Ten Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart
Part 2 of 4
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Editor’s note: This four-part series is excerpted and greatly condensed from the second edition of Dr. Wolfelt’s classic Understanding Your Grief, first published thirty years ago. The new edition, just published in September 2021, retains the original bestseller’s compassionate content but adds concise passages on more topics, ranging from vulnerability, soulmate grief, and complicated grief to mindfulness, the power of ritual, and more. It also features a fresh, updated look that is so warm and friendly. While the articles will give you a taste of Understanding Your Grief—Second Edition, I know you would find the entire new book a helpful companion. It is also available in a daily reader version, entitled 365 Days of Understanding Your Grief.
These articles cover Dr. Wolfelt’s Ten Touchstones, which are essential physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual signs for mourners to seek out on their journey through grief:
Touchstone One Open to the presence of your loss
Touchstone Two Dispel misconceptions about grief
Touchstone Three Embrace the uniqueness of your grief
Touchstone Four Explore your feelings of loss
Touchstone Five Understand the six needs of mourning
Touchstone Six Recognize you are not crazy
Touchstone Seven Nurture yourself
Touchstone Eight Reach out for help
Touchstone Nine Seek reconciliation, not resolution
Touchstone Ten Appreciate your transformation
Embrace the Uniqueness of Your Grief
In the course of human life, everyone experiences loss, and everyone grieves. But our grief journeys are never precisely the same. Despite what you may hear about grief stages or what you should or should not be thinking/feeling/doing, you will grieve and do the work of mourning in your own singular way. This touchstone invites you to explore some of the unique reasons your grief is what it is—the “whys” of your particular journey through the wilderness.
Why 1: Your Relationship with the Person Who Died
Your relationship with the person who died was different than that person’s relationship with anyone else. In general, the stronger your attachment to the person who died, the more difficult your grief journey will be. Ambivalent, rocky relationships can also be particularly hard to process after a death, however.
Why 2: The Circumstances of the Death
How, why, and when the person you love died can have a definite impact on your journey into grief. Military deaths are often sudden and unexpected, and they may be violent. Such circumstances do not allow you to prepare and can give rise to traumatic grief. The age of the person who died also affects your feelings about the death. When we feel that a life was cut short, our innate sense of injustice colors our grief.
Why 3: The People in Your Life
Mourning is the outward expression of grief. Part of the benefit of mourning comes from the routine act of moving your grief from the inside to the outside—over and over again, as often as you need to. But the other part is that mourning serves as a signal to the people in your life that you’re hurting and you need their empathy and support. You need that empathy and support to heal. Without a stabilizing support system of at least one other person, odds are you will have difficulty reconciling your grief. Healing requires an environment of empathy, caring, and gentle encouragement.
Why 4: Your Unique Personality
Whatever your unique personality, rest assured it will be reflected in your grief. How you have responded to other losses or crises in your life will likely also be consistent with how you respond to this death. Other aspects of your personality—such as your self-esteem, values, and beliefs—also impact your response to the death. In addition, any preexisting mental-health issues will probably influence your grief as well
Why 5: The Unique Personality of the Person Who Died
Just as your own personality is reflected in your grief journey, so, too, is the unique personality of the person who died. Really, personality is the sum total of all the characteristics that made this person they were. The way she talked, the way he smiled, the way she ate her food, the way he worked—all these and so many more little things go into creating personality. It’s no wonder there’s so much to miss and that grief is so complex when all these mannerisms and ways of being are gone all at once.
Why 6: Your Cultural Background
Your cultural background is an important part of how you experience and express your grief. When I say culture, I actually mean the values, rules (spoken and unspoken), and traditions that guide you and your family. Often these have been handed down generation after generation and are shaped by the ethnicities or areas of the world your family originally came from. Your cultural background is also shaped by education and political beliefs. Basically, your culture is your way of being in the world.
Why 7: Your Religious or Spiritual Background
Your personal belief system can have a tremendous impact on your journey into grief. You may discover that your religious or spiritual life is deepened, renewed, or changed as a result of your loss. Or you may well find yourself questioning your beliefs as part of your work of mourning.
Why 8: Other Crises or Stresses in Your Life Right Now
Whatever your specific situation, I’m sure that your grief is not the only stress in your life right now. And the more intense and numerous the other current stresses in your life, the more overwhelming your grief journey may be.
Why 9: Your Experiences with Loss and Death in the Past
One way to think about yourself is that you are the sum total of all that you have experienced in your life so far. The more “experienced” you are with death, the less shocked you may feel this time around. Conversely, you may be finding that even if you have a lot of experience with loss, this death is hitting you harder. You might feel surprised at the intensity of your grief. Rest assured that grief can be unpredictable like that, and work toward accepting your grief as it comes.
Why 10: Your Physical and Mental Health
How you feel physically and mentally has a significant effect on your grief. If you are tired and eating poorly, your coping skills will be diminished. If you were dealing with physical or mental wellness issues before the death, your symptoms may now be worse.
Why 11: Your Gender
Gender norms and social constructs may not only influence your grief but also the ways in which others relate to you at this time. But as our cultural understanding of gender and gender norms is evolving, grieving people are getting to be grieving people—and that is as it should be. Your feelings are your feelings, regardless of your sex or gender identification. And I believe all people are born with the instinct to grieve and mourn.
