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How Jung turned grief into a philosophy of life


Almost a quarter of a century ago, friends of mine whom I love and respect lost a child to an incurable disease. Grief and deep pain followed as they struggled to make sense of their personal tragedy. I was prompted to remember Steph the other day — her infectious laugh, her sartorial excellence, and the care and flair with which she painted visitors’ fingernails and toenails (my digits have never looked better than under Steph’s ministrations). She was a beautiful, lively and gifted child. If my wife and I watch our wedding DVD for old time’s sake, Steph shines out at us from the pews.

Her parents survived the torment of loss that would have driven many people apart. One source of comfort and inspiration for them at that time was the writings of a man largely forgotten by our times: Swiss psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, mystic and seeker after truth, Carl Jung. By association, seeing the impact on my friends, I also turned to some of Jung’s writings.

Firstly I noticed there was an acknowledgement of the presence and inevitability of our pain, and more significantly our friends’ pain. Bereavement, Jung wrote, is ‘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.’ A mystic’s mystic, Jung cited the alchemists of old in the belief that ‘no new life can arise… 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 to waken to new life.’

He affirmed that it is healthy to the human psyche to embrace ‘the idea of life after death… the ancient athanasias pharmakon, the medicine of immortality, is more profound and meaningful than we supposed’. This scholarly granting of permission to grieve, and encouragement to hope in things yet unseen, gave me a much-needed nudge back towards faith. There was — for me at any rate — solace in tying thought to emotion.

Born 149 years ago and dead now for 63 years, Jung helped generations explore spirituality and lived faith, both within and ‘without’ the various Christian denominations and world religions. He had a complex relationship with religious institutions, as evidenced by his belief that ‘one of the main functions of organised religion is to protect people against a direct experience of God’. He was, understandably, viewed with suspicion by clergy and theologians.

Regarding his own pursuit of God, Jung had a bet on several horses. The son of a pastor and nephew of eight other ministers of religion, he viewed himself as a Protestant, appreciating aspects of the interior life found in Protestant writings. Yet he also saw himself as a Catholic, because of the Church’s rich symbolism and history of venerated mystics, with whom he identified. When interviewed later in life and asked if he was a ‘believer’, Jung responded, ‘I don't believe. I know.’

Jung dealt with religion and religious symbolism throughout his career of therapy and exploration into the human soul.


'The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do to the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ.'


Ex-Dominican priest and Jungian analyst John Gianni writes that Jung was fully ‘aware of the church's strengths and weaknesses. This awareness led him neither to embrace nor reject the church or Christianity. Rather, as a psychiatrist, it led him to treat it… Jung conducted a lengthy seminar on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, wrote a major work on Transformation Symbolism in the Mass and penned a profoundly personal book on Job.’ I believe Jung’s personal quest for the numinous, for God, shaped his approach to psychology, to dreams, to mysteries and beliefs.

He believed that when a person’s spiritual development was blocked, ‘mental health issues such as depression, compulsion, addiction, anxiety and destructive relationship patterns ensue. Healing requires an exploration into what the individual’s growth needs to entail, such as an increased capacity for authority, humility, independence, relationship, meaning, or practicality.’

Jung’s analytical psychology aimed to make a person’s unconscious state an ally in their treatment or redemption, tapping into ‘a source of wisdom and guidance, in the process of human psychological development’. He did not view our dark, deep unknowns as merely ‘a storehouse for repressed memories’; by helping people align conscious and unconscious aspects of their personality, he helped them look to a future beyond their pain.

And he believed he did not do it by himself, in isolation. ‘God is a psychic fact of immediate experience, otherwise there would never have been any talk of God,’ he wrote in 1962. ‘The fact is valid in itself, requiring no non-psychological proof and inaccessible to any form of non-psychological criticism. It can be the most immediate and hence the most real of experiences, which can be neither ridiculed nor disproved.’


‘[When] one is all alone in one’s psyche, [it’s] exactly like the Creator before the creation. But through a certain training, something suddenly happens which one has not created, something objective, and then one is no longer alone. That is the object of certain initiations, to train people to experience something which is not their intention, something strange, something objective with which they cannot identify.’


We owe Jung for several gifts to contemporary thought and practice; his work laid the foundations for an understanding of introversion/extroversion and personality types. He championed self-realisation, elaborated on the theory of complexes that arrest personal development.

And he saw beyond people’s misery embedded in the past or present: ‘It is the present and the future, which in his view was the key to both the analysis of neurosis and its treatment.’

In The Guardian, Mark Vernon noted that Jung’s contribution to the understanding of postmodern life lies in recognising and pursuing that which we have lost: ‘The powerful, fearful experience of the numinous that speaks of the mystery of life has been traded in for a variety of substitutes that no longer speak to the depths of our humanity or serve our spiritual yearning,’ he wrote.

Jesus Christ’s mission statement of bringing ‘life in all its fullness’ appealed to Jung. Having seen the carnage of world wars, the fall out of mass unemployment and hyper-inflation, genocide, eugenics and social Darwinism, etc., how could it not? In Vernon’s words, ‘the scientific has eclipsed the theological, the material the valuable, the emotive the spiritual’.

‘A secret life holds sway in the unconscious,’ Jung believed. ‘Man is the microcosm of the macrocosm; the God on earth is built on the pattern of the god in nature. Called or not, God is always there.’

We would do well to again heed Jung’s beliefs and call in these times: ‘The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do to the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ.’

While numbered among the goats by sectarians and anti-intellectuals, Jung knew himself to be one of the lambs.





Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Carl Jung. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Carl Jung, Grief, Religion, Mysticism, Catholic



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Existing comments

Bravo Barry! Jung did much to help the modern mind to restore itself to wholeness. Some of his contemporaries and collaborators, such as the mythologist Joseph Campbell and the late Jungian analyst Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig did not totally follow him but sought their own path to individuation. I think he would have approved. The great Catholic mystics, such as St John of the Cross, were often misunderstood and mistreated.
Hopefully we have learnt from that, but I am not sure. Few follow what Joseph Campbell called 'the Call' to something deeper than the surface in life and thus miss its whole point, which is tragic for them, as they then often lack deep resilience to cope with events like the loss of a loved one. In contemporary sport mad Australia Jung would probably be largely ignored. A pity.

Edward Fido | 23 May 2024  

The final sentence in this article merits a deep thoughtfulness. When a person is ‘numbered among the goats’ by another person(s) there is an attempt to play God. Yet, if we consider ourselves to be ‘one of the lambs’ are we living according to our own opinion: this is divine, that is human (thanks Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Jung and Bonhoeffer lived during a tumultuous time in their nation.

Pam | 24 May 2024  
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Jung was Swiss, Bonhoeffer German Pam

Edward Fido | 30 May 2024  

A great, insightful article. I belong to a number of Facebook groups ...where mothers have lost adult children from Fentanyl Poisoning...we mothers are surly dealing with "complicated grief". I found my 34 yo son dead in his bed the morning of 11/10/2017...seven years & grief comes in waves, sometimes it's a tsunami... it's not only complicated, it's part of my life that will reoccur till I take my last breath...

Regina Kassery | 25 May 2024  

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