Ten Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart
Part 3 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
Understand the Six Needs of Mourning
When we are in mourning, we share the same basic needs. Unlike the stages of grief you might have heard about, the six needs of mourning aren’t orderly or predictable. You will probably jump around in random fashion as you work on these six needs of mourning. You will address each need when you are ready to do so. And sometimes you will be working on more than one need at a time.
Your awareness of these needs will help you take a participative, action-oriented approach to healing in grief as opposed to thinking of grief as something you passively experience. You’ll recall the important distinction between grief and mourning. Grief is what you think and feel on the inside; mourning is when you express those thoughts and feelings outside of yourself. These are not called the six needs of grief but rather the six needs of mourning. Why? Because while you will naturally experience all of them internally, to journey toward healing you will also need to intentionally, proactively engage with all of them externally as well.
Mourning Need 1
Acknowledge the Reality of the Death
This first need of mourning involves gently confronting the reality that someone you care about will never physically be present in your life again. Whether the death was sudden or anticipated, acknowledging the full reality of the loss will unfold slowly, over weeks and months. It’s normal to move back and forth between evading and encountering the reality. In fact, encountering the reality is such a difficult task that it can only be accomplished a little bit at a time, in small doses.
Mourning Need 2
Embrace the Pain of the Loss
This need of mourning requires us to embrace the pain of our grief—something we naturally don’t want to do. After all, it’s easier to avoid, repress, or deny the pain of grief than it is to greet it head-on, yet it is in confronting our pain that we learn to reconcile ourselves to it.
Unfortunately, our culture tends to encourage the denial of pain. We misunderstand the role of suffering. Actually, doing well with your grief means becoming well acquainted with your pain. Don’t let others deny you this critical mourning need.
Mourning Need 3
Remember the Person Who Died
Do you have any kind of relationship with someone after they die? Of course. You have a relationship of memory. Precious memories, dreams reflecting the significance of the relationship, and objects that link you to the person who died (such as photos, souvenirs, clothing, etc.) are examples of some of the things that give testimony to a different form of a continued relationship. Embracing your memories can be a very slow and, at times, painful process. Go slowly and be patient with yourself. In general, remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible. Your future will become open to new experiences only to the extent that you embrace the past.
Mourning Need 4
Develop a New Self-Identity
Your personal identity, or self-perception, is the result of the ongoing process of establishing a sense of who you are. Part of your self-identity comes from the relationships you have with other people. When someone with whom you have a relationship dies, your self-identity, or the way you see yourself, naturally changes. You may have gone from being a “wife” or “husband” to a “widow” or “widower.” You may have gone from being a “parent” to a “bereaved parent.” The way you define yourself and the way society defines you is changed. Remember—do what you need to do to survive for now as you try to re-anchor yourself. Be compassionate with yourself. Reach out for and accept the support of others.
Mourning Need 5
Search for Meaning
When someone you love dies, it’s normal to question the meaning and purpose of life. You will probably reconsider your life philosophy and explore religious and spiritual values as you work on this need. As always, be sure to express your search for meaning outside of yourself. When thoughts and feelings about meaning and purpose naturally arise (and they will!), talk to a good listener about them. If you’re struggling with practical meaning-of-life issues, such as searching for reasons to get out of bed in the morning, consider seeing a grief counselor or other care provider until you regain your footing.
Mourning Need 6:
Let Others Help You—Now and Always
The quality and quantity of understanding support you get during your work of mourning will have a major influence on your capacity to heal. You cannot—nor should you try to—do this alone. Drawing on the experiences and encouragement of friends, fellow grievers, and professional counselors is not a weakness but a healthy human need. And because mourning is a process that takes place over time, this support must be available months and even years after the death of someone in your life.
Recognize You Are Not Crazy
In all my years as a grief counselor, the most common question grieving people have asked me is, “Am I going crazy?” The terrain of the journey through grief can be so foreign and disorienting, and our behaviors in that terrain can feel so out of whack, that we often feel like we’re going crazy. But rest assured, you’re not going crazy—you’re grieving. Following are a number of common thoughts and feelings in grief that cause mourners to feel like they’re going crazy.
