Coping with Loss
Orpheus mourns when he loses Eurydice to death. He mourns again when he does not heed the warnings of the Underworld and looks back too soon only to see her recede into the darkness. Mourning the loss of a loved one makes us human and is perfectly understandable. But Orpheus goes beyond that. He takes his loss to extremes.
Just as we saw in one of my previous posts concerning Gilgamesh's inability to accept the death of his beloved Enkidu, Orpheus is unable to cope with the loss of Eurydice. He refuses to accept he is subject to the same trials and tribulations of life as the rest of humanity. He does not acknowledge that although death is a part of life, it is also irreversible. Like Gilgamesh, he thinks the rules do not apply to him, that he should be able to influence who lives and who dies.
At one time or another in our lives, we are subject to accidents, the deaths of loved ones, catastrophes, disappointments, loss, and trauma. These events are woven into the fabric of life. How we cope with these realities determines whether or not we are able to transcend them and move forward. We can either accept what we are powerless to change or we can do as Orpheus does and refuse to accept it, spending the rest of our lives in mourning. The choice is ours to make.
In a previous post, we saw how Persephone swallows the pomegranate seeds to guarantee her return to the Underword. This symbolizes her acceptance, assimilation, and ownership of the trauma she experienced. She uses her experience to propel herself into becoming a stronger, wiser, empowered, and articulate being.
Persephone demonstrates that the way to transcend a traumatic or catastrophic event is to understand there is nothing we can do to reverse it, that we must accept it, re-frame it, use it to strengthen ourselves, and move forward.
Orpheus rejects the whole concept of moving forward. Instead, he looks back, violating the condition for the release of Eurydice. And even after he has lost her for a second time, he does not move forward but spends the rest of his days in mourning. He rejects future relationships, symbolizing his rejection of community, an essential ingredient for leading a healthy life. In effect, his life comes to a screeching halt. He alienates those around him and suffers a violent death as a consequence.
The act of looking back does not necessarily condemn us to unhappy lives. Looking back at our past experiences can be a beneficial process of if we use the occasion to gain insight about our behavior and ourselves. But we cannot spend the rest of our lives looking back, mired in the past, mourning our loss, or regretting what might have been unless we want to spend the rest of our days feeling miserable and wallowing in self-pity. Persephone shows us how to move forward; Orpheus shows us what happens if we don't. Which of these two paths we choose to take is up to us.
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice provides us with rich thematic mateial. Some of these themes surface in a variety of literary works, as we shall see in my next post.