Why 12: The Ritual or Funeral Experience
Funerals and memorial services for someone you love can either help or hinder your personal grief experience. Holding a meaningful ritual for survivors can aid in their social, emotional, and spiritual healing after a death. If you were unable to have or attend a funeral, or if the funeral was minimized or distorted in some way, you may find that this complicates your healing process. Be assured, however, that it is never too late after a death to plan and carry out a ritual (even a second or third ceremony) that will help meet your needs.
Explore Your Feelings of Loss
So far on the path to healing we’ve explored opening to the presence of your loss, dispelling common misconceptions about grief, and embracing the uniqueness of your grief. The primary way in which you experience these touchstones is by how they feel for you. As strange as your emotions might seem, they are a true expression of where you are in your grief journey at any given moment. Rather than deny or feel victimized by your feelings, I want to help you learn to tune into and learn from them.
Shock, Numbness, Denial, and Disbelief
Thank goodness for shock, numbness, and disbelief! These feelings are nature’s way of temporarily protecting you from the full reality of the death. A critical point to realize is that these are not feelings you should try to prevent yourself from experiencing. Instead, be compassionate with yourself. Allow for and surrender to this instinctive form of self-protection, especially in the early weeks and months after a death.
Disorganization, Confusion, Searching, and Yearning
Perhaps the most isolating and frightening part of your grief journey is the sense of disorganization, confusion, searching, and yearning that often comes with the loss. You may feel a sense of restlessness, agitation, impatience, and ongoing confusion. You may notice an inability to complete tasks. You might also experience a conscious or subconscious searching for the person who has died. For a period of months (or even much longer), your mind may continue to look for the person—in your home, in crowds, in places that they used to frequent. What’s more, you may dream about the person who died. Yearning, too, is normal. This is the intense, near-constant ache of missing the person.
Anxiety, Panic, and Fear
Feelings of anxiety, panic, and fear are also very typical in grief. You may be afraid of what the future holds or that other people in your life could die soon. You may be more aware of your own mortality, which can be scary. You may feel vulnerable, even unable to survive, without the person who died. Financial problems can compound feelings of anxiety.
Under no circumstances are you to allow your fears and anxieties to go unexpressed. If you don’t talk about them, you may find yourself retreating from other people and the world in general. And if you are experiencing panic attacks, be sure to seek help from your primary-care provider and/or a therapist.
Anger, hate, blame, terror, resentment, rage, and jealousy are explosive emotions that may be a volatile yet natural part of your grief journey. It helps to understand that all of these feelings are, at bottom, a form of protest. Think of the toddler whose favorite toy is yanked out of his hands. This toddler wants the toy; when it’s taken, his instinctive reaction is to scream or cry or hit. When someone loved is taken from you, your instinctive reaction may be much the same.
If explosive emotions are part of your journey (and they aren’t for everyone), be aware that you have two avenues for expression—outward or inward. The outward avenue leads to healing; the inward avenue does not. Keeping your explosive emotions inside can cause low self-esteem, depression, guilt, physical complaints, and sometimes even persistent thoughts of suicide.
Guilt and Regret
Guilt, regret, and self-blame are common and natural feelings after the death of someone loved. You may have a case of the “if-onlys”: If only I had encouraged him to stay home… If only I had been with her that night… If only I hadn’t said… If you find yourself experiencing such regrets, please be compassionate with yourself. When someone you care about dies, it’s normal to think about actions you could or could not have taken before the death, whether to prevent it, to have done everything you could, or simply to have closed the loop on any unfinished business.
Sadness and Depression
Sadness can be the most hurtful feeling on your journey through grief. We don’t want to be sad. Sadness saps pleasure from our lives. Sadness makes us feel crummy. But sadness is a natural, authentic emotion after the death of someone loved. Something precious in your life is now gone. Of course you are sad. In fact, depression plays an essential role. It forces us to regroup—physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. The natural depression of grief slows down your body and prevents major organ systems from being damaged. It aids in your healing and provides time to slowly begin re-ordering your life. These natural feelings can ultimately help you move ahead, to assess old ways of being, and to make plans for the future.
A Final Thought About the Feelings You May Experience
When you add up all the thoughts and feelings you’ve had since the death of the person you love—as well as all the emotions you’re yet to have in the months to come—we call this experience “grief.” It’s a deceptively small, simple word for such a wide-ranging, challenging assortment of feelings. The ways you behave when you’re having these feelings is also part of your grief journey. Mourning—or expressing your feelings outside of yourself—is sometimes, but not always, intentional. Your feelings may come out in strange and unpredictable ways, and this, too, is normal.
I hope you will be kind to yourself as you encounter and befriend all your grief feelings and behaviors. Patience is paramount, as is self-compassion. You feel what you feel; there are no rights or wrongs. And when you’re struggling with your feelings or need to let them out, I hope you’ll remember to reach out to the people who care about you. Having the feelings is normal and necessary, but so is expressing them outside of yourself and having them affirmed by others.
This is the cycle of experiencing a feeling in grief: feel it, acknowledge it, befriend it, share it, and finally, have it witnessed and empathized with by others. Repeat. Each time you complete the circle, you are taking one small step toward healing.
Here is a link to Dr. Wolfelt’s Center for Loss Bookstore. Here you’ll find compassionate books and other resources for grieving adults, grieving children and teens, grief caregivers and funeral professionals.
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