Especially early in your grief, you may find yourself being less aware of the needs of others than you usually are. You may not want to listen to other people’s problems. You might not have the energy to attend to all the needs of your children, other family members, friends, or colleagues. The compulsion to focus only on your own thoughts and feelings doesn’t mean you’re going crazy. What it does mean is that you need to focus on yourself right now.
Rethinking and Retelling Your Story
Whether you’re conscious of this fact or not, you tell yourself and others the story of the loss in an effort to integrate it into your life. What has happened to you—the death of someone you love—is so hard to fathom that your mind compels you to revisit it and revisit it and revisit it until you’ve truly acknowledged and embraced it. Try to surround yourself with people who allow and encourage you to repeat whatever you need to repeat. Support groups are helpful to many grievers because members share a mutual understanding of the need to tell the story and to have others listen.
Sudden Changes in Mood
When someone loved dies, you may feel like you’re surviving fairly well one minute and in the depths of despair the next. Sudden mood changes can be a difficult yet normal part of your grief journey. One minute you might be feeling great and the next lousy. So if you have these ups and down, don’t be hard on yourself. Instead, practice patience. As you do the work of mourning and move toward healing, any periods of hopelessness will more and more be replaced by periods of hopefulness.
Powerlessness and Helplessness
Your grief can at times leave you feeling powerless. Almost paradoxically, by acknowledging and allowing for temporary feelings of helplessness, you help yourself. When you try to “stay strong,” you often get yourself into trouble. Instead, surrender to your vulnerability. Share your feelings with caring people around you. Remember—shared grief is diminished grief; find someone to talk to who will listen without judging.
Grief Attacks or Griefbursts
Before they come to grief, many people expect grief to be made up mostly of long periods of deep depression. Actually, after the early weeks, what you’re more likely to encounter are acute and episodic pangs or spasms of grief—I call them “griefbursts”—in between relatively pain-free hours. Griefbursts may feel like “crazybursts,” but they’re normal. When and if one strikes you, be compassionate with yourself.
Crying and Sobbing
If you’re crying and sobbing a lot, you may feel like you’re out of control, which can in turn trigger feeling crazy. But sobbing and wailing come from the inner core of your being. They are expressions of true, deep, strong emotions within you. These emotions need to get out, and sobbing allows for their release.
If you like to hold, be near, look at, sleep with, caress, or smell a special belonging of the person who died, you’re not crazy. You’re simply trying to hold on to a tangible, physical connection to the person. The person’s body is no longer physically here, but these special items are. Like the woman who slept with her husband’s shirt, you’ll probably need your linking objects less and less over time, as you integrate the loss into your life. But you may always find these items special, and you may always want to keep them.
Drug or Alcohol Use
When someone loved dies, you may be tempted to quickly quell your feelings of grief. This desire to avoid and mask the pain is understandable. The trouble is, using drugs and alcohol to help you do so only brings temporary relief from a hurt that must ultimately be embraced. Instead of relying on their deceptive comfort, I urge you to turn to your fellow human beings for support. Reconciliation of grief comes through the ongoing expression of thoughts and feelings, not through their drug-induced repression.
Dreaming a lot about the person who died can contribute to your feelings of going crazy. Mourners sometimes tell me that they can’t stop thinking about the death—even in their sleep!
Keep in mind, though, that dreams are one of the ways the work of mourning takes place. If dreams are part of your trek through the wilderness, make use of them to better understand where you have been, where you are, and where you are going in your grief journey. Also, find a skilled listener who won’t interpret your dreams for you but who will listen to you talk about them.
When someone you love dies, you may have experiences that are not always rationally explainable. That doesn’t mean you’re crazy! The primary form of mystical experience that grieving people have taught me about is communicating with the person who died. This ranges from sensing a presence or feeling a touch to hearing a voice, seeing a vision, receiving a sign, and many more. If you count yourself among them, you’re not going crazy. You can still be very sane and exceedingly rational while at times experiencing and embracing mystical encounters. Who on this earth is to say what’s real and what isn’t? Certainly not I. Remain open to these experiences and be thankful for any comfort they provide.
Anniversaries, Holidays, and Special Occasions
Naturally, holidays and special occasions can bring about pangs of grief or full-on griefbursts. If you find yourself having a really tough time on special days, you’re not crazy. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that your feelings are natural. Alert the people who care about you that you’ll need their understanding and empathy. Unfortunately, some grieving people will choose not to mention special dates to friends and family members, so they end up suffering in silence, and their feelings of isolation and craziness increase. Don’t let this happen to you. Recognize you will need support, and map out how to get it!
