Loss, Identity, and Inanna: How Grief Challenges the “Who Am I?”

We hang our identities on the people we love.

We don’t mean to, perhaps, but the word “identity” comes from the Latin idem et idem, which means “over and over,” which means, in essence, that our identities groove to the tracks we run every day: not only our own self-talk, the way we dress and do our hair, and what hopes we nurture way deep down, but also those tracks that meet up with someone else’s idem et idem: waking up to each other’s eyes, laughing together over a private joke, going over that one old argument yet again, passing the ketchup, feeling the press of their hand against yours. As our lives weave together, so our identities lean into each other.

anthropomorph

And all those small, almost unnoticed, moments — all those fleeting intersections of your track with theirs — they suddenly cease to exist when the other person leaves your side. Not only have you lost a person, you have also lost a whole host of moments, a whole interweaving of idem et idems that had gone into making you you. What are you if your track doesn’t intersect with theirs a million times a day, in small, almost unnoticed, ways? How does your identity uphold itself in the absence of those habits to which it was bound?

In an ancient Sumerian myth, Inanna, Queen of Heaven,
undergoes a harrowing ordeal to visit her sister,
Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld,
upon the death of Ereshkigal’s husband.
To get there, Inanna must pass through seven gates.
One by one, the gatekeepers call out to Ereshkigal,
who commands them to strip Inanna, one by one,
of her holy regalia: 
her staff, her crown, her necklace, her ring —
all the things that identify her as the Queen of Heaven.
When she reaches the lowest level of Hell,
Ereshkigal demands that Inanna remove even her clothes.

Ishtar Vase Louvre

Like Inanna, we feel naked in the face of traumatic loss. When grief grabs us by the throat and pushes us into our own Underworld, our own private Hell, we find we arrive without any of the power we didn’t even realize we’d had. We arrive without the energy to move through the day; without the courage to fall asleep at night; without the desire to tackle a goal; without a vision for the future or that familiar warmth to buoy us.

But most of all, we arrive in the Hell of grief without all those daily habits — all that idem et idem — that once helped us identify who we were in the world. Traumatic loss strips us of all that was familiar, reliable, and supportive of the self we thought we were. Who are we without our habits, without the identity we’d cultivated (perhaps unconsciously) over the years?

But stripping Inanna of her regalia is not enough for Ereshkigal, the Dark Mother, the Queen of the Underworld, who then renders her sister dead with a single look and hangs her from a meat hook on the cave wall. Inanna, Queen of Heaven —
ruler of the solar realm, 
where light and clarity and
productivity and movement p
revail — is
stripped even of the ability to move on her
own, to seek light and press forward with her life.
She hangs, then, in the Underworld for three 
days,
suspended, utterly dependent on others to come to her ai
d.

We are someone’s parent, child, spouse, sibling, or friend. Being so is such a primal part of our identity that losing them strips us not only of what we had together but even of parts of ourselves that we didn’t even realize they helped to form.

When we lose that person — through death, divorce, disease, estrangement, or otherwise — we find ourselves in a kind of Hellish limbo, hanging in a space not unlike Inanna’s, a space between the old life and whatever is to come, a space that feels eerily like a living death, not really dead ourselves but stripped of all the idem et idem of our life-before-loss, wondering how we can ever recover those lost parts of us, even as we know we cannot recover the person whose leaning-toward-us helped shape and name those now-lost parts.

Near to Inanna, Ereshkigal —
the Queen of the Underworld,
the bringer of death and destruction
and endings of all kinds, the Dark Mother
who some say was once
one with Inanna herself —
moans in pain as if she is giving birth,
struggling to bring new life
into the world in the face of
loss and devastation. 

Kudurru_Melishipak_Louvre_Sb23_Ishtar-starAnd somewhere near us, too, new life is struggling to come forth. It seems separate from us, perhaps, foreign and even grotesque, out of place in this dark night of loss. Or maybe it seems perfectly natural, even desired — Get on with your life! people keep saying; you might even be saying it to yourself; you might be wondering why you can’t seem to do just that — and yet the darkness, the unbearable pain of loss, keeps pulling you back. In whatever way you experience this tension, this limbo between life and death, in the midst of grief, it is natural. It is natural. It is normal.

