As spring finally approaches, I have been thinking about butterflies and besides looking forward to seeing some this summer, I get concerned about whether they will survive the damage we humans are doing to our planet. The life cycle of the Monarch, in particular, has always intrigued and delighted me. My first office as a therapist back in the mid 70s was surrounded by trees. The one immediately outside of my window was a resting spot every year for hundreds, perhaps thousands of Monarchs migrating for the winter. It was truly astounding to see this tree covered with orange and black ethereal and delicate creatures and it always surprised me on that one day every year when I walked into my office and was greeted by this miracle of nature.
The symbolism of the butterfly is powerful and varied. In Japan, some believe that if a butterfly enters your guestroom and perches behind the bamboo screen, the person whom you most love is coming to see you. In the Chinese culture, two butterflies flying together symbolize love ( The ancient Greek word for "butterfly" is ψυχή (psȳchē),which primarily means "soul" or "mind".  Butterflies are also viewed as a symbol of faith since the many transformations of the butterfly act as a metaphor for the soul’s spiritual journey through its own transformations. It is also easy to see how the cycle of the butterfly's life can be applied to the transformation we go through as we walk the journey through a significant loss. Right now, that is how I see the butterfly; as a symbol of my own journey through grief, a journey that started when my husband Bill was becoming symptomatic and ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, a disease that led to his death in 2010. 
Those early days, the days of care giving, were my caterpillar days. Though graced and honored to care for Bill during those five years; any caregiver will tell you that care giving is also exhausting and sad. There were days when I found myself crawling along (trudging at times) seeking nourishment of any kind but knowing intuitively as the Monarch caterpillar also knows, there was just one source that could feed me. For the caterpillar that source is the Milkweed plant which is disappearing, hence my concern for their future. For me the source that kept me going was my love for Bill, his love for me, and my faith in something bigger than myself. Just barely surviving, I watched the love of my life gradually lose his self awareness, his brilliant mind, his humor and ultimately his life. I watched as this brilliant and kind man who thrived on solving the unsolvable, could no longer figure out how to put on a sock. During all those days, Bill remained kind and loving to me and to all those around him. That was Bill. Our last conversation took place during one of those unexpected and rare lucid moments just two weeks before he died. For about ten minutes we were graced with the time to thank each other, forgive each other, and express the deep love we felt for each other. We had done this before, of course, many times but as his Alzheimer's progressed those lucid moments were rare, brief and totally unpredictable. This was the last time he spoke.
The day before Bill died, a friend brought Milkweed seeds to me reminding me that if I spread them, I will have butterflies in my yard. Dazed as I was by Bill's approaching death and my own exhaustion and grief, it was months before I realized the symbolism of her gift.
After Bill died another stage of my own transformation began...the cocoon stage. Many people think a caterpillar spins a cocoon but it does not. With some "wiggling around" and effort the caterpillar's skin splits and drops off. The chrysalis begins to appear. It is always within the caterpillar to transform. "You always had the power" as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz was told.  After Bill died, I knew I needed to go within, to seek solitude. It took a while as immediately following his death, I ran from the pain for a while (as if I could). But eventually, I stopped running and sought the solitude and partial withdrawal provided by a cocoon of sorts. I spent more time alone. I carefully chose those to whom I spoke about my loss and pain. I read, journaled, walked, meditated and more. I still live that way four years later. It was/is in my cocoon that changes started to take place. It is in the cocoon, during the months and years that follow the death of our beloved, that we slowly develop what we need into order to fly, to take care of ourselves, to add beauty to the world, to see from a new vantage point and ultimately to give back. The cocoon days are also days of longing, gut-wrenching pain and insight. It is walking into the pain of loss that heals us. They are days of saying good-bye to the life Bill and I shared and days of preparing for the tomorrows of my life as best I can. During cocoon days we share with the few who understand; we weep; we learn to embrace our grief so that we can go on; and we begin to think about and plan for the future. In other words we begin the healing process which is a lifelong journey and transformation in so many ways.
The length of the cocoon stage depends on the warmth of the environment. I tend to believe that the length of time we spend cocooning after a loss is in direct relationship to many factors including the warm of our environment, i.e. how much loving and non-judgmental support we have from others and the quality of the support we create for ourselves.
Without a supportive environment, the butterfly may never emerge just as forcing a cocoon to open prematurely damages the butterfly thus hindering, if not destroying life at that stage. It is all delicately balanced and only the butterfly "knows" what it needs and when it is time to fly. Being surrounded by those with whom we are able to share, be heard and be felt is essential to and deeply affects our healing time. We cannot do this journey alone. But in addition to loving support it is beneficial to delve into books, journal, sit in meditation, take walks in nature and use other tools to create our healing environment. I believe that attempting to do go through loss and grief alone or to bury our feelings serves only to delay the journey.  Eventually we are called to feel our pain, cry our tears, and learn how to carry and integrate our sadness and grief into our lives.
Eventually the door opens and the butterfly comes out of its cocoon transformed but not quite ready for flight. Instead it hangs suspended for a while until its wings are strong enough and dry enough for flight. This is our time to adjust to the world without our beloved. Those of us who are grieving a significant loss understand the need for cocoon time and the need to "just be" both within the cocoon and after we emerge from its safety and nurturing. We wait until we are ready, until our wings are strong and can take us into our life ahead.

