Grief and Hope: A Herione’s Journey
The day before Thanksgiving 2013, my mother was rushed to the emergency room with a brain aneurism. After her initial treatment and diagnosis, she lay in an unresponsive, coma-like state for just over seven weeks. It was a time of unending uncertainty. My mother, though her body was with us, felt far away. Any of the hope I held onto mixed, daily, with grief and anger. My father and I tried to give a daily update to everyone involved. In return we received stories of the past and hope for the future. The stories sustained us. “When women get together, they tell stories. This is how it has always been. Telling stories is our way of saying who we are, where we have come from, what we know, and where we might be headed” (Bonheim, 1997, p. 9). In this tenuous time, the stories held us together. My mother, grandmother, and I have been involved in the practice of dreamwork for many years, so these narratives comprised many of those stories. Many dreamed of my mother as she lay in her liminal state. One of the feelings that came forward was the sensation that, in some way, we were on this journey with her. We were bearing some of the burden of traveling to the other side, into the depths, into the underworld.
“The story of any…woman is also the story of a…goddess.”
~Bonheim, 1997, p. 16
Myths and their characters rarely stand alone, they are constantly intertwined and interacting with other archetypal energies. At that time, the myth of Psyche and Eros, came alive in my life. In the original version of the myth of Psyche and Eros the story is centered on a young, beautiful woman named Psyche. The goddess Aphrodite grows jealous of the attention that Psyche receives for her beauty. The goddess tells the people that Psyche is to be wed to a monster, so she is taken to a mountain top and left as a sacrifice. Once on the mountain, her bonds are cut and she finds herself in a beautiful palace, visited nightly by her bridegroom, but never allowed to see his face. Eventually, in her loneliness, she requests that her sisters visit. They do, and are jealous of her situation. Hence they devise a plan: Psyche is to take to bed a knife and an oil lamp, she will light the lamp, see the monster, kill him, and return home. Psyche does as she is told, but when the lamp is lit, she sees she is wed to the beautiful god Eros, the god of love. In that same moment Psyche pricks herself on his arrows and spills a few drops of hot oil on his shoulder. Eros awakes in pain to see his love standing over him. Trust broken, she has seen his true guise. He flees from the palace and in his absence the structure vanishes. Psyche is left alone on the mountain side pining for her love. Psyche comes to understand that the only way to get her love back is to complete impossible tasks laid out for her by Aphrodite.
Aphrodite sets Psyche a task of sorting piles of grain, retrieving golden fleece, and bottling water from the river Styx. In each, she is helped complete these tasks by invisible forces and spirits of nature, tendrils of compassion for her plight. Finally, Aphrodite tells Psyche that she must take a box to the underworld to collect a cosmetic from Persephone. She almost completes this task, but tempted by the mysterious box, she opens it and is hit by a sleeping draft inside. She falls to the ground in a death-like sleep. Eros, who is now healed from his burn, picks her up, returns the sleep to the box, pricks her with his arrow to wake her.
In a more modern retelling of this tale, Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis focuses the story on the relationship between the sisters. In this version, the tale is told by Orual, Psyche’s older, homely, veiled sister. It is a beautiful story. Orual is as much a mother as she is a sister to Psyche. She loves her dearly. In this telling, the sister was not jealous, but worried for Psyche. She encouraged her to view her husband out of love and concern for her and once she discovered the consequences of this action she grieved for Psyche’s loss. She was on the mountainside when the palace disappeared; she saw Psyche wander off into the wilderness weeping, but could not reach out to her. So, as Psyche is off performing her tasks in the realm of the gods, Orual is keeping the kingdom running and building a community as the Queen of the kingdom. With Psyche forever on her mind; she continues searching for her for years.
As she grows older and is nearing death, in her travels Orual hears the telling of the classic myth of Psyche and Eros. She hates the gods for taking Psyche away, for keeping her unaware of Psyches trials, and for her inability to help Psyche all these years. The final part of the book is based on this period. In her very last days, Orual slips away and enters a dream realm, she has waking and sleeping visions of Psyche. In these dreams she is a tiny ant helping to sort great piles of grain; she is in the field of golden sheep where she draws their attention and is trampled; she sees Psyche in the distance gathering the fleece by the river. Eventually, she has performed all the tasks, lived into the various guises of nature that helped Psyche in her trials.