Over many years of walking with people in grief, I have discovered that most of us are hard on ourselves when we’re in mourning. We judge ourselves and we shame ourselves and we take care of ourselves last. But good self-care is essential to your survival. To practice good self-care doesn’t mean you’re feeling sorry for yourself or being self-indulgent; rather, it means you’re creating conditions that allow you to integrate the death of someone loved into your heart and soul.
Nurturing Yourself Physically
As you’re journeying through grief, your body may be letting you know it feels distressed, too.
Among the most common physical responses to loss are troubles with sleeping and low energy.
You may also feel unwell. Muscle aches and pains, shortness of breath, feelings of emptiness in your stomach, tightness in your throat or chest, digestive problems, sensitivity to noise, heart palpitations, queasiness, nausea, headaches, increased allergic reactions, changes in appetite, weight loss or gain, agitation, and generalized tension—these are all ways your body may react to the death of someone loved.
You may not feel in control of how your body is responding, but keep in mind that it’s communicating with you about the stress you’re experiencing. Good physical self-care is important. Your body is the house you live in. Just as your house requires care and maintenance to protect you from the outside elements, your body requires that you honor it and treat it with respect.
Nurturing Yourself Cognitively
Thinking normally after the death of someone precious to you would be very unlikely. Don’t be surprised if you struggle with short-term memory problems, are finding it hard to focus or concentrate, have trouble making even simple decisions, or think you may be going crazy. Essentially, your mind is in a state of shock, disorientation, and confusion. Your mind needs time to catch up with and process your new reality. In the meantime, don’t expect too much of your cognitive powers.
Nurturing Yourself Emotionally
The important thing to remember is that when we pay attention to our feelings, we honor them. Whenever a grief feeling arises, I encourage you to notice it and let it absorb your full attention for at least a few minutes. Remember—it’s another facet of your love for the person who died, and it’s there for a reason. It’s trying to teach you something about the story of your loss or your needs moving forward.
Embracing and befriending your feelings in this way acknowledges their right to be there and over time helps them soften. As they soften, they can better integrate with all the other feelings and experiences in your life. Instead of commanding all your heart and attention, they become part of the unique and precious tapestry that is your life.
Nurturing Yourself Socially
The death of someone you love has probably resulted in a very real sense of disconnection from the world around you. When you reach out to your family and friends, you are beginning to reconnect. You open up your heart to love again and be loved in return when you reach out to others. Your link to family, friends, and community is vital for your sense of wellbeing and belonging.
If you don’t nurture the warm, kind relationships that still exist in your life, you will probably continue to feel disconnected and isolated. You may even withdraw into your own little cave in the wilderness and continue to grieve but not mourn. Isolation can then become the barrier that keeps you stuck in the wilderness and prevents your grief from softening over time. So allow your friends and family to nurture you. Let them in and rejoice in the connection. And if you have to be the one to reach out and strengthen connections, that’s OK, too. You will find that it is worth every bit of the effort.
Nurturing Yourself Spiritually
When you are torn apart by grief, you may have many spiritual questions for which there are no easy answers: Is there a God? Why me? Will life ever be worth living again? This natural human tendency to search for meaning after a death (which is the fifth need of mourning!) is why, if I could, I would encourage all of us grievers to put down “nurture my spirit” at the top of our daily to-do lists.
I recognize that for some people, however, contemplating a spiritual life in the midst of the pain of grief can be difficult. But grief is first and primarily a spiritual journey through the wilderness. To attend to, embrace, and express your grief is itself a spiritual practice—even when you’ve lost your faith or are struggling to regain meaning and purpose.
What Are You Doing to Take Good Care of Yourself Today?
Good self-care is always important, of course, but when you’re in grief it’s even more essential. If you’re not taking extra-tender care of yourself physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, and spiritually, you won’t have the energy or resources you need to work on the six needs of mourning—which are themselves essential aspects of self-care in grief.
So whenever possible, I hope you will stop whatever you’re busy with and take a moment to ask yourself, “What am I doing today to take good care of myself?” If you can devote even a few minutes of time every day to each aspect of self-care, you will be equipping yourself with the basic supplies you need for the journey.
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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