Experiencing the Mortificatio: Jung on Grief, Grieving and Mourning

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.



Experiencing the Mortificatio:

Jung on Grief, Grieving and Mourning


No new life can arise, say the alchemists, without the death of the old. They liken the art to the work of the sower, who buries the grain in the earth: it dies only to waken to new life. 

                                                                                                Jung (1946)[1]


… When a person dies, the feelings and emotions that bound his relatives to him lose their application to reality and sink into the unconscious, where they active a collective content that has a deleterious effect on consciousness…. a persistent attachment to the dead makes life seem less worth living, and may even be the cause of psychic illnesses. The harmful effect shows itself in the form of loss of libido, depression, and physical debility….

                                                                                                Jung (1920)[2]


… thinking which is a mere equation,… is the working of the intellect. But besides that there is a thinking in primordial images, in symbols which are… inborn in him from the earliest times, and, eternally living, outlasting all generations, still make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them. … One of these primordial thoughts is the idea of life after death. … The ancient athanasias pharmakon, the medicine of immortality, is more profound and meaningful than we supposed.

                                                                                                Jung (1930)[3]


Mortificatiois experienced as defeat and failure. Needless to say, one rarely chooses such an experience. It is usually imposed by life, either from within or from without….           

                                                                                                Edinger (1985)[4]


Mourning is caused by the loss of an object or person who was carrying an important projected value. In order to withdraw projections and assimilate their content into one’s own personality it is necessary to experience the loss of the projection as a prelude to rediscovering the content or value within. Therefore, mourners are fortunate because they are involved in a growth process. They will be comforted when the lost projected value has been recovered within the psyche.  

                                                                                                Edinger (1992)[5]


            The origins of this essay go back to an email I received several months ago that came with an attachment: multiple people wrote of their experience of death—the loss of family, friends and acquaintances. This email also came with a request: that I share my thoughts on this topic. What follows is an amalgam of my own thoughts, my personal experience of losing friends, family members and a fiancé, along with the ideas and experiences of Jung, his best American interpreter, Edward Edinger, and Joan Didion, an eloquent author and observer of grieving. We’ll begin with a discussion of the meanings and etymologies of the words in the title, then discuss the key archetype related to death and dying, the mortificatio, followed by experiences of this archetype, in my own life and in Jung’s life. The essay concludes with a discussion of what may seem odd, perhaps even obscene: the benefits that can accrue through our experience of grief and mourning.


Meanings and Etymologies


            “Grief” and its verb “grieve” come from the Latin gravis, “heavy, weighty” and its verbal form, gravare, “to burden or cause to grieve.”[6] When we grieve we are burdened, weighed down with sorrow and a sense of loss. “Mourn” has its origins in the Old English murnan, “to mourn, to be anxious.”[7] When we mourn we feel anxiety in the sense of angst,[8] anguish, the foreclosure of possibilities, the loss of the future we assumed we had with friend or family member.            

            Some psychologists claim that grief is not the same as mourning: Grief is passive, while mourning is active.[9] We grieve, feeling burdened inwardly. We mourn, manifesting a wide range of reactions in outer life, e.g. waves of forgetfulness, sadness, loneliness, regret, “magical thinking” (that we might turn back the clock or the calendar) and inconsolability, along with emotional lability, surprising responses to life situations, the upsurge of old memories we thought we had let go of long ago, even concern that we might be losing our minds.[10]

             All of these inward feelings and outer forms of mourning are aspects of a key archetype we all experience repeatedly in life—what the medieval alchemists called the mortificatio.[11]What’s meant by “archetype” and “mortificatio”? As the concept of “archetype” and the specific archetype related to grief and mourning are central to our topic, we must discuss them in some depth.


The Key Archetypes


            In the third quote opening this essay Jung speaks of “primordial images” and “primordial thoughts.” These were his early terms for what he later in his writings called “archetypes.”[12] Jung came to recognize, from decades of immersion in the mythologies, legends and fairy tales of cultures all over the world, that humanity has innate patterns of perceiving and acting that are comparable, on the psychic plane, to what our instincts are on the physical plane. Just as we naturally will withdraw a finger that hits a hot stove, so we will respond to certain situations in life with innate responses that we don’t have to think about or try to figure out.

            Anthony Stevens, a Jungian analyst, provides a succinct statement defining archetypes:

“innate neuropsychic centers possessing the capacity to initiate, control and mediate the common behavioral characteristics and typical experiences of all human beings, irrespective of race, culture or creed.”[13]

We can better understand what archetypes are by considering some of the words in Stevens’ definition. “Innate” means that every human being enters life with these “imprints” or “templates” in both brain and psyche. This adjective calls to mind Noam Chomsky’s idea of “deep structures”[14] that make possible our learning language. Just as everyone has the potential to learn to speak a language, every person can access these “centers” regardless of when, where or how he or she lives. Archetypes, in other words, transcend cultures, racial differences and creedal dogmas.

