How to Overcome Loss & Despair
Life sometimes asks us to bear the unbearable. Psychological astrologer and frequent goop contributor Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., says it’s the destiny of every single person to experience psychological rebirth in their lifetime—in other words, to walk through hell and back. Here, her perspective on how ancient mythological wisdom can guide us through the worst life has to offer, and inspire all of us to emerge into the (spring) light.
How Spring Makes Us Whole
“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” —Pablo Neruda
No matter how much darkness we face in our lives, spring arrives in its time. Spring represents both the physical blooming of the natural world and the internal human experience of reemerging after cold, dark times of loss and despair.
The beginning of spring is marked with a lift in the air. Symbolically, it is associated with Eros and rebirth; astrologically, it is related to the sign of Aries and start of the zodiacal calendar. Like the Ram, the symbol for the astrological sign of Aries, this season is marked by the urge to assertively push forward, the way tiny green stalks push out of the dirt to become flowering plants. The spring new moon, too, reflects renewal, as do the transformational themes of many religious holidays that fall within this season.
Lessons of Resurrection
Each human being is destined to have experiences of psychological rebirth in their lifetime. Humans have the capacity to bear the unbearable and rise again like the phoenix. With support and forbearance, we can move through the entire emotional wheel of our losses. The psychological crucifixions we endure can prepare us for our ultimate physical death, when we shed our bodies and leave our legacy and memories to our beloveds. If we have lived a true-hearted life, we will have left pieces of our vitality, knowledge, wisdom, and joy in those we leave behind, and they will carry us forward.
“Each human being is destined to have experiences of psychological rebirth in their lifetime.”
Before we had the celebration of Jesus and Easter, we had the mythological resurrection stories of Inanna from the Sumerians (circa 4000 B.C.) and Persephone from the Greeks (circa 1400 B.C.). These stories contain lessons about how to move from loss and grief to resiliency, from devastation to a recognition of our capacities to integrate suffering into everyday wisdom.
The resurrection stories of Inanna and Persephone both involve the abduction of a feminine deity to the underworld, from where it seems, for a time, she will never escape. The loss seems unending and shattering. Each story highlights feelings of betrayal and the removal of innocence and outer pretensions. Persephone and Inanna face utter abandonment, as well as the irrelevance of their former ideas of themselves. Those who dearly love the missing goddesses endure unbearable grief and face a world that is emotionally devastated and barren.
If you have lost loved ones, ideas, a self-image, homes, relationships, bodily health, money, or other things you believed were too precious to live without, you know that the dark well of grief can overtake you. There is no skipping over the experiences in our life that bring us to our knees. We are never the same again, nor should we be. Inanna and Persephone do not find their way back to the living again by denying, ignoring, or even transcending pain. Instead they both go through utter transformations that strip them of naïveté, detachment, and privilege. Both goddesses, initiated into the cauldron of the dark emotional abyss, return to the above-world with true empathy, compassion, and maturity. Part of the process is becoming dismembered from their previous positions of being “above” such experiences.
“When we weep unstoppably, when we struggle with obsessive questioning and regret, when we feel completely alone, we need to remember that our pain is not unique nor insignificant.”
These ancient stories remind us that to fully realize our capacities as guides and as integrated people, we must embrace not only the narratives of our losses but the heartache and misery that accompany them. Most importantly, we learn from both Inanna and Persephone that none of us can honorably grieve all by ourselves, or merely for ourselves. When we descend into our emotional underworlds, we need allies, spokespeople on our behalf, interceding wise folk, and patience. It helps to recognize that there is a connective tissue to all suffering, a web that connects us all. When we weep unstoppably, when we struggle with obsessive questioning and regret, when we feel completely alone, we need to remember that our pain is not unique nor insignificant.
Some people hit with inconceivable losses avoid entering these depths. They may do so because they lack a trustworthy community of support, or because they do not recognize the value of going deep, or they fear the pain of it. There are plenty of ways to divert oneself from the descent for weeks, months, years, or a lifetime, if this is what one chooses. These diversions will rob the person of the incomparable experience of rising again psychologically; it can also make them intolerant of others’ pain and suffering, which brings up all that is unprocessed and incomplete in themselves.
On the Other Side
To live a full life is to experience the whole trajectory of ecstasy and grief inherent in being human. Each of us who walks through the valley of symbolic death—where we are transformed through pain and suffering to emerge more alive than before—contributes to the evolution of the compassionate human psyche.
“In a world covered in tweets and sound bites and plasticized images, it is riveting to be with someone who has the presence of conscientious emotional resurrection.”
When we see someone who has gone through devastation and has returned to the living, they often look somehow humbled, or more mature. You might see a profound knowing in their eyes. The softness that comes with honestly exploring and surviving a ravaging descent is compelling. Young and old people alike want to be near the light of someone who not only has a meaningful story to tell but can convey the depth of feeling that comes from living the painful dimensionality of that story. In a world covered in tweets and sound bites and plasticized images, it is riveting to be with someone who has the presence of conscientious emotional resurrection.
Spring, like our own psychological resurrection, is not just gorgeous because life comes into bloom again; it is even more dear because this sensual bounty represents the revival of our spirit from the gloomiest of times and the promise that every experience of being human is seasonal and cyclical. As we go through this season, we can courageously examine the emotionally barren and desolate journeys of this last year, and hold them sacredly to our hearts. To have journeyed to the underworld is not actually a failure, as the triumphalist ego would have you believe; it is instead an initiation into the dark, feminine mysteries of life itself.
“To have journeyed to the underworld is not actually a failure.”
There is nothing sweeter than coming back from the underworld and dancing among loved ones who have also undertaken the journey at some point. Within the matrix of connection, each season of our lives has its breathless beauty—the dark precipices all the more striking in contrast with the bouquet of colors reawakening.
This article is dedicated to my beloved friend Nancy Koppleman. May you rise like the Phoenix. —Jennifer
Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., M.F.T., the author of PeaceQ, is a psychological astrologer who has been teaching and consulting worldwide for thirty years. Freed is also the executive director of AHA!, which specializes in transforming schools and communities by focusing on peace-building peer-led initiatives.