Eventually, in its own time, there is flight. The day comes when the butterfly knows it is time to leave the safety of its branch and though it appears that transformation is complete, in so many ways it has just begun because transformation is an ongoing process for the butterfly and for those who grieve.
Young Monarch
The tears flow sometimes daily, other times less often as we move into our new normal. In my journey tears fall daily as I experience pain and loss or as I am held in awe of something beautiful. Our grief continues to transform us if we let it. There is no going back but there are always reflections that help us continue the process. Sometimes taking time for reflection brings forth tears and pain; other times it births deep joy and gratitude. Just as the cocoon was always within the caterpillar and emerged in its own time, we will emerge from the gut-wrenching pain fly carrying our grief with us. We do this when we are ready...but we can and will fly with enough cocoon time, enough reflection, reading and sharing with those who support us.
Where are you in your grief journey?
Do you take time for reflection?
What have you learned?
Who are you now?

Links to the Life of a Monarch Butterfly:

The Monarch Butterfly

The Cycle of the Monarch Butterfly

Migrating Monarch Butterflies in Grave Danger


Anne Gorman
04/05/2014 6:53pm

Thank you, Mary. This is one of the most beautiful pieces I have read. Much to reflect on ~ I especially like this line: "The length of the cocoon stage depends on the warmth of the environment." We know it takes work. Metamorphosis will not happen if we do not work on our grief.


We've studied metamorphosis in our Science class. As what we've learned, metamorphosis is a biological process by which an animal physically develops after birth or hatching, involving a conspicuous and relatively abrupt change in the animal's body structure through cell growth and differentiation. Some insects, fishes, amphibians, molluscs, crustaceans, cnidarians, echinoderms and tunicates undergo metamorphosis, which is usually accompanied by a change of habitat or behavior. In butterflies species, immature stages are called larvae, then enter an inactive state called pupa, and finally emerge as adults.

04/05/2014 6:59pm

Thank you, Anne. I am so glad you enjoyed it. You are so right. It does not just happen over happens with support and work.
Peace, Mary

Jan Crowther
04/06/2014 1:52am

Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Mary. When I've read before of using the metaphor of the butterfly I've not been able to relate to it because it suggested that the time after the death of our beloved when we became a butterfly was essentially better because the butterfly is the most beautiful stage. But the way that you write about it doesn't suggest that.

04/06/2014 8:33am

Dear Jan, Thank you for your comment. I think the time after the death of our beloved is so painful that thinking of being the beauty of a butterfly is beyond my imagining. The time following Bill's death was pain, an assault I have never before experienced. It was walking into that pain, allowing myself to experience that deep pain that is leading to a transformation that is beyond my words to describe. ..Pain carves into us when we lose our beloved just as the knife used to create a flute, carves into the wood....and in so doing allows the flute to release its own music. In spite of or because of this, grief is still ours forever...perhaps it is the creation of our music that gives us the strength and reason to go on. I am still not sure what the butterfly stage is but I know it is about being ourselves - wounded and beautiful, perhaps deeper, more aware, and knowing our own strength. I am still working on all this.

04/07/2014 3:13pm

Exquisite symbolism, photos, and words. I feel the joy and grief of those 10 lucid minutes.
I love the image of butterfly as Psyche. Psyche and Persephone (plus many more in mythology such as Orpheus and Inanna) must go to the Underworld for wisdom--even if they don't want to go or are forced to go. We are forced, but I know you agree there is wisdom there. They have to go alone, but they also get help.
I'll begin my Monarch watch again in August. Not one here last year despite acres of milkweed. I love the gift your friend brought. I wish milkweed planting were enough to bring back Monarchs, but maybe if people in the south plant them, the butterflies will make it this far north. I'll let you know when I see one.
Thank you for this beautiful and inspiring post.
With loving appreciation, Elaine

04/07/2014 6:30pm

Elaine, I thank you for your lovely and significant response. Yes, there is wisdom in the underworld and in the darkness of the cocoon. I read how few Monarch's are now coming annually to Mexico. Between the bees and the butterflies, we are losing so much. Last year following one of my cataract surgeries, I was at my doctor's office and in the glassed lobby a lovely Monarch was trapped inside. I waited and waited and was finally able to gently enfold it in my hands and release him outside. How honored I was.

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