            By the phrase “possessing the capacity to initiate, control and mediate the common behavioral characteristics …. of all human beings,” Stevens is noting another feature of archetypes that is central to our discussion: Archetypes have intentionality. Every archetype wants to give rise to some outer-life expression, either as a behavior, an attitude, a response to a situation etc. Some examples will flesh out this idea:

  • the “mother” archetype has, as its intent, to nurture and protect young, vulnerable life
  • the “father” archetype has, as its intent, to mediate the outer world for the child, so as to build the child’s self-confidence and hone his/her capacity to function in life
  • the  puer/child archetype’s intent is to play, to enjoy carefree myriad opportunities to explore and learn about the world by fulfilling his/her curiosity
  • the senex/old person archetype is all about responsibility, sober attention to life’s duties, mentoring the young and passing on the heritage of the culture to later generations

Just as there are archetypes carried by persons—mother, father, child, adult, artist, boss, servant etc.—so there are archetypes that relate to change.

            Since our culture has been dismissive of alchemy—regarding it as little more than the medieval precursor of chemistry—we have ignored the alchemists’ understanding that living is change and change has patterns.[15] For example, there are times when things that had structured our lives (e.g. relationships, jobs, daily routines) dissolve (the solutio);[16] there are times when we are forced to make choices, to carry out into physical reality some idea or vision (the coagulatio);[17] there are times when we must discern, discriminate, or differentiate this from that (the separatio).[18] All of these are archetypes of change, and there are a lot more of them.[19]

            For our purposes in this essay, two archetypes are key: the putrefactio and the mortificatio. Putrefactio conflates two Latin words: puter and facere, lit. “to make something rotten or putrid.”[20] When we are experiencing the archetype of the putrefactio we often have dreams of overflowing toilets, or toilets out of order, walking through piles of feces or rotten messes[21]—not pleasant images. Something in life has rotted, lost its energy, needs to be thrown out. The most vivid example in domestic life is the necessary periodic cleaning-out of the refrigerator, but putrefactio situations occur in less tangible forms also, in life situations that require us to take action to clean out old attitudes, beliefs that are sapping our energy, or relationships that have lost their vitality.

            Closely connected to putrefactio situations is the mortificatio. The Latin means literally “to make (facere) a death (mors, mortis).”[22] Rarely do we “make” death: It befalls us. Nature does it, taking away friends, family, and, eventually, our own lives.[23] The mortificatio is the most negative of the alchemical “operations,” and the most painful to experience. Jung and his followers, however, recognize that the mortificatio is also an essential part of the opus, or work of life, the phase that is prior to rebirth, a time of life that is full of torment, to be sure, but at the same time contains a “secret happiness”[24] lying in the unconscious.

            In seeing happiness in the midst of grief Jung recognized the compensatory nature of the unconscious:[25] If we are bitterly unhappy in outer life, there is an equally intense counter feeling of joy in our unconscious. Jung spoke of times of mourning as times when we can become aware of the benedicta viriditas, the “blessed greenness” of life,[26] when we can sense the vital force living in Nature, even as we are pulled toward death in our bereavement.

            As an archetype the mortificatio has intent: It seeks to give rise to certain actions or activities. Some of these actions include :

  • to be still and wait, without hope and without thought

Waiting here means relinquishing the ego’s desire to making healing happen, to make things better, to feel good now, when the reality of a time of grief is that it has its own form and timetable. Thoughts and hopes, i.e. ego desires, are untimely, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, because, as enmeshed as we are in the energy of the mortificatio, we would hope for the wrong things.[27]

  • to “mortify” our conscious ego attitude and power instinct so as to allow a new center of our personality to emerge[28]

This emergence comes in kairos time, i.e. according to the timetable of the soul, not of the ego mind (which tends to be very impatient).[29] The process is “mortifying” because the ego wants to feel in control, and during a mortificatio phase, the ego is definitely not in control and it feels impotent as a result.

  • to get us to “behold ourselves” and recognize the ephemeral nature of the material world (and this means us, too, in our somatic form)[30]

Times of grieving provide opportunities for us to gain some objectivity about who we are, what really matters in life, and just how transitory life is.

  • to become more conscious of our mortality, of our values, and of true values[31]

Jung recognized that Western culture has become very confused in its collective values, and times of loss can help us face the reality of death, that we too shall die, and in this realization, we can reclaim what really matters in life (which is nothing material).

