What Are The 5 Gates Of Grief?
“Embrace your grief, for there your soul will grow.” – Carl Jung
Over the past five years, I’ve become a student of grief, stuck in a classroom I never wanted to be in. It began with the sudden passing of my best friend in 2019. Then my brother, two years later, in 2021. These losses initiated me into grief greater than anything I’d ever known.
I’ve written, read, and spent much time in devotion to sorrow. All as a means to not only move through the heartache but to also learn from it. I used to think grief only arose from experiencing death. Before experiencing loss myself, I even avoided the word “grief” because I didn’t want to think about the pain of losing someone close. But ironically, I now see grief everywhere. It touches all aspects of our lives. Grief, which is by definition deep sorrow, is felt by the soul in many forms — with or without death.
After realizing the magnitude of grief in the human experience, I now feel inspired to share what I’ve learned with those I meet. Let me take you through my journey to discovering the five gates of grief.
The 5 (or 6) stages of grief
At the beginning of my grief journey, it was the five stages of grief that gave words to my feelings, markers on an unknown path. The thinkers behind these stages, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, became my mentors.
You are likely familiar with the Kübler-Ross grief theory, which offers a framework of how we process loss in five stages: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages examine the shattering domino effect of the soul after tremendous loss. Yet, what they don’t entirely touch on is how to pick the pieces back up and put them back together. How, through this process, loss inevitably makes us new.
Kessler’s independent work picks up at this point. He adds a sixth stage, addressing how we move forward with meaning in light of loss — but his work largely speaks to how we each personally make meaning of our unique experience after grief. I began searching for a work that could speak to our universal and collective experiences of grief.
Discovering the 5 gates of grief
Recently, I had the opportunity to host my first grief retreat. It was centered on the communal observation of our emotions in a safe, held container. While planning for the day, I came across the book “The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and The Sacred Work of Grief” by Francis Weller. In it, he introduces the five gates of grief: “Each of these hallways leads to the communal hall of grief, and each helps us to understand the many ways that loss touches our hearts and souls in this life.”
Here, finally, was the work I had been looking for. This book is now one of my biggest grief companions. My world of grief has expanded widely since reading his exploration of the many layers held under grief. Each gate represents one aspect of the multifaceted experience of grief. Weller’s work gives us a glimpse of the many ways grief shows up in our lives, and provides us with the tools to begin working through these different experiences of grief. Below is a glimpse into the gates and how they’ve furthered my acknowledgment of the sacred work of grief.
The first gate: Everything we love, we will lose
“To love is to accept the rites of grief.”
Yes, this one is hard to hear, I know. But consider this concept from a broad perspective: Within nature, everything changes and nothing stays the same. In Buddhist teachings, this is the concept of impermanence. Therein lies what Weller is inviting us to digest with this first gate. In the moment we reach out to make connections with the world, we always risk experiencing grief.
“If we allow it, we can find a sense of peace in considering this concept of inevitable loss.”
As a yoga instructor, I’ve studied impermanence but not often associated with grief. Weller’s first gate created a foundation for my acceptance of grief, though I’ll forever be making sense of it within my own life. He writes, “Here in this more ripened place, we can see how much more we can hold, tasting both the sweet and the bitter, the beautiful and the painful, all in the same moment.” To his point, if we allow it, we can find a sense of peace in considering this concept of inevitable loss. Knowing both the good and the bad will end.
The first gate also brings to light how illness creates grief. The loss that comes with illness is one of longing for the life we thought we’d have. I also consider mental illness here. Battles with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can create a sense of grief when they prevent us from experiencing life to its fullest.
The second gate: The places that have not known love
“There is another entrance to grief, a second gateway, different from the gate connected to losing someone or something that we love. These are the places within us that have been wrapped in shame and banished to the farthest shores of our lives.”
Arriving at the second gate, we feel stripped. This gate brings forward the parts of us that we hide away. The parts that we (or someone else) deemed unworthy of love. He writes “For some, these outcast pieces are connected to their sexuality and bodies; for others, it is their anger or sadness — or their joy and exuberance — that has been banished.” Here, Weller unravels shame and the grief that comes with this tender emotion.
“This gate brings forward the parts of us that we hide away.”
He examines how it’s often in childhood that shame first breaks off pieces of our pure soul. Hindering our ability to shine our full selves into this world. The second gate ushers us to look deep into these hidden parts of who we are and work to bring them to light. To give them a voice, to give them grace, and honor our full selves with love.
Regret is another layer of this gate. The regrets we may carry from an unlived life, friendships that withered, or the dreams that were turned away. For me, this gate is a reminder to return to my inner child when emotions that don’t feel like mine arrive. Inner child work can be a powerful tool for healing shame and trauma. I’ve found it to be especially powerful since becoming a parent myself, taking time to heal the child within me as I maneuver parenting my own child.