Orual’s life is split between her constant love and search for Psyche and her duties as Queen. For one to flourish the other had to be put aside, into the underworld. For the period my mother was hospitalized I felt this split as well: “The Queen…had more and more part in me and Orual had less and less. I locked [her] up or laid her asleep as best I could somewhere deep down inside me; she lay curled there” (Lewis, 1956, p. 226). As I locked my emotions away, I was still touched and moved by the community of women who surrounded me. As I stood resisting the cry in my soul, others around me wept and hoped. In many ways they carried that burden for me until I was able to return home to break down on my own. They “bore the anguish. But [I] achieved the tasks” (Lewis, 1956, p. 301), the impossible tasks of daily life in the midst of grief. In this way I was Psyche, I was Demeter, I was the Queen.
Over the course of the journey, the tasks I completed with the help of the Queen were numerous, but, always, Orual lay curled underneath. Sorting came in the form of separating out the different hats I had to wear: caretaking daughter, diligent employee, loving wife, concerned grandchild, studious scholar, caring friend, and on and on. Though the story in waking life played out very similarly day after day (one day at the hospital my father remarked that he felt like we were in the movie Groundhog Day, even the clock on the tower outside the hospital window was stuck at a perpetual 5 pm), the narrative continued moving forward in dreams:
I have a huge breakdown. I am screaming and crying. I go to my analyst and am
horrible to her, so angry and sad. After the appointment, I make my way home, still
very emotional. The following day Mama wakes up and is a stunning young woman in
her late teens. She has no memory except basic skills. She begs to be flipped over in
the hospital bed. I call the nurses. They flip her onto her stomach and immediately, the
bed she is on, turns into a bed of glowing light. She lays in comfort on her
stomach. The next day she is sitting up in a nice bed. She smiles because she
remembers me from yesterday. I introduce her to my grandmother. She does not seem
to have a memory of us before now.
This dream came to me a little over a week after the aneurism. I awoke in tears, wrote it down, and thought very little about it, I was still in Queen mode. The only image from the dream that struck me was my mother on that glowing bed; to me, this became like a numinous emblem or divine icon. Throughout December, I recorded only two dreams. The previous dream and the following, from Christmas morning:
I am in a big hospital. I am here to see mama and everyone is visiting, dozens of
people. We are all hugging and greeting. Mama is in her bed and I am explaining the
situation to people. Suddenly she is out in the hall in a wheelchair. She looks so good!
She is sitting up and her eyes are open and focused. I am shocked. I kneel down and
she takes my hand in hers. She rubs the back of it with her thumb, as if to comfort me.
She doesn’t speak, but she looks at me knowingly and has a slight smile. She nods
slightly. It is so comforting. We begin to move down the hallway, she is almost floating
in her wheelchair.
Again, I woke in tears of hope and grief. The image of my mother surrounded by love and healing was an image that sustained me. The narrative in both these dreams was moving us forward, despite the stagnation in waking life. I was not the only one who was dreaming of my mother. We had a number of friends, dream sisters, who shared their nighttime wanderings with her. In their dreams she was out and about after the ordeal. She was awake and healing, or miraculously healed. The dreams suggested that there was hope on the horizon even if we could not see it with our eyes open. Nightly, we were encountering our own Psyche thanks to this shared dream journey. As we were Psyche, so was my mother. As I was playing the Queen, Orual was alive in others. By sharing our stories, our whole community became Psyche, the Queen, and Orual. “Living one’s myth doesn’t mean simply living one myth. It means that one lives myth; it means mythical living. As I am many persons, so I am enacting pieces of various myths” (Hillman, 1975, p.158). We all played our many roles was we waited for the story to move forward.
Then, upon returning home for a few short weeks, I became fully Orual again and met my second task where I was trampled with the anguish of my own emotions, let loose like the golden rams in the field. I took time to process as I headed through the desert to collect the water of death, these were my tears of grief. At this time, we were to the very extreme of the doctors projections and hope was waning. I had to process the possibility of death to begin to move forward and embrace the hope of life again. This led me to an underworld journey.
As time passed, the reports from the doctors became less and less promising. Once someone has been unresponsive for this long the chances that they will wake with all their mental and physical faculties intact is rare. At this point the mood began to shift. I know we were all trying to hold onto hope, but it is the love that pulled us through. Love suffers, never able to give up. “The suffering in our tale has something to do with initiation, with changing the structure of consciousness” (Hillman, 1989, p. 270). It was during this time of suffering through the desert of grief that I felt the truth of the grievances Orual must share in front of the gods. In the novel’s tale, she is stripped naked and is permitted to read her complaint. She remarks that “there must, whether the gods see it or not, be something great in the mortal soul. For suffering, it seems, is infinite, and our capacity without limit” (Lewis, 1956, p. 277). However, her main argument to them is as follows: “You said a brute would devour her. Well, why didn’t it? I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb and . . .and. . .But to steal her love from me!” (Lewis, 1956, p. 290). How unfair, to take Psyche and keep her for themselves. This was a sentiment I shared in my saddest, loneliest times. Why would the gods insist on taking her “where we can’t follow. …We’d rather [she] were ours and dead than yours and made immortal” (ibid, p. 291). This is the root of this level of suffering, the loss of love, but in this case, especially because it is not yet lost. The person we love is gone or away, but the love for them never fades. Perhaps this is the beauty and terror of the god Eros, the beast within the winged beauty.