  • to get us to experience our existential aloneness, so as to discover our “inner partner” and make its acquaintance[32]

Only when we allow ourselves solitude are we able to move into our “inner city”[33] and get to know its inhabitants. One of the key such inhabitants is our “inner partner,” that contrasexual energy that never dies or leaves us, but opens us up to new horizons of living and growing.

  • to sacrifice our old orientation to life

The old alchemical texts were full of references to the “death of the king,” symbolizing the killing of the ruling principle or habitual orientation to life that years of living had developed in us.[34] This is usually completely unconscious, but the experience of loss, especially loss of a spouse or close family member, can help reorient us and, by so doing, offers us a new lease on life.

  • to take back projections we had (quite unconsciously) put on the departed friend or family member

The quote by Edward Edinger on “mourning,” in the quotes at the beginning of this essay, discusses this process.[35] When a close friend or family member (especially a spouse) dies, we are bereft in part because we lose not only a loved one but the “hook” on which we were able to hang our projections. The classic example is the traditional marriage where the wife projected her competency with budgets, checkbooks, and bill-paying on to the husband, while he projected his emotional life, feelings and social skills on to the wife. This is what Jung meant when he spoke of wives “containing” their husbands, and it is the reason why most widows cope better with bereavement than widowers.[36]

  • to experience disorientation, so as to “constellate” life in its depths[37]

Rare is the person who relishes feeling disoriented, but the death of someone important can leave us feeling bereft not only of the person but of the compass by which we found our way. Now lacking the old “compass” we must look elsewhere for direction, and in a rearrangement of the “stars” we can find the new path we are to take.

  • to foster a shift in us from what Augustine called “evening knowledge” (knowledge about the material world) to “morning knowledge” (knowledge about the world of spirit that can awaken us to a new day, new life)[38]

The mystery that adheres in death presents us with the opportunity to open to things of the spirit. This is not an opportunity that every grieving person takes up, but it is present for those who have sensitivity to things spiritual.

  • to help us realize just how shallow our sanity is

This is an insight Joan Didion came to in the months after the sudden death of her husband.[39] “Sanity” is how our society thinks of ego consciousness: being composed, rational, “of sound mind,” mentally healthy. Jung’s concept of the human being’s psychic structure has ego consciousness as a very thin veneer atop the personal and collective unconscious,[40] and when hit with a major destabilizing event, like the death of a “significant other,” this veneer can peel off very easily.

  • to foster a unio mentalis, a “union of mind and soul” that gets us out of our head and into contact with our soul[41]

The alchemists were constantly striving for union, and Jung recognized that a major block to the mind-soul union was our Western tendency to live in our heads, i.e. to be rational, logical, practical, grounded, at the cost of our feelings, passions, imagination, and compassion—all qualities of soul. By calling into question long-held values and habits of living and responding to life’s challenges, grief can help us contact and live from deeper levels of our being.


Some Personal Experiences: Jung’s and My Own


            Jung lived a long life, dying in 1961 just a few weeks shy of his 86th birthday.[42] Aside from experiencing the deaths of his father (in 1896)[43] and his mother (in 1923)[44] he buried his sister Trudy (in 1935),[45] his muse/mistress Tony Wolff (in 1953)[46] and his wife, Emma, in 1955.[47] He was so bereft at Tony’s death that he could not attend her funeral. Emma’s death was a more severe loss, as he had projected his financial security, as well as his psychosomatic well-being on to her. When he wrote on how wives “contain” their husbands emotionally, he was writing about his own experience of marriage, in the context of the relationship he had with Emma. His words about having to take back projections after the death of someone came from his own experience. Jung understood that death can also offer liberation: he had experienced this in his father’s death,[48] which allowed Jung to take over as the head of the family, and to take up the challenge of providing financially for himself, his mother and his sister.

            Like Jung I have buried my parents, and, also like Jung, the death of my father served to open my life to greater opportunities than I would have had if he had lived. In quite a different way, my mother’s death was also a liberation. She had Alzheimer’s disease, and there are very good reasons why they say, in the Alzheimer’s community, that there are two victims of that disease: the person who has it and the person who is the primary caregiver. By the time my mother died, after 11 years of caring for her, watching her disappear into dementia, coming to the point where she did not recognize me, my sister, not even herself (!), it was nothing less than a liberation for both my mother and me when she died.

