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.
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.
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 prevail — 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 aid.
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.
And 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.