• Loss, change and transition are inevitable parts of life, as we move into different roles and get older

  • Therapist Sandra Hilton reflects on the necessity of feeling lost, of grieving properly, in order to grow

  • We have therapists and counsellors available to support you – find yours here

Twenty five years ago, I travelled to the cave city of Uplistsikhe, one of the earliest urban settlements in Georgia in the Caucuses. Traced back to the 2nd millennium B.C., it has been preserved beautifully and is now a UNESCO heritage site so you can wander the caves and step into what were people’s homes, shops and churches and imagine their lives there. As I was remembering this journey to my daughter recently, we discovered that the deepest cave in the world, the Krubera cave, is also to be found in what used to be Georgian territory (Abkhazia – now occupied by Russia). My daughter is half-Georgian and fascinated by this ancient, mysterious landscape which is also a part of her.

This talk of caves and ancient history got me thinking about the caves within and our internal explorations.

Personally, I can’t imagine living in a cave physically, like my daughter’s ancestors, and the thought of caving terrifies me. Crushing my body through the smallest of crevices. The dark. The damp. The endless descent. The fear of never getting out. Claustrophobic in a tunnel. Crouched and terrified. It’s not an adventure I would welcome.

Sometimes this is how the inner dive feels too, as we begin to abseil down the walls of our consciousness, reaching the ledges of the less conscious. We may do this in dreams; in active imagination; in literature or the arts; in nature; in relationship; in therapy. As we go deeper into the darkness, the atmosphere changes, the air thickens, the light disappears and we can feel disorientated, disturbed, distressed even, as the known world slips away and we arrive in our shadow world. Here lies more ancient history. Our own, and our ancestors. Things we may never have known in our lifetime but which have been planted in the generational line and left to ferment in the family or cultural cellars for us to discover and bring to the light.

Often we don’t visit these deep dark places voluntarily. Life changes may force us here. A pandemic. A loss. Disappointment. An illness or accident. A time in life where a particular role comes to an end; childhood, parenthood, being someone’s partner, a career identity.

Also, often, the descent into the darkness isn’t supported by the world outside. When we visit and perhaps occupy for some time, these less conscious realms, we may appear distant, uncommunicative, disinterested, sad or perhaps, emotional, unpredictable or unstable. Whatever version we present, people would rather we clambered right out of that hole and “got back to normal”; that we “made sense”; stopped worrying about all these unnecessary things.

However, what we miss in this insistence, is that this is normal. It is healthy to feel devastated, distressed and disorientated when something or someone important to us has been lost. Psychoanalyst Donald Kalsched reminds us that the demon “Dis” in Dante’s Inferno is named using the Latin word which means to divide and negate. He points to Dante’s insight that this monster in Hell is “psychologically equivalent to the disintegrating energies of the “other world” (unconscious)”and relates the tale to human experience where we meet all the “dis’s” when we fragment in the face of loss or trauma (think distress, dissociation, disaster). Our language registers the falling apart, where our culture often rejects it. 

Somewhere along the line, this important moment has been lost in a world that demands productivity, efficiency and a smile, whatever the circumstances, and where anti-depressants are readily available to medicate ordinary life transitions. The truth is that we need to retreat into ourselves to grieve and feel the loss, so that we may discover what our new shape is with the missing part integrated. In these depths, we find a new sense of self.  If we try to bypass the experience and resist the change that is inevitably happening, then we bypass growth.

Jungian analyst and writer, Marion Woodman writes:

“Many people are being dragged toward wholeness in their daily lives, but because they do not understand initiation rites, they cannot make sense of what is happening to them. They put on a happy face all day, and return to their apartment and cry all night. Perhaps their beloved has gone off with someone else; perhaps their business has failed; perhaps they have lost interest in work; perhaps they are coping with a fatal illness; perhaps a loved one has died. Perhaps, and this is worst of all, everything has begun to go wrong for no apparent reason. If they have no concept of rites of passage, they experience themselves as victims, powerless to resist an overwhelming fate. Their meaningless suffering drives them to escape through food, alcohol, drugs, sex…….

….They are being prodded to renounce life attachments that have become redundant…..but because they do not understand, people cling to the familiar, refuse to make the necessary sacrifices, resist their own growth. Unable to give up their habitual lives, they are unable to receive new life.”

(from The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation, p. 24)

She writes this in the context of a western world where few rites of passage exist or are acknowledged, and observes that without these rituals, we flounder. We become unsure of who we are as we pass through the most natural of life phases – from child to teen – adolescent to adult – adult to partner – into mid-life and elder years. Each phase comes as a shock, without a rulebook and each individual feels the injustice of being subjected to something so painful or overwhelming. Rather than us having a shared understanding that these are tunnels to be crawled through, bodies crouched and contorted, and that they test who we are. With this understanding she argues, we would find our passion and effort rather than feel crushed with disillusionment and despair.

I feel this personally in my mid-life as I anticipate my daughter leaving home and my role as mother changing significantly. I can feel a readying in myself to get busy and find ways to avoid feeling the inevitable heartbreak. Well meaning friends tell me it won’t be that different, that she will still come home a lot. This may of course be true but what it misses is the necessary pain of the separation – the loss of my daughter and her of her mother after 18 years of a deeply connected existence. I’m not sure what my inner world looks like without her in my immediate outer world. But I know that some shape-shifting is involved to crawl through that particular tunnel. And also that I want company and encouragement for that particular journey,  not exhortations to bypass the descent.

Back to the cave dwellings in Uplistsikhe….as we wandered deeper into the cave village, we came across an Orthodox priest, singing prayers and lighting candles in one particular section of the ruins. He invited us to join him and as we drew close, we could see that there were almost perfectly preserved icons painted onto the walls. A serene Mother of God peered out at us across the time warp. Often in the darkest depths are the most unexpected surprises, jewels to be revealed and light to be found. Let’s support each other to visit these places more often so that we can find out what lies here and on the other side.

Sandra Hilton is a verified welldoing.org therapist and coach in London and online


Further reading

The secret of long-lasting change

Changing your perspective on middle age and the menopause

Who am I and why does it matter?

How therapy can help you when you feel lost

Middle-age women: ignored or liberated?