In the aftermath of loss, our assumptive world shatters, leaving us to navigate a landscape unrecognizable and fraught with uncertainty. It is through the earnest journey of self-reflection and the courage to rebuild that we may unearth the profound meaning hidden within our grief, forging a path towards more than mere survival, but living more fully and with a deep understanding of ourselves and the nature of love.
The loss of a loved one can send us on an unexpected and painful journey through grief. Here, we may find guidance and structure in a concept known as the Hero’s Journey, a framework that has transcended time and culture to become the foundation for many of our most beloved stories.
In this article, I will share how this can help you navigate grief, and offer an example loosely based on my own journey of love, loss, and posttraumatic growth after the death of my stepfather, Tom Clark.
The Hero’s Journey: A Universal Narrative
The Hero’s Journey, a concept devised by scholar Joseph Campbell, is a narrative pattern found in myths, movies, and literature across different cultures. This universal structure consists of a series of stages that chart the protagonist’s transformation through challenges, personal growth, and eventual triumph. From ancient myths like “The Odyssey” to modern blockbusters like “Star Wars,” the Hero’s Journey has been the backbone of stories that resonate deeply with audiences. Its three main stages are:
- Departure: The protagonist is called to adventure, often resisting before finally embarking on the journey.
- Initiation: A series of trials and personal transformations shape the protagonist, leading to a significant reward or revelation.
- Return: The protagonist returns to the ordinary world, changed and bearing newfound wisdom or abilities.
This pattern’s universality can provide a roadmap for those traversing the complex terrain of grief. These themes are so universal that my colleagues and I co-wrote a book called Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss (Harrington, 2022), illustrating how Marvel and DC characters deal with loss in a way that us human grievers can relate to. In my opinion, we are all superheroes when faced with grief, both strong and vulnerable.
Writing Prompts for The Hero’s Journey through Grief
By exploring Emily’s story, who lost her father unexpectedly after surgery, we can uncover insights and writing prompts that may guide others through their unique paths of grief. While it can be very effective to write in the first person (I, me, my), I find journaling in an alternative point of view can provide enough space to cultivate more self-compassion for the hero, as well as deeper insights into their actions. For the Hero’s Journey, I typically write in the third person (he, she, they). Here I am writing very loosely about myself, using the pseudonym Emily.
- Call to Adventure: Emily’s father dies suddenly post-surgery. She inherits his cameras and photographs, the tangible memories of his passion. She also has to empty out the home he is renting, which not only houses his personal items but his business as well.
Writing Prompt: Write about the moment the hero’s grief journey began. What were the challenges they faced? How did they feel about this event?
- Refusal of the Call: Emily avoids dealing with her father’s belongings, especially his cameras, which she wasn’t allowed to touch when he was alive. She remembers the complexities of their relationship, loving yet marred by his mental illness. She also felt angry that he didn’t take better care of his physical health, and upset that she didn’t do more to encourage wellness activities.
Writing Prompt: Reflect on the hero’s initial resistance or avoidance in facing their grief. What are the complexities that influence their feelings?
- Crossing the Threshold: Emily takes the courageous step of sorting her father’s estate, facing memories and unprocessed emotions.
Writing Prompt: Journal about the first major step the hero took towards confronting their grief. How did it feel?
- Trials, Allies, and Enemies: Emily struggles with loneliness and the physical task of managing her father’s home. She finds support from friends who understand her complex relationship with her father, and help her with the overwhelming task of organizing and distributing his belongings.
Writing Prompt: Identify the hero’s supports and challenges in their grief journey. How have they shaped their experience
- Approach to the Inmost Cave: Emily starts exploring her father’s photography, connecting with his world and her own pain.
Writing Prompt: Explore a connection or activity that deeply resonates with the hero’s loss. What emotions does it stir?
- The Ordeal: Emily’s visits to her father’s grave and the confrontation with his cameras, his mental illness, and their turbulent relationship become her most significant trials.
Writing Prompt: Write about the hero’s most profound challenge in their grief journey.
- Reward (Seizing the Sword): Emily begins to understand her father’s love for photography and sees her growth through her grief.
Writing Prompt: Reflect on any personal growth or insights that have emerged for the hero.
- The Road Back: Emily takes up photography, honoring her father and finding a therapeutic outlet.
Writing Prompt: Journal about how the hero has incorporated something from their loved one into their healing process.
- Resurrection: Emily’s new perspective allows her to engage in activities she loves, transforming her pain into creativity and compassion.
Writing Prompt: Describe how the hero’s perspectives or activities have transformed.
- Return with the Elixir: Emily becomes a peer support for other grievers, using her father’s camera as a tool to help others explore their emotions and find healing. By capturing moments that reflect grief’s multifaceted nature, she turns her personal triumph into a communal experience, offering solace and encouragement to those on a similar path.
Writing Prompt: Reflect on how the hero’s grief journey has changed them and what wisdom they might share with others, including any tools or activities that have become part of their healing process.
The Power of Reviewing Your Story of Love and Loss
Emily’s journey, coupled with the understanding of the Hero’s Journey as a timeless narrative framework, offers a compelling example of how this structure can be applied to the grieving process. Whether you’re navigating the loss of a loved one or seeking to understand the universal patterns of human experience, the Hero’s Journey provides a guiding light. By following Emily’s story and engaging with the provided prompts, readers may find direction, empathy, and a sense of connection to a narrative that echoes across cultures and generations.
By integrating her father’s camera into her new role, Emily’s story vividly illustrates how the grief process can lead not only to personal growth but also to the ability to support and uplift others. Her transformation through the Hero’s Journey serves as an inspiring example of how pain can turn into purpose, and how a personal object or hobby can evolve into a profound means of connecting and healing. Her path demonstrates the potential for creativity and compassion that resides in each of us, waiting to be discovered and nurtured.
Everyone Is The Hero of Their Own Story
Grief is a journey that we all must face at some point in our lives. Through the lens of the Hero’s Journey, we can find a common language and structure that helps us navigate this complex and deeply personal process. By connecting with these universal themes, we can see ourselves not just as mourners but as heroes, capable of strength, resilience, and transformation.
I hope this framework inspires you to revisit your struggles and victories through the eyes of a compassionate narrator, who understands that grief is hard, and you are doing your best.
If you enjoyed this process, consider joining me in Awaken, my online grief support group where I lead weekly classes that include meditation and journaling to help you be your own hero.