my real self. You can check it out at afterlifelovestory.wordpress.com

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