The third gate: The sorrows of the world
“The third gate of grief opens when we register the losses of the world around us. Much of the grief we carry is not personal, but shared, communal.”
This gate might be one of the most profound, allowing us to witness the honest truth of how we share sorrow. We share it when we see innocent lives being lost to war. We share it amid consumption and consumerism. We share it when witnessing natural disasters and the mistreatment of our precious earth. Weller invites us to step through a threshold of witnessing the grief we carry outside of ourselves. Into the grief we all hold, as connected beings.
“The invitation of the third gate is to remember we aren’t alone.”
Weller writes, “What if it is the grief of the forest registering in our bodies and psyches — the sorrow of the redwoods, voles, sorrel, ferns, owls, and deer, all those who lost their homes and lives as a result of this plunder of living beings? What if we are not separate from the world at all?” We experienced a collective shock during 9/11. We witnessed collective grief during 2020 and the beginning of COVID lockdowns. We’re experiencing it now, watching horrors unfolding in Gaza. The heaviness we wake from after learning about another attack on people or the earth can leave us in an emotionally closed-off state.
The invitation of the third gate is to remember we aren’t alone. The more we honor each other’s experiences the more we can heal deep from within. The third gate is a reminder of how intrinsically connected we are; to treat our neighbors with love; to tend to the earth and to do all that we can to preserve it. Above all, to remember we are interwoven.
The fourth gate: What we expected and did not receive
“There is another gate to grief, one difficult to identify, yet it is very present in each of our lives. This threshold into sorrow calls forward the things that we may not even realize we have lost.”
Stepping through the fourth gate our attention is brought to look at what might be lacking within our families, communities, and ultimately within ourselves. Weller observes how our society was once built on the foundation of the village. The people in our communities would help shape the closeness we are meant to feel and lead to wholeness.
“Stepping through the fourth gate our attention is brought to look at what might be lacking within our families, communities, and ultimately within ourselves.”
Yet, as our world becomes more secular in our beliefs, we’re becoming more isolated. Sharing less of the true rawness of life with one another. Weller writes that “at the core of this grief is a longing to belong.” As humans, we need to feel loved, heard, seen, and felt in our everyday existence. Without that, we may begin to feel a sense of emptiness that leads to a deep subconscious sense of grief.
This arises when we think about how to find community. The importance of creating a stable foundation of like-minded people to surround ourselves with acts as an anchor. After the birth of my baby girl, I felt this for months postpartum. Many of my close friends with children did not live near me and I hadn’t yet established a close group of mom friends who understood what I was going through. There was a tremendous amount of grief from wanting that “village” that everyone talks about with children, and not having it in the way I had imagined.
The fifth gate: Ancestral grief
“This is the grief we carry in our bodies from sorrows experienced by our ancestors.”
Researchers have studied the effects stress has on our genes and the ability this has to pass between parents and children. I read one fascinating article where a team of scientists explains this “intergenerational transmission of trauma.” Through controlled studies, they were able to conclude how the body manages stress, how it can change our hormonal makeup, and how these changes pass to our children.
“The fifth gate invites us to recognize the trials faced by our ancestral line.”
“Trauma always carries grief, though not every grief carries trauma,” Weller states. The fifth gate invites us to recognize the trials faced by our ancestral line. To study the past trials of those who came before us and how these trials shaped us. This can be the settlers from your family tree that first came to America or our great-grandmother’s stories of the land taken from her.
Honoring their stories can act as a compass for healing. Weller writes, “Healing this loss of our ancestors often requires that we reconnect with our forgotten lineage.” In doing so we restore our foundations and ability to move through life in our present.
Since my daughter was born, I’ve had a deep yearning to connect to not only my lineage but hers as well. My husband’s mother immigrated from Mexico as a young girl. Unraveling her story alongside my daughter is a gift I cherish. Knowing this part of my daughter’s ancestry is more recent and holds hardship and stories that will no doubt shape her — it’s part of her story too.
Each of the five gates leads to the shared hall of sorrow. Imagine a giant room that we all gather once we pass through one of the gates. None of us are alone in our experience of grief. “When we feel hesitant or uncertain of our worthiness to touch our sorrows, knowing these gates are there offers us a way to connect with our losses, wounds, and disappointments.” No matter which door we open, we’re choosing to honor the parts of ourselves that may need the most love, and we can be sure that there are others ready to share in our experience on the other side.
Courtney Jay is a writer at The Good Trade. She is also a yoga instructor, health enthusiast, and sustainable fashion advocate. You can find more of her writing and take one of her online yoga classes on her website, Coincide.