Mirabai Starr on Turning Grief Into Growth


Mirabai, in the midst of this pandemic, how can we turn grief into an opportunity for growth?

Such a good question. I think a lot of people are definitely grappling with sorrow and sadness and anxiety and a sense of deep loss during these times, either because they've directly lost someone or are worrying about someone or dealing with their own fragile health or just simply tuning in to the suffering in the world and the falling away of a lot of the structures that have held us up that we've relied upon and taken for granted in some ways. 

So I've been thinking about Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss psychologist who, psychiatrist actually, who came up with these stages of dying for people who were diagnosed with terminal illnesses. And then she kind of converted those five stages to people who are grieving, and it mapped really well. And those stages of course are, well, maybe not of course, maybe people are not familiar with them. Many of you are.

The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And Kubler-Ross reframed them over the years, and regretted in some ways that she implied, although she never believed, that it was some kind of linear process. Like if you start with denial in the grief process, you'll end up with acceptance if you just check off all the boxes. And that's not at all how the grief process works. It's much more organic and, to me, feminine. It's a wild wilderness, beautiful, transformative, mysterious, terrible reality. And so given that it's not a linear process, nor is grief a pathology, an illness from which we need to recover... it's not the flu, it's the human condition. And our invitation is to be with it and let it transform us if that's what it needs to do.

So I was thinking about that in terms of the Covid-19 pandemic and how beautifully Kubler-Ross's model, if we don't take it as a linear process and we don't take it as a prescription for something that's wrong, but rather as an invitation for transformation, I think it has a lot to teach us. So I'm going to just briefly mention each one of these five, I would prefer to call them stations rather than stages, portals of transformation, and see if they resonate with any of you in light of our current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic.

So the first one is denial. And denial isn't some kind of mental state where we are delusional and think that what's happening isn't happening. It's more like our minds don't have the capacity at first to take it in because it's confusing or it's new or it's overwhelming, like when you lose someone you love and it's like, "What? They're dead? You mean I'm not going to wake up tomorrow morning and it will have just been a bad dream?" It's a dreamlike state really, that first station of the grief journey. And with the Covid-19 pandemic, I think it's taken us all a bit of time to really come to grips with what's happening, and there have been many ways that we've kind of checked out of the reality like, "Oh, it's an enforced vacation," for those of us who have the privilege of working from home or are introverts like me, and relish not being in constant interaction with other humans.

But eventually that dreamlike sense of what's happening dissipates, and there's a certain grace, by the way, in that first stage. I don't know about you all, but that first couple of weeks, I was waking up in a really good mood. I was just feeling like, "Ah, I can breathe again. I can get off the train I was on that was hurtling through space that I couldn't get off of." So there was this sense of wellbeing almost for me that came in the beginning that I think is wrapped up in that denial and that sense of dreamlike quality of what was happening.

The next station is anger. When we start waking up from the dream... and once we get come to grips with what's really happening, an urge to blame someone. We could be blaming God. You could be blaming the damn consumerist society, the capitalist society that has conditioned us all to overconsume and steal the Earth's resources. And this is why she's striking back in some ways with this virus. Anger, righteousness, which actually doesn't do us a whole lot of good. It might make us feel a false sense of comfort or security for a moment, but the anger is actually not helpful and often is misplaced because it takes us away from just being with what is and being with ourselves, which I think is one of the reasons we get angry. It protects us against actually being with ourselves in a really naked, vulnerable way.

And so with the Covid-19 situation, it's very tempting and in some ways justified to blame the machine of over-consumerism that has led us to some of this, and to certainly blame certain key figures in power who have mishandled things so terribly. And that's all real. But if we don't just get all identified and wrapped up with that, but allow ourselves to just feel the feelings of anger, then we might move into another station which is even more painful, and that's ining.

And bargaining, in this Kubler-Ross model, has to do with What can I do to make things different than they are? It's the second noble truth in Buddhism. The first one is life involves painful things. The second one is it's our clinging or wanting things to be other than they actually are that causes suffering. And so in the bargaining phase, we're trying to see what we can do to make reality not be what it is. And in grief, that often looks like retelling ourselves the story again and again, looping around, This is what happened and if only it had been a different way, this wouldn't have happened. So it's the "if onlys" that can be a source of great distress when we can't get off that train of thought, that rewinds and re-shoots the story over and over again, hoping it'll come out different. So, that's the bargaining phase. What can I do to make this not so?

