Preface to: And a Sword Shall Pierce Your Heart: Moving from Despair to Meaning after the Death of a Child

Printable Version in Word 2003 

The night my son died, after the police left and friends had shared the burden of our grief, I got into bed with a pounding headache.  Holding my husband and sobbing, I felt rage rising as I remembered two of the evening’s outlandish condolences:  One from my son’s Jesuit professor advised, “You can still have a relationship with Duncan, you know,” and the other from an old philosophical mentor encouraged, “Some day you will see his death as the transforming moment of your life.”  Though first received with anger and fear, now, much later, I realize the truth of their statements.

 
My son’s death turned my life painfully upside down, and forced me into places I never dreamed of going, both in my inner and outer worlds.  Many years of self-examination and searching led me to become a Jungian psychoanalyst.   And when called to do a doctoral dissertation, I chose the approach of “qualitative research.”  Eschewing a hands-off distance and statistical measurements of this or that variable, I joined myself as participant-observer to other mourning women courageous enough to engage in self-reflection about their mother-grief.  The causes of their losses ranged widely:  barrenness or miscarriage, long or sudden illnesses, accidents, suicides, murder, and even acts of war.  For more than a year we met and shared strong emotions and strange occurrences, struggling to put words both to the details and the total import of our experiences.  This book reports and reflects on our stories and those of many others in similar situations, with whom I later worked as therapist and researcher.  My recurrent themes are the profundity of mother-grief and the deep tasks such mourning women must complete to heal themselves.  
 
The book divides into two parts.  Chapter One, Part One gives a fuller account of my own son’s death and its circumstances and my reactions to it.  In intimate terms, this chapter serves to set the painful problem the book addresses:  How does a mother face the aftermath of such a terrific event?  The following eight chapters of Part One examine how any individual mother’s turmoil arises not only from her particular personal history but also from universally shared psychological patterns or energies, what C.G. Jung called “The Archetypes.”  Embodied in the myths and folklore of every culture, these collective patterns are unconsciously absorbed by everyone.  In turn, they serve to amplify and structure the individual mother’s terrible struggles.  For example, she apprehends her loss not only as that of her own child but also as that of The Child, the being anciently created in our collective mind, each of whose living exemplars carries for us such precious values as Beauty, Tenderness, Promise, Hope, Regeneration, Replication, and Futurity.  An individual mother losing her particular child also feels as though she has lost these other values as well.   
 
After explaining the concept of Archetype more fully, examining some of the main ones weighing on the bereft mother, and showing how Archetypes define the themes and phrases of mourning, I pass on to how death affects family members.  Men, women and young and older children grieve differently, so all need to cope with these often painful variations.  The succeeding chapters of Part One also consider particular challenges attending the different causes of child death, from miscarriage to suicide.  In each case, I use the concept of Archetype to illuminate mothers’ struggles.  More generally, by coming to understand the differing problems, of other grieving mothers, every woman will be comforted by feeling the solidarity of an immense sisterhood.  
Part Two (Chapters Nine to Fourteen) explores practical ways mothers can use to open themselves to healing and transformative experiences.  After their child’s death, women urgently want to know what they can do to feel better, but I give no pat or simple answers.  Though a quick “Getting over it” is often what others expect from us, no strong will can force away grief. Nothing cures it, and attempts to bypass mourning pains only postpone healing.  Our reentry to full living may ultimately depend on grace, but there is much we can do to assist it.  
 
As part of illustrating this process, Part Two takes up my own story again, charting the stages and steps that moved me forward.  Adducing also the testimonies of other women actively engaged in mourning, I show how insights from Jungian psychology can join with other complementary approaches to help.  We can avail ourselves for aids from family therapy, meditation, journaling, behavior therapy, symbolic action and transpersonal psychology among other approaches.  Most mothers consider her child loss to be their salient life-changing event.  Though fear and other strong emotions, together with their own strange behaviors, sometimes threaten to overwhelm them, through dreams, imaginings, prayers, and other means, many mothers feel pulled into supra-human psychic realities.  All the mothers I have worked with over many years also believe they will maintain an inner relationship with their dead child throughout their own lives. 
 
Though this book primarily addresses the vast number of mothers who have lost children, it will also enlighten those more numerous family members, friends, colleagues and helping professionals affected by child death and mother-grief.  All those close to the mother are shaken by her loss, and accordingly, need better understanding both of her reactions and their own.  Humanity’s great circle participates in a mother’s mourning work, and many belonging to it will find help here.