Ten Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart
Part 4 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
Reach Out for Help
I’ve said that the wilderness of your grief is your wilderness and that it’s up to you to find your way through it. That’s true. But paradoxically, you also need companionship as you journey. You need people who will walk beside you and help provide you with divine momentum. You do not need people who want to walk in front of you and lead you down the path they think is right, nor do you need people who want to walk behind you and not be present to your pain.
It’s true that sharing your pain with others won’t make it disappear. You have probably learned that already. But I promise you that it will, over time, make it more bearable. What’s more, reaching out for help also connects you to other people and strengthens the bonds of love that make life seem worth living again.
Where to Turn for Help
Friends and family members can often form the core of your support system. Seek out people who encourage you to be yourself and who acknowledge your many thoughts and feelings about the death. What you need most now are caring, nonjudgmental listeners.
You may also find comfort in talking to a spiritual leader. If you belong to a faith tradition, you may want to make an appointment with a leader at your church, temple, mosque, or other place of worship. If your spiritual beliefs are more eclectic or secular, you might find it helpful to talk to a humanist clergyperson or seeker dedicated to spiritual growth and higher consciousness.
For many grieving people, support groups are one of the best helping resources. In a group of fellow travelers, you can connect with others who have had similar experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
A professional grief counselor may also be a very helpful addition to your support system. In fact, a trained counselor can be something friends and family members often can’t—an objective listener. A counselor’s office can be that safe haven where you can let go of any feelings you’re afraid to express elsewhere. What’s more, a good counselor will then help you constructively channel those emotions.
Remember, help comes in different forms for different people. The trick is to find the combination that works best for you and then make use of it.
Reaching Out When Your Grief is Complicated
Complicated grief isn’t abnormal or pathological. It’s simply normal, necessary grief that has gotten amplified, stuck, or off track somehow. It has encountered barriers or detours of one kind or another, and as a result has become stalled, waylaid, or denied altogether.
You might be at risk for complicated grief depending on:
The circumstances of the death
Your grief might naturally be complicated if the person you love died suddenly or unexpectedly, if a younger person died, or if the death was violent, self-inflicted, or ambiguous (such as an uncertain cause of death or an unrecoverable or missing body).
Your personality and mental wellness
If you are carrying unreconciled grief from previous life losses, or if you have a tendency toward depression, anger, or low self-esteem, you may be more susceptible to a complicated grief experience.
Your relationship with the person who died
An intensely close relationship to the person who died can trigger complicated grief, as can ambivalent relationships and relationships marked by dysfunction, abuse, mental-health issues, and separation.
Your use of drugs or alcohol. Drugs or alcohol overuse may suppress your feelings connected with the loss, thus short-circuiting what might otherwise be a normal and healthy grief journey.
If you feel like you’re experiencing complicated or traumatic grief, you simply need some extra help encountering the six needs of mourning. I recommend you see a grief therapist for a few sessions then take it from there. Grief counselors can range from clinical therapists to clergy, hospice caregivers, funeral home aftercare staff, and even laypeople. Grief therapists, on the other hand, have specific clinical training, experience, and interest in grief therapy. For people challenged by complicated grief, I recommend looking for a grief therapist.
Seek Reconciliation, Not Resolution
“Reconciliation” is the term I find most appropriate for the healing that develops as you work to integrate the loss. We as human beings don’t resolve or recover from our grief but instead become reconciled to it.
With reconciliation come full acknowledgment of the reality of the death. Beyond a cognitive working through of the death, there is also an emotional and spiritual accommodation. What had been understood at the head level is now understood at the heart level. Energy and confidence are renewed, and the desire to become reinvolved in the activities of living is reawakened. There is also a deepening wisdom about the fact that pain and grief are difficult, yet necessary, parts of life.
But keep in mind that reconciliation doesn’t just happen. It’s an active, intentional process. You reach it through deliberate mourning, by:
- talking it out.
- crying it out.
- writing it out.
- thinking it out.
- playing it out.
- painting (or sculpting, etc.) it out.
- dancing it out
Signs of Reconciliation
___ A recognition of the reality and finality of the death
___ A return to stable eating and sleeping patterns
___ A sense of release from the person who died. You will have thoughts about the person, but you will not be preoccupied by these thoughts.
___ The enjoyment of experiences in life that are normally enjoyable
___ The establishment of new and healthy relationships
___ The capacity to live a full life without feelings of guilt or lack of self-respect
___ The drive to organize and plan your life toward the future
___ The serenity to be comfortable with the way things are rather than attempting to make things as they were
___ The versatility to welcome more change in your life
___ The awareness that you have allowed yourself to authentically, fully grieve and mourn—and you have survived
___ The understanding that you do not get over your grief but instead learn to live with the new reality
___ The acquaintance with new parts of yourself that you have discovered in your grief journey
___ The adjustment to new role changes that have resulted from the loss of the relationship
___ The acknowledgment that the pain of loss is intrinsic to the privilege of giving and receiving love
___ A sense of renewed meaning and purpose
Managing Your Expectations
Movement toward reconciliation in grief is often draining and exhausting. It also can take a very long time. Many grieving people have unrealistic expectations about how readily they should be feeling forward momentum, and when it takes much longer and involves a lot more hard work than they ever imagined, they sometimes experience a loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.