We might at first despise or fear or feel confused about the new life coming toward us, as Inanna must certainly have felt about Ereshkigal’s labor pains in sight of her sister on the meat hook. It might be unimaginable, much less acceptable, that the very agent of our grief, the situation or event that stripped us of our identity and hung us out to dry could be the thing that also brings new life.

Loss and grief are a form of initiation: a rite of passage, however unwelcome, into a new way of being in the world. Spoiler alert: Inanna eventually gets off the hook and out of Hell. But during those days of anguish — the days of feeling suspended or paralyzed or frozen in unbearable pain — it is normal not to know what lies ahead, it is okay to languish with the pain of losing the beloved as well as our former selves, it is fine to have no vision or energy or sense of time, it is natural to feel angry that nothing is as it was, or guilty that you did this but not that, or even perhaps relieved that nothing is now expected of you except to wait in the dark, like Inanna, for something to happen.

We might have no sense at all about what could possibly take us down from Inanna’s meat hook, revive us, and lift us up toward the light of newness again. The not-knowing can be as unbearable as the grief itself. But something comes. Something comes.

And that is the next part of Inanna’s story. I’ll explore it in this space next time.

Note: If you are in that dark space of anguish and need help moving through it — especially if you feel frozen or overwhelmed with it — please get help. If you are in the Tacoma area, please consider contacting me to discuss the possibility of working together.

Posted in Archetype, Death, Etymology, Grief, Identity, Initiation, Loss, Mythology, Underworld | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Poetry for the Frozen Moment: Writing and Reading Your Grief

Poets carry death within them: the timed verse coming to a certain, expected end / the free verse often ending abruptly / in any case, the mystery of a meaning just beyond your grasp / the looking back, the looping back, the turning back while being pulled forcefully forward / the punch in the gut / the entire world of one experience burned into a picture painted with words / but not with words

It is not so much light that fallsWhen you’re grieving, you might — if you are a certain person — be looking for the words that will best soothe you, hold you, explain you, make you feel the opposite of the way you’re feeling (which is the way you’ve least wanted to feel, ever, your entire life). While poetry probably won’t turn your feelings into their opposite, some of it can, in fact, soothe, hold, explain, and take you to places with your grief that ordinary, linear writing — articles, books — simply cannot.

Poetry is numinous, walking the glowing, tenuous line between rational and non-rational thought, giving us access to a sense of the eternal, the god-within, the binding truth that transcends even death. Lingering in the space of the right poem — whatever that poem is for you: one you’ve found or one you’ve written or one you’re even writing right now — can be healing because it allows you to sidle up to the eternity of what has been lost, to breathe in that space between the sensate surreality of where you are now and the unfathomable, inaccessible beyond where your beloved lies.

No, poetry will not bring back the dead. But sometimes it can take you out of the hard reality of the frozen moment, the place where you have no words, to put a few trembling words together into some kind of meaning, some tangible shape or two in your mouth that you can taste and love for a moment.

***

Two poems about grief:

The Wanderer Returned
by Pablo Neruda

Inside myself I should find the absent ones,
that smell from the lumberyard;
perhaps the wheat that rippled on the slopes
still goes on growing, but only within me,
and it’s in myself that I must travel to find that woman
the rain bore off, and there is no other way.
Nothing can last in any other way.

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
by e. e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

***

If you want to write a poem in the midst of grief, take care of yourself throughout: drink water / breathe deep / keep your bare feet planted on the ground / but let the words run loose like wild deer / shifting between trees with the slightest turn of weight. Two of my favorite books for learning to write without biting your tongue are Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind.

If you want to find a poem, the best place to do it is at The Academy of American Poets’ website. Type in a word — grief, anguish, loss, floating, guilt, despair, whatever word you’re living in today — and see what comes up for you. And again: take care of yourself as you read. Crying, sobbing, and even screaming are okay. Tunneling into darkness with no intent of emerging is not. If you find yourself doing the latter, please get help. If you are in the Tacoma area, please consider contacting me to discuss the possibility of working together through your grief.

