The 5 of Cups: Grief and Mourning

Following on the heels of a very unpleasant card comes another which seeks to match it in nastiness.  In keeping with the numerological theme of change inherent to the suit of the 5’s, the 5 of Cups merges the unstability of the 5’s with the element of Water.  Think of a whirlpool spinning out of control, or a sea being tossed about by rough gusting winds.  As Water is representative of emotions, in the 5 of Cups, our feelings are subjected to great (and oftentimes uncontrollable) turbulence.  It is important to remember that all 5’s deal with change – a metaphorical death of sorts – in varying degrees.  In the 5 of Cups, this change is experienced as loss.  Be it the ‘death’ of a relationship or the actual passing of a loved one, this card points to a period in the querant’s life where grief can take its toll and the individual’s personal world is rocked and its foundations shattered.

5 of Cups from the 'Aquatic Tarot'

Decks adhering to the Rider-Waite tradition typically show a figure garbed in black, its back to the viewer, contemplating four spilled cups on the ground while a solitary cup remains standing.  The Aquatic Tarot, though conforming for the most part to the Rider-Waite symbolism, diverges from it in one respect: more than 5 cups are present in the picture.  I have pondered their presence at length but still can find no good reason for their being there.  If anyone should have any insight into this conundrum, I’d love to hear from you!

The black robe worn by the figure represents a mourning shroud, black being the universal colour of death, if not grief.  Some cultures recognize white as the colour of mourning but as tarot is based on a primarily Eurocentric perspective, for the purposes of this discussion, we shall accept black as emblematic of grief.  It is difficult to say whether the figure depicted in the card is male or female in gender. Perhaps the ambiguity of its sex shows how grief is universal in nature, affecting people from all different cultures, ages, and walks of life.  The clouds that hang over the figure’s head are darker than the ones in the distance, suggesting a preoccupation/ obsession with the loss experienced, and difficulty letting go in order to move on.  Observe, too, the beautiful pink sunrise that breaks over the horizon where a township stands.  Both the sunrise and the distant town can be interpreted as the promise of hope, as the gift of new life.  The river that separates the figure from this promise of new life represents important emotional work (flowing water = healing) that must be undertaken before the past can be left behind and new vistas embraced.  And the mysterious cup (or in this case cups) that remain standing?  I interpret them as hope and the beautiful memories that still remain despite this loss, that provide solace and succor in helping us navigate through experiences of loss or adversity.  Is it coincidence or was it a calculated move on the artist’s part that the figure was drawn facing away from the standing cups, not seeing that even through the pain, memories can be salvaged and that life can and will go on?

5 of Cups from the 'Thoth Tarot'

Astrological Association:  Mars in Scorpio

The Thoth tarot recognizes the 5 of Cups as Disappointment.  The orange-red sky in the background symbolizes anger, frustration and the loss of faith and courage.  This colour represents a melding of the root and sacral chakras, which are red and orange respectively.  The root chakra governs our sense of security and determines how grounded we are while the sacral has dominion over how we view and exert control over the events in our lives.  The sacral chakra also indicates how we choose to express the more powerful emotions that hold sway over us.  When we experience loss, one of the first things to crumble is our faith in a ‘just world’.  Our sense of stability and in particular, our faith that we are protected from pain and trauma, are shattered.  The things and people that we relied on to give us comfort and support are no more, and we struggle with a harsh new reality in which we need to find a way to go on without them.  Our root chakra is thus thrown of balance. A malfunctioning sacral chakra, on the other hand, suggests an imbalance of emotional expression, and a lack of control in tempering our appetites and desires.  In the face of loss, many of us find ourselves resorting to unhealthy habits that serve as temporary band-aids for our pain.  We might seek that special brand of solace that can only be found at the bottom of bottles, or indulge in risky sexual practices in a bid to recreate the sense of intimacy that was lost when our partner left us.  We might choose to nurse our wounds in ways that heal our bodies, but that do irreparable damage to our minds and souls.

Astrologically, the 5 of Cups corresponds to Mars in Scorpio.  The aggression and power of Mars is married with the dark, all-consuming nature that is Scorpio.  Ruled by Pluto, a planet that seeks to effect intense soul change through trauma, suffering and shadow-work, those with Scorpio strong in their charts are no strangers to loss and pain.  Their lives are marked by periods of intense change, often forcibly imposed, which drive them to the depths of despair but in doing so, challenge them to rise like the proverbial phoenix of old through the ashes of their loss.  Scorpio energy is deep, has the ability to penetrate to the soul of matter or person, and is associated with the potential of immense transformation and regeneration.  Those for whom Scorpio features prominently in their astrological makeup will find themselves drawn to studies of psychology and the occult.  These individuals seek to plumb down to the very depths of their psyche, to lay their personal truths bare with unflinching openness and honesty, and in the process, to exorcise themselves of their demons forever.  Many become psychologists and counselors, addiction specialists and grief therapists.  Others are ordained into the darker occult and spiritual practices, walking the path of the shaman, the healer, or the witch doctor.  Regardless of their chosen vocation, their insight into the human condition has the potential to pave the way for intense emotional and spiritual catharsis, both for their own benefit and for others.