            How very different was the loss of my fiancé! When he appeared in my life (as if by magic!) I had been working on my negative father complex for 10 years, each year reclaiming the promise in my analyst’s words “as within, so without:” By working on myself, to develop a positive relationship with my inner partner, eventually “Mr. Right” would appear. He did, but we had only 3 years together—enough time to dream dreams together of a future life, to make plans, to look ahead to wonderful times. He died of a stroke, and I fell into a hole of grief that even now, 17 years later, is still with me. All the phenomena of grieving are familiar—the waves of exhaustion, the sighing, the feelings of emptiness and hopelessness, the shortness of breath, the seductive pull toward the “other side,” to join him in his reality, the “magical thinking” of turning back the clock and the calendar, to what might have been if only I had… (fill in the blank). I would see an article of his clothing and succumb to paroxysms of sobbing. I was buffeted by memories that would come up in places we loved to visit, activities we enjoyed doing. For months I was inconsolable, kept alive more by my dream world (where he would visit me, come to me, touch me) than in any outer reality.

            I was fortunate in going through my intense interval of mourning to have the help and guidance of my analyst, and I took to heart the warning Jung wrote about, quoted in the second of the quotes opening this essay. Much as I thought about, dreamed about and focused on Hubie, I realize that I could not maintain a “persistent attachment”[49] to him, lest I succumb to a “psychic illness.” I had to take back what I had projected on to him, and find the meaning in this horrendous experience.

            Given my commitment to becoming conscious, I recognized that every experience in life can be grist for the mill of personal growth. Even in the depths of my depressed state I wondered just what I was to learn from my tragic loss. Over the years since losing Hubie I’ve discovered multiple ways I was graced with this loss. Which brings me to the last section of this essay.


Benefits of the Mortificatio


finding greater inner strength[50]

            Tempering made me stronger. A searing loss of someone dear is a tempering process which can reveal to us inner strengths and resiliencies we didn’t know we had. I discovered that I could cope, I could create the dream we had planned in moving to Vermont, I could grow and continue on the spiritual path we both shared.

developing a relationship with the inner partner[51]

            I had the opportunity to get to know and rely more on my inner partner. Where Hubie had carried this energy for me in life, after his death I had to take it back and work with it in myself. This helped me become more androgynous, more well-rounded, more whole.

savoring more consciously the vital energy in living things[52]

            I became much more attuned to the vital energy in Nature—what the alchemists called benedicta viriditas, the “greenness” or vegetative force that lives in all forms of life. Seeking solace out in Nature in the months after Hubie’s death, I found the green leaves seemed greener, the sky bluer, the flowers sweeter, as my being returned to living rather than grieving.

waking up to new possibilities and new horizons[53]

            I awoke to new life—the resurrection or rebirth that is promised in the New Testament. This was nothing intentional: I didn’t try to make this happen, but discovered at one point, a year or so along in my mourning, that new opportunities were coming my way, new activities were claiming my time, and slowly I healed, as a new center developed within me.

becoming more aware of the reality and support of a Higher Power[54]

            Meister Eckhart speaks of suffering bringing us into the presence of God, that the Divine is always close to those who grieve. I found this to be true in my own experience, not in a religious way, but more in the stillness of meditation and the consolations provided by numerous synchronicities that made me understand the benign nature of the Divine.

gaining maturity and developing character[55]

            Looking back with the perspective of nearly two decades, I can say that the loss of my beloved made me more mature. By testing my stamina and trying my faith, this experience strengthened my trust and developed my character. The old saw that “suffering builds character” has been true in my life.

becoming more compassionate[56]

            I came to understand and develop in myself a bit of the bodhichitta, what Buddhists call the compassionate heart. Having suffered, having known what it means to love and lose, I could empathize with others’ grief.

on the collective level

            Besides the benefits I found on the individual level, the process of grieving has benefits on the collective level. Loss—be it an important person or one’s stock portfolio—can serve to reorient us away from material “stuff” toward more lasting and imperishable values. As a society we had a great opportunity in this regard right after 9/11, when so many lives were lost and our country experienced collective grieving. As leaders like the Dalai Lama reminded us, we could have used that time to rethink some of our collective assumptions. But, alas, our political leaders fell back into the old materialism, urging us to get out and buy, get on airplanes and fly, and resume living as we had.[57] What a waste of a crisis!

            The tragedy of 9/11 also offered us the chance to reclaim from our history a proper appreciation of the role of mourning on the collective level. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries mourning was recognized as a part of life, as was death. Now death is regarded as an obscenity, grieving is seen as maudlin, and mourning is glossed over, played down or treated as an embarrassment by others. Joan Didion recognized this change when she set out to research background for her account of her grieving process in The Year of Magical Thinking. Didiion noted that the 1922 guide to manners written by Emily Post acknowledged grief as part of life, in a cultural milieu that recognized and allowed for mourning. We need to return to this wisdom.[58]




            A Jungian approach to the archetype of the mortificatio can provide insights, context and a wider understanding of the role and value of grief, grieving and mourning. This can be helpful as we experience the loss of loved ones, and also for our culture, as we recognize the emptiness of materialism and work to reorient our society to what really matters in life.




Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Didion, Joan (2005), “After Life,” The New York Times Magazine (September 25, 2005).

Edinger, Edward (1985), Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. Chicago: Open Court.

________ (1992), Ego and Archetype. Boston: Shambhala.

Eliot, T.S. (1971), Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt.

Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid, Franz-Karl Ehrhard, Michael Diener (1991), The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston: Shambhala.

Jung, C.G. (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pinsky, Robert (2005), “Goodbye To All That,” The New York Times Book Review (October 9, 2005).

Robertson, Robin (1992), Beginner’s Guide to Jungian Psychology. York Beach ME: Nicolas-Hays Inc.

Stevens, Anthony (2003), Archetype Revisited. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Thomas à Kempis (1957), Of the Imitation of Christ, trans. Abbot Justin McCann. New York: New American Library.


[1] Collected Works 16, ¶467. Hereafter all references to Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 8, ¶598.

[3] Ibid., ¶794.

[4] Edinger (1985), 172.

[5] Edinger (1992), 136.

[6] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 873.

[7] Ibid., II, 1267.

[8] The German angst and our English word “anxiety” both derive from Latin angustus, “narrow” or “confining.” To the Roman mind feelings of anxiety were due to being or living in a life too small for one’s soul.

[9] Pinsky (2005), 11.

[10] Didion (2005), 41,45,100,146.

[11] For in-depth discussions of this archetype, cf. CW 12, 13,14 and 16; and Edinger (1985), 147-180.

[12] CW 6,747.

[13] Stevens (2003), 50.

[14]Ibid., 48-49.

[15] In this the alchemists were drawing on ancient authors like Heraclitus. The patterns of change can be clearly recognized and timed via the ancient symbols system of astrology.

[16] The solutio is timed by transits of Neptune.

[17] The coagulatio is timed by transits of Saturn.

[18] The separatio is timed by separating conjunctions and oppositions to key natal planets.

[19] E.g. the coniunctio, the sublimatio, the transitio, the calcinatio, etc. Edinger (1985) provides both descriptions and discussions of the psychological applications of many archetypes of change and their use in Jungian analysis.

[20] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1580.

[21] Edinger (1985), 95, 147-148, 152, 157, 158, 160.

[22] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1262.

[23] Edinger (1985), 172.

[24] CW 14, ¶623.

[25] Edinger (1985), 149; cf. CW 14, ¶s1-4.

[26] CW 14, ¶623.

[27] Eliot (1971), 28-29.

[28] Edinger (1985), 151. It is important to note that, while the Latin word mortificatio gives us our English word “mortify,” the meaning evolved over time to mean more “to shame” or “humiliate,” rather than to kill.

[29] CW 10, ¶585.

[30] Thomas à Kempis (1957), Book 1, ch. 12.

[31] Edinger (1985), 168.

[32] CW 14, ¶623.

[33] Jung felt every person contains within an “inner world.” (CW 7, ¶s 317, 325-327). Jungian analyst Daryl Sharp adopted this idea when he established a publishing house devoted to the work of Jungian analysts: Inner City Books.

[34] CW 13, ¶106, note 66; cf. CW 14, ¶s 349-543; and CW 12, ¶491-493.

[35] Edinger (1992), 136.

[36] Cf. CW 17, ¶s 331c-334; CW 10, ¶s 253 & 255.

[37] Edinger (1985), 149.

[38] Ibid., 180.

[39] Didion (2005), 41.

[40] Jung’s concept of psychic structure is often depicted as a triangle, with the small apex at the top representing ego consciousness; for an illustration, see Robertson (1992), 38.

[41] Edinger (1985), 166.

[42] Bair (2003), 623. He died on June 6th.

[43] Ibid., 38.

[44] Ibid., 323.

[45] Ibid., 409.

[46] Ibid., 557-558.

[47] Ibid, 564.

[48] Ibid., 38-39.

[49] CW 8, ¶598.

[50] Edinger (1985), 44.

[51] CW 14, ¶623.

[52] Ibid.

[53] CW 16, ¶467.

[54] Quoted in Edinger (1985), 178, referring to Jer. 31:13.

[55] Edinger (1985), 178.

[56] Fischer-Schreiber et al. (1991), 23.

[57] In a speech a few days after 9/11 President Bush urged Americans to buy and fly.

[58] Pinsky (2005), 11.

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