For the few weeks that I returned home, my mother was skirting immortality. I embraced the dark, the not knowing, the grief; I went fully into the pain, the sadness, the suffering that I had been repressing. I wondered if it might just have been better that my mother had died? If she had then at least life could move again. So many questions, questions that felt like they would hurt too much to ask. All was laid bare, and it was terrible, terrible, but necessary. In this time, I heard my own complaint to the gods. I found myself in Orual’s once veiled visage, naked, railing at the gods. As illustrated in the first dream above, after I presented my grievances to my analyst, a transformation began; the young figure of my mother turned over and began to heal in the light. Once my fears were confronted with the light of consciousness, healing could begin. This is the message that it seemed the dreams were trying to bring to me. “There was given to me a certainty that this, at last, was my real voice” (p. 292), Orual realizes. She recognizes the terrible and awesome face she carries within, one befitting the Gods, on their level, needed to address them and allow them to view her. This moment of self-reflection becomes an imperative necessity, and for this, Wisdom is needed. “The complaint was the answer….I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly…How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? (Lewis, p. 294).
There had to be a meeting point for the conscious and the unconscious, a moment of self-reflection and wisdom, a moment of consideration before the next step could be taken. In my journey I was finally reaching this point, the veil was lifting and I began to find my own voice, my own emotions, my own path. I had to speak my complaint to the gods in order to hear my own voice again, to find myself. In the act of asking the terrible questions, almost as a response to my open embrace of this tension of opposites, I received the following dream from the unconscious in this time of darkness:
I am with a large group of people gathering after disembarking from a train. We have to
receive some kind of “authentication” to let a helicopter know where to take us next.. A very
tall, muscular Black man gets a beautiful picture of a female Saint or the Madonna in a
watercolor style on his phone. He shows it to all of us and we begin to paint it in the grass on
the field where we are waiting. I realize it is a landing circle. We all have our pants rolled up
and are stomping through paint to create this beautiful image. There is liquid gold spread here
and there; it is all around the outer ring of the picture. We are all walking through it in a circle.
When the “dance” is done, the gold is set on fire. This calls the helicopter.
The golden, flaming ring encompassing the feminine deity was nothing less than numinous, divine. Out of the suffering, out of the tension I was holding, this image sprang from the unconscious fully formed. I was torn between the grief and terror of what seemed, at times, a hopeless situation and the never-ending hope of infinite possibility. “The abyss of…absence is filled with the golden light of a very powerful spiritual and psychological presence” (Haule, 1990, p. 38), the golden light of love, the liquid gold circle dancing under our feet. Finally, well into January, almost two months after the aneurism, my mother was moved from the nursing home back to the hospital in a last-ditch effort. Within hours, she woke and was responsive for the first time in seven weeks! It seemed like a miracle. Since then, she completed a long period of rehab and recovery. I won’t say she’s who she was prior to that fateful day, how could she be? I am not who I was before that time either. But she is still here and living life full of love.
Love comes in many forms “All too often, our isolation has made us lose sight of the fact that all our stories are segments of a greater story. But our individual wounds are collective wounds, our individual stories fragments of the larger collective story” (Bonheim, 1997, p. 26). Throughout those months, I felt the effect of the terrifying and fascinating mystery of life. It is the tale of love, a story of hurt and healing. It is a reflection of myth, a heroine’s journey, full of grief and hope.
Sarah D. Norton, Ph. D. lives south of Washington, DC, in Virginia, USA. She completed her dissertation Arctic Imaginings: Chasing Ice through C.G. Jung’s Liber Novus into the 21st Century in 2020, as the pandemic hit the US. Her dissertation was a Jungian and archetypal exploration of climate change and grief. The experience in this essay was one of many catalysts for this work. Sarah wears many hats as editor of The Rose in the World (www.roseintheworld.org), head of online educational module creation with the Foundation for Family and Community Healing (www.HealingEdu.org), and co-host of Psychreative with Dr. Roula-Maria Dib.
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