5 of Cups from the 'Tarot of Dreams'

“True love doesn’t have a happy ending, because true love never ends. Letting go is one way of saying ‘I love you'”. ~  Author Unknown.

“Let go.  Why do you cling to pain?  There is nothing you can do about the wrongs of yesterday.  It is not yours to judge.  Why hold on to the very thing which keeps you from hope and love?” ~  Leo Buscaglia.

“You never leave someone behind.  You take a part of them with you and leave a part of yourself behind.”  ~  Author Unknown.

When the 5 of Cups turns up in a love spread, there is no delicate way to tell the querant that the relationship that they so treasured is over, and all there is left to do now is pick up the pieces and move along. There can be obsessions with regards to how the relationship was terminated, as well as a denial that the relationship is in fact at an end.  Oftentimes, the client is in a state of grief so deep that they are numb to the facts; many are unable to relinquish the relationship because they genuinely believe that their lover will come back to them!  I have also seen this card indicate a prolonged period of depression in the aftermath of a breakup or a loved one’s passing.  Consumed with pain, we swaddle ourselves in memories, cloak ourselves in a refusal to admit the truth.  We each grieve in our own ways, and it is important to honour this need in the client.  But similarly, it is equally as important to impress upon the client that grief only lasts as long as we consciously want to hold on to the pain.  Try to guide the querant towards that single cup that remains standing, and allow them to see the sunrise that breaks on the distant horizon.  Know that the death of a relationship does not mean the death of your heart.  Time heals all wounds and when the moment is right, you will love again.

5 of Cups from the 'Legacy of the Divine' Tarot

In the context of work, the 5 of Cups portends a period in which countless obstacles and delays crop up. There can be loss of jobs, projects, or other significant career opportunities.  A general feeling of unhappiness with present job circumstances can result.  I’ve seen this card come up most frequently in predictions of retrenchment.  The only advice I extend to clients is to see this as a blessing in disguise; if they were unhappy with their jobs in the first place, then what better opportunity than to seek out a career that is meaningful and better suited to your talents?  From a financial perspective, the 5 of Cups predicts much of the same: losses and unsuccessful business ventures, investments that were once thought to hold promise are now revealed as pipe dreams, bankruptcy, the denial of loans, etc.  A turbulent period for work and finances is expected when this card makes an appearance so proceed with caution but don’t resist making changes that can pave the way to greater happiness.

In a health spread, the 5 of Cups points to chronic depression in the face of a personal loss or trauma. Holding onto past hurts and dwelling on disappointments can result in physical symptoms born of an unhappy mind. Seek out the services of a counselor or a grief therapist, perhaps even a religious figure if spiritual solace is what you seek. Sometimes, having someone to talk to can make all the difference.

This is a difficult card to deal with, and I’m sure that both novice and expert readers alike will agree with me.  It’s never easy having to openly confront issues of loss, grief and pain.  It is part and parcel of life to form attachments to people and things as it is these bonds that grant us a sense of security and help us make sense of the world around us.  When these attachments are severed, through choice or circumstance, the resulting pain can be extreme.  We are driven to seek pleasure as much as it is an innate feature of the human condition to avoid pain; love forms the bonds that allow us to feel protected, cherished, and safe.  But Life cannot exist without Death; indeed, Death walks our chosen paths with us as we grow, learn, love.  And it a painful thing indeed when we realize that some of those attachments that have helped create who we are have outlived their use.

I read somewhere recently that there are times when you or the one you love changes to such an extent that the only thing that makes sense at that point is to let go of the relationship you have shared.  This is done with Love in mind, so that each person can fulfill their soul’s true calling and continue on the path that they have chosen to walk.  I smiled through my tears, for could anything truer exist?  The greatest sacrifice we make in Love’s name is the act of letting go.

5 of Cups from the 'Shadowscapes Tarot'

“Sometimes being a friend means mastering the act of timing.  There is a time for silence.  A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny.  And a time to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.”  ~  Gloria Naylor.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. rayofsunshine092
    Jul 06, 2015 @ 00:42:08

    As i read all the description about 5 of cups tarot card, i recognize the intense pain i felt when i lost someone that i considered being the love of my life. It is definitely a very difficult moment in our lives when we get this card on a spread and the past and the “what if…” Will never come back but we just cant erase All of that because if we erase those painful moments, maybe It wouldn’t take us where we are today. I call this experimentation, but it is indeed very painful and can take years to battle against the pain. Life continues and after some long time, we can slowly see that everything isn’t lost as we thought. That despite what we lost and how important that was to us, our life depends only on us and we will continue living because that’s the point of live itself.
    Thank you for this article.


    • Rohini Pathmanathan
      Jul 06, 2015 @ 07:38:39

      What beautiful, heartfelt words, Vanessa. Thank you for sharing. It’s indeed devastating when this card comes up in a spread, because with the loss comes a painful knowing that no matter how much you wish it otherwise, you’ll be changed in a terrible, beautiful way forever. And unlike the Three of Swords which tends to be a more ‘acute’ kind of pain, it’s difficult to predict how long it will take you to heal when the Five of Cups comes up.


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