Eventually we'll wear ourselves out with that phase. In terms of the Covid-19 pandemic, we might look at all the ways that society has gone wrong, or if we're really in that space of inner inventory, which many of us are right now, it might be, If only I had done things differently. If only I hadn't been caught up in the things that I was caught up in before this happened, I wouldn't be suffering so much now. Or If only I looked after my parents better, and now I'm separated from them and I can't see them in these difficult time. Whatever your particular list of should have, could have, would haves, if onlys might be.

Eventually we will run the course of that monkey-mind painful process of bargaining and we'll come to some place of surrender. This is what Kubler-Ross unfortunately called “depression” because it's not clinical depression necessarily, although it certainly can lead to clinical depression, but really what she's speaking of and what we're inviting ourselves into right now is a radical release into not knowing. That's the depression station. Like, I give up. I'm going to just let myself feel my feelings, which include sorrow and grief. I'm going to let it in. I'm going to let myself not know, not have this thing figured out. I'm not going to keep trying to maneuver the world to fit the shape that I think it should. I give up. I'm going to just let myself down into the arms of my own brokenness and the brokenness of the world. Very important station in any spiritual journey is that surrender. It's very vulnerable. It's very naked.

And then if we let ourselves rest in that place, because it is indeed a space of rest, when we finally stop struggling and we can just rest... we may even literally sleep more and allow ourselves to just be more and do less. Then we may enter that station — that also is unfortunately named in some ways — acceptance, because acceptance doesn't mean that it's all okay now. It means that we accept reality as it is with all its brokenness. And we can integrate the full scope of what is into our broken-open hearts. Because the shattered container has infinite, boundless capacity to hold what is, which includes sorrow, which includes grief and loss. I think many of us during this pandemic have thought that we should do all of this self-care or self-work at this time. Like, "I'm going to get in the best shape of my life," or "I'm going to become un-neurotic finally," or whatever it may be. Or "I'm going to write a great book," which was my agenda.

And I think that the grief process is so powerful that it doesn't leave room for much else. And it is a transformational journey if we can surrender to it. So I'm finding myself surrendering into the arms of grief right now and letting it have its way with me. And I feel a deep recalibration going on, like the roots of the tree in winter. And so I invite each of you to allow yourselves to curiously and tenderly explore those five transformational stations of the grief journey right now, while we're still being invited to inhabit this liminal space of the pandemic sheltering-close-to-home.

So just to recap, the stages are... the stations, transformational portals... are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. So may your journey through this landscape of loss and this time of the Covid-19 pandemic be truly transformational, and may you be gentle and loving with yourselves as you navigate the land of unknown and unknowing. Much love.


Click below to watch Mirabai's Catalyst interview:
Mirabai Starr on Wild Mercy

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Click below to read Mirabai's answer to the question:
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Mirabai Starr is an award-winning author of creative non-fiction and contemporary translations of sacred literature. She taught Philosophy and World Religions at the University of New Mexico-Taos for 20 years and now teaches and speaks internationally on contemplative practice and inter-spiritual dialog. A certified bereavement counselor, Mirabai helps mourners harness the transformational power of loss.

Mirabai’s newest book, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, was named one of the “Best Books of 2019” by Spirituality & Practice. It's essential reading for anyone ready to awaken the feminine mystic within and birth her loving, creative, and untamed power into the world.

Mirabai has received critical acclaim for her revolutionary new translations of John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul and Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. She is author of the poetry collection, Mother of God Similar to Fire, a collaboration withiconographer William Hart McNichols, and the award-winning book, God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The transparency of her journey through grief in her memoir, Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation, is a gift to those who are struggling with unimaginable losses.

Mirabai is on the 2020 Watkins List of the “100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People of the World.” She lives with her extended family in the mountains of northern New Mexico.

Click here to visit Mirabai’s website.

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This article appears in: 2020 Catalyst, Issue 10: Imagining a Post-Pandemic World