If you’re feeling doubtful or hopeless, consider if you’ve consciously or unconsciously set a timetable for reconciliation. Ask yourself questions like, “Have I mistakenly given myself a deadline for when I should be ‘over’ my grief? Am I expecting myself to heal more quickly than is possible?” If the answer to such questions is yes, recognize that you could be hindering your own healing by expecting too much of yourself too soon.
Choosing Hope for Your Healing
In addition to grief work, permitting yourself to have hope is central to achieving reconciliation. As we’ve said, hope is trust in a good that is yet to be.
Refusing to give in to despair may be the greatest act of hope there is. Yes, you have gone to the wilderness. Darkness may seem to surround you. But also rising up within you is the profound awareness that the pain of your grief is an inextricable part of the love you shared with the person who died. Your love is still there. You are still here. You have an unknown number of precious days left on this earth to honor that love and find ways to love others—and yourself—even better. And so you choose to hope and to work on.
Appreciate Your Transformation
Especially if you’ve made it through the early days and are a few months or more into your grief journey, I’m certain you are discovering that you are being transformed by the experience. Your inner form is changing. You are likely growing in your wisdom, understanding, and compassion.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that any growth you may be experiencing resulted from something you would have preferred to avoid. While I have come to believe that our greatest gifts often do come from our wounds, these are not wounds we masochistically go looking for. I often call it “enforced life learning.”
Change Is Growth
We as human beings are forever changed by the death of someone important to us. You may discover that you are developing new attitudes. You may be developing new skills. You may be learning to fix your own technology problems or cook a nice meal. You may be arriving at new insights and decisions about how to live your new life. To the extent that you are different, you can say you have grown.
Befriending Impermanence Is Growth
Life is constant change, which means the circumstances in which we love and are attached to things are also constantly changing. No matter how hard we try to manage risk and control our destinies, things inevitably happen that turn our lives upside-down. The journey through grief is in part a reckoning with the transitory nature of life. The more you come to reconcile yourself to the constancy of change, the more conscious you become.
Finding a New Normal is Growth
While your work of mourning will help you regain some sense of normalcy, it is a new normal. Grieving people sometimes remark to me that they never would have predicted their current life. As they set off to find a new normal, they got caught up in new interests and met new people. But even for those grievers whose lives look more or less the same from the outside, there is a shift to a new normal inside. There is a new inner balance.
Exploring Your Assumptions about Life Is Growth
Your loss experiences have a tendency to transform your values and priorities. What you may have thought of as being important may not matter any longer. You may also find yourself questioning your religious and spiritual values. Exploring these questions is hard but can ultimately make your assumptions about life richer and more life-affirming.
Embracing Vulnerability is Growth
When we learn to embrace vulnerability in grief, we learn to be OK with expressing our deepest, truest feelings. We learn to openly share our souls with others. We learn to be genuine and authentic. And when all of this happens, miracles unfold. To be vulnerable is to take risks to reach for what we want in life. There is no other way to get where we want to go. And even though we sometimes make mistakes and things don’t always unfold as we wish they would, the rewards of wielding vulnerability are ultimately so much greater than the deadening missed opportunities of staying closed-up and safe.
Your Responsibility to Live
Sorrow is an inseparable dimension of our human experience. We suffer after a loss because we are human and we are privileged to love. And in our suffering, we are transformed. While it hurts to suffer the loss of someone we love, the alternative is apathy. Apathy literally means the inability to suffer, and it results in a lifestyle that avoids human relationships to avoid suffering.
Yes, you have to do your work of mourning and discover how you are changed. You have to live not only for yourself but also, I believe, for the precious person in your life who has died—to work on their unfinished work and to realize their unfinished dreams. What if the person who died could return to see what you are doing with your life? What if they are somehow watching you right now? Would they be proud of you? Would they believe that their life and death brought meaning and purpose to your life? Or would they see you dying before you are dead?
No matter how deep your grief or how anguished your soul, bereavement does not free you from your responsibility to live until you die. The gift of life is so precious and ephemeral. Choose life!
Doing the Work—Today and Tomorrow
Depending on where you are in your grief journey, you may not be ready to fully engage with or feel inspired and encouraged by the contents of this section on transformation. Yet even if this is the case for you, I believe it can help you hold onto hope for what can and will be if you continue to do the hard work of active, intentional, hopeful mourning.
If you’re beginning to experience and embrace glimmers of the transformations we’ve been discussing in this touchstone, I want you to know I see you and applaud the work you have no doubt done. Either way, you are where you are today, and there is more work to be done tomorrow. The sun will rise again, and with the new day will come new opportunities and miracles.
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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