Fiction · 12/14/2011

Kublai Khan's Five Stages of Grief

Stage #1: Conquest

After the death of a favorite wife, it is natural to feel disorientated and adrift, as if moving unsteadily through a thick fog. This is because your first response to bereavement was to assemble an invasion fleet bound for Japan — in itself, a usual part of learning to manage and understand your feelings. Accept that, at this stage, not even the subjugation of your most distant enemies can bring you lasting satisfaction. Victory is anyway unlikely, since for now you are oblivious even to obvious omens. If your admirals talk to you about approaching tsunamis, it is not only because they are uncomfortable addressing the issue of your bereavement. You may experience moments of deceptive calm before the world comes crashing in on you, in the form of an engulfing storm reminding you of your insignificant role in the larger momentum of life. While you may be tempted to blame the destruction of your armada on a divine wind or typhoon, the real problems lie elsewhere. Healing involves an expansion of consciousness and a new understanding of who we are and why we are here. Get comfortable with not knowing the way back to shore. Projecting your resentment onto others is understandable, but the terrain you really have to conquer is not Japan but your own sense of separation and hopelessness.

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Stage #2: More Conquest

However, any nearby country that has not yet accepted your suzerainty makes an acceptable substitute, so your next move is to lead your cavalry into the jungles of Annam. You may find yourself executing more cartographers than usual for a while — a normal aspect of the cycle. Perhaps it feels healthy to let your anger surface. The doomed military actions and abortive campaigns you undertake are an attempt to manage your own fears of mortality, and get comfortable combatting loneliness. The years you spent expanding your empire seem retrospectively like wasted time. You may find it hard to focus, and not only because you have been heavily self-medicating with fermented mare’s milk. This phase of your spiritual journey may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. The experience of grief is not the same for everyone — be fully present to what is happening and stake no claims on the outcome. View your dark emotions as teachers, and vice versa. According to the Buddhists, the door to enlightenment is guarded by two lions — they say one represents paradox and the other confusion. But the Taoists claim it’s the other way round. You have always hated Taoists. It is inadvisable for the time being to work with heavy equipment such as catapults or elephant-drawn chariots.

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Stage #3: Calendrical Reform

Later in the bereavement process, you will summon stargazers to the capital and insist they explain the presence of comets lingering in the morning sky. Other possible responses include singing drinking songs, and the desecration of the corpses of your villainous ex-ministers — loss and fermented mare’s milk can easily trigger such predispositions. The planning of new astronomical observatories is also a probability. If however you find yourself driven to devise new systems of taxation, it is best to consult a professional shaman, civil servant, or other grief specialist. Give yourself permission to avoid less important obligations, such as the repair of granaries or maintenance of ancestral shrines, and lower your expectations for the duration of your dynasty — at some point your descendants will lose the Mandate of Heaven. When these disturbing thoughts occur, ignore them. There are many things you can do alone — listening to cicadas in a ruined monastery, trying to forget you are the Khan of the Golden Horde, you are as likely to find yourself conversing with the dead as with the living. The flattery of your courtiers no longer seems sincere. Nighttime is extremely painful for you — this could be an opportunity to grow, or possibly just an early sign of gout.

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Stage #4: Falconry

As your life comes into clearer perspective, and you are left to face the long haul alone, the company of a beloved falcon or hawk may help you adjust. The arc of your bird through a place of sanctuary, its rapid descent just out of your field of vision, the babbling of a nearby stream — all can be healing reminders to accept life’s fleetingness. Experience simple things — the trees, the wind, the distant shape of jagged black mountains. Leading a nomadic existence, you no longer have a clear sense of yourself or your relation to the world. Letting go of your falcon, trusting it to find its own way back to you through an indifferent cosmos, you will find yourself cultivating an intimate bond with a creature more high-strung than any courtesan. The grieving mind like a raptor has no clear pattern to its flight, and you may benefit from just sitting and experiencing movements and sounds. Smelling the breeze of the forest at the edge of a lake, the receding of darkness as the sun breaches the clouds — all are part of moving forward. The main drawback to all this that once your falcon gets itself torn apart by an eagle, you have to start the whole cycle over again. You suffer lingering discomfort, creeping numbness, a sense of emptiness, weight gain, and aching in your joints — whatever this is, it isn’t gout.

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Stage #5: Gout

You have become over-sensitive and cannot bear human contact — actually, your gout makes any kind of contact agonizing. Console yourself that the trauma and catastrophe you visited on the world will endure long after you. Healers will ply you with herbal remedies, but in your family, the time-approved method of nullifying the final stages of trauma is drinking yourself into a coma. As the lotus closes at dawn, so everyone’s life must constrict into the somber richness of oblivion. See this as an opportunity to discover untapped aspects of yourself — even a warrior lord has permission to feel vulnerable. You may become confused about the time, place, and identity of the people surrounding you — but it’s a safe bet that they’re plotting something. Some say you are dying of gout, others of grief for your lost wife. But she would have wanted you to move on, so arrange for your body to be carried to a sacred mountain in Mongolia, to be buried in an undisclosed location. Horses must stampede over your grave to conceal all traces of digging, and the slaves who dug the grave must all themselves be executed. This ritual seems pointless, but will help those around you attain closure — why not show them this final consideration? Life is a menacing cliff face, which you scramble up till your fingers give way, guarded by two tigers which the shamans say symbolize perseverance and transcendence. But the Confucians claim it’s the other way round. You have always hated Confucians.

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James Warner is the author of All Her Father’s Guns, a novel published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short fiction has appeared in Narrative, Agni Online, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He lives in San Francisco, where he runs the reading series InsideStorytime.