Posted in Death, Grief, Loss, Poetry, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Curating Grief: Tenderly Tending the Unbearable Void

MournersLoss lends itself to building — to creating — to making something manifest where what used to be is no more.

At first it might not seem so.

But we humans have an impulse to fill vacuums, voids, and holes, and even in the depths of grief we want — we need — to grasp for something in a space that now holds nothing — or, at any rate, not the very thing we want: the arms or the face of the lost one, the chance to feel that solid warmth again, just one more time, the palpability of love as it existed when the physical being of the beloved was present.

As your heart, your cells, and your fibers begin to grasp what the mind resists but already knows — that the loved one is gone, that the so-adored physical form will never again lay its tangible, touchable experience of love at your feet — then we perceive, maybe vaguely at first, then more and more urgently, that something else must come to be grasped.

Something touchable, because the thought of going without the loved touch is almost unbearable.

Something beautiful, because the thought of being without the loved beauty is just not possible.

Something specific, because the idea of the loved one generalizing out into a vague, cloudy, formless, ungraspable memory of what-once-was is absolutely unacceptable.

But what? What could possibly help, except the return of the beloved?

It’s true that grief saps our energy, sometimes absolutely. It’s all we can do — most days — to lift ourselves upright in the morning — to bend our minds toward dressing, toward eating, toward opening and closing the door. Forget even thinking about generating creative energy in the midst of our emptiness, the midst of feeling depleted. And you know very well that, even if you created the Sistine Chapel from scratch, it could not remotely replace what you are now missing.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Andrea Bayer found a sort-of answer: a tangible thing to do with her grief — to curate it through images.

Many of us put together photo collages of a lost love, especially for a funeral or memorial service. But after losing both her parents in the space of a year, Bayer pored through the art images that surrounded her at her job — images other people, people unknown to her, had already created — and found images in which she saw her own experience of grief: images that had been created by people long past, people she would never know — people who had felt grief, or understood it, in a way that spoke to her. She put together a slide show, narrated in her own voice, with her own thoughts and musings on her parents, on grief and loss, on grief in art throughout the ages: the deaths of Christ, of Socrates, of Adonis, of Isfandiyar, of an woman known only to Rembrandt, of others.

Island of the Dead

Bayer’s is a personal and tender memorial that connects her own grief with the grieving of innumerable others throughout human history: a support group, of sorts, through paintings and sculpture and collage, a group of figures offering universal gestures and expressions of grief, a way to feel less alone in her loss, to feel connected and supported by humans throughout the ages.

Other people’s images can be a thoughtful, accessible place to start with bearing your own grief (not only images of your loved one, though by all means you should include those in your collection if you wish) — a perhaps-soothing exercise in pulling toward you some form of remembrance that edges you out beyond the blanket around your shoulders, that brings other people’s observations and images into your sphere, a reminder that — though the pain of loss still bites you hard — there are others out there who can ken your experience, who can put images to it, if not words. The images need not be ones of grief, though those can be soothing in the face of the unbearable void. They might also be images that remind you of your lost love: images that evoke memories or feelings or the details of the life that meant so much to you: a picture of her favorite hiking spot, a picture of his favorite food, an image that evokes a secret moment you once shared, anything that reminds and connects you to the person you’ve lost.

Images go beyond what we can say in words. While we might lack the energy to create our own images, we are fortunate to have a vast library of images at our disposal in the form of the Internet. And the image curating website Pinterest is a tool that makes it fairly easy to find and curate images of grief that speak to you. You can check out my own Pinterest board, Embodied Grief, for another example of this type of process. Once you’ve collected your images, you might then find comfort in writing snippets of memories to accompany them, or in transferring the images to PowerPoint or a similar slideshow program and then arranging and rearranging them in such a way that they dance to a special piece of music, or tell a story only we ourselves can understand, or connect things in ways that had not linked up before, even fleetingly.

So in the absence of the energy to create, but needing something to do with our grief, we might, instead, find just enough energy to find — to search out images that bear on our own experience of loss, that speak to the specific things we long for in our missing beloved, that explore the previously-unknown places we’ve tapped within ourselves since saying goodbye.

Posted in Art, Collage, Curating, Death, Grief, Image, Loss, Painting, Photography, Sculpture | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment