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The Handbook for Companioning the Mourner: Eleven Essential Principles

The Handbook for Companioning the Mourner: Eleven Essential Principles

by Alan D. Wolfelt

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Partly a counseling model and partly an explanation of true empathy, this handbook explores the ways companionship eases grief. For caretakers who work with grieving people or for friends and family just hoping to stay close, 11 tenets are outlined for mourner-led care. These simple rules call for understanding another person's pain, listening with the heart


Partly a counseling model and partly an explanation of true empathy, this handbook explores the ways companionship eases grief. For caretakers who work with grieving people or for friends and family just hoping to stay close, 11 tenets are outlined for mourner-led care. These simple rules call for understanding another person's pain, listening with the heart rather than the head, not filling up every minute with words, respecting confusion and disorder, and relying on curiosity rather than expertise.

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Companion Press
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Companioning Series
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The Handbook for Companioning the Mourner

Eleven Essential Principles

By Alan D. Wolfelt

Center for Loss and Life Transition

Copyright © 2009 Alan D. Wolfelt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-879651-61-6


Companioning is about being present to another person's pain; it is not about taking away the pain.

"In every heart there is an inner room, where we can hold our greatest treasures and our deepest pain." — Marianne Williamson

To be bereaved literally means to be "torn apart." When someone is torn apart, there is a natural need to embrace the heartfelt pain of the loss. There is no pill we can take to relieve the pain and suffering, and no surgery that can reassemble the pieces of a broken heart. The way in which we care for fellow humans who are suffering the pain of loss has much to do with the ways in which we will be able to supportively companion others.

"The word care implies a way of responding to expressions of the soul that is not heroic and muscular."

— Thomas Moore

Sadly, current North American culture often makes the person in grief feel intense shame and embarrassment about feelings of pain and suffering. People who are perceived as "doing well" with their grief are considered "strong" and "under control." Society erroneously implies that if grieving people openly express feelings of pain and suffering, they are immature or overly emotional.

"Man could not live if he were entirely impervious to sadness. Many sorrows can be endured only by being embraced ... Melancholy is morbid only when it occupies too much place in life; but it is equally morbid for it to be wholly excluded from life."

— Emile Durkheim


The word courage comes from the French word for heart (coeur). Courage grows for those things in life that impact us deeply. The death of someone treasured opens, or engages, our hearts. Then we must take our hearts, which have been engaged, and muster the courage to encounter any and all feelings, including pain and suffering. Courage can also be defined as the ability to do what one believes is right, despite the fact that others may strongly and persuasively disagree.

In contemporary North American culture, pain and feelings of loss are experiences most people try to avoid. Why? Because the role of suffering is misunderstood. Normal thoughts and feelings that result from loss are typically seen as unnecessary and inappropriate. Yet, only in gathering courage to move toward this hurt is anyone able to ultimately heal.

Grief is not Shameful

As the bereaved experience grief, they are often greeted with what I call "buck-up therapy" — messages like "carry on," "keep your chin up," or "just keep busy." And combined with these messages is often another unstated but strong belief: "You have a right not to hurt — so do whatever is necessary to avoid it." In sum, people in grief are often encouraged to deny, avoid, or numb themselves to the pain of the experience.

When personal feelings of grief are met with shame-based messages or silent indifference, discovering how to integrate the loss becomes all but impossible. If bereaved people internalize stated and unstated messages that encourage the repression, avoidance, or numbing of grief, they often become powerless to help themselves. I often say that finding the way into and through grief is often more difficult than finding a way beyond it. In fact, internalizing the belief that mourning is wrong or bad tempts many people to act as if they feel better than they really do. Ultimately, denying the grief denies one of the essences of life and puts one at risk for living in the "shadow of the ghosts of grief."

"It is possible, in fact, to validate someone's feelings while at the same time validating their capacity to move beyond those feelings."

— Marianne Williamson

When we as caregivers experience the pain and suffering of a fellow human being, we instinctively want to take the pain away. Yet, to truly companion another human being requires that we sit with the pain as we overcome the instinct to want to "fix." We may discover that we want to fix another's pain because it is hurting us too much.

Suffering doesn't mean something is wrong. It isn't happening because we made the wrong move or said the wrong thing. As Thomas Moore wisely noted, "The basic intention of any caring — physical or psychological — is to alleviate suffering. But in relation to the symptom itself, observance means first of all listening and looking carefully at what is being revealed in the suffering. An intent to heal can get in the way of seeing. By doing less, more is accomplished."

"A wound that goes unacknowledged and unwept is a wound that cannot heal."

— John Eldredge

Ultimately, if we rush in to take away a person's grief pain, we also take away the opportunity for her to integrate the loss into her life. To be truly a healing presence, we must be able to share another person's pain while realizing there is nothing we can do to instantly relieve it and knowing that we are not responsible for it — all the while seeking to empathetically understand what the pain feels like. The paradox of entering into the pain lies in the truth that as you affirm someone's feelings of suffering, you are also affirming his eventual capacity to move beyond those feelings. As Helen Keller taught us years ago, "The only way to the other side is through."

The Wisdom of the Soul

Yes, sometimes it may seem as if you are "doing" very little as you open your heart to a fellow struggler. And yet this is an example of how companioning inspires an attribute of the soul: wisdom. Wisdom is the sense of recognizing that in your helplessness you ultimately become helpful. A wise caregiver will have the wisdom to know what she can do, accept what she can't do, and have the spirit of the heart engaged in ways that can and do make a difference.

Soullessness and the Divine Spark

In my experience, soul is real, authentic and vital. When a mourner says, "I'm not sure I want to go on living," she is expressing a loss of her authenticity, her vitality. She is expressing what I call "soullessness." Part of the role of the companion is to be patiently present to her in ways that stir the vital force within her and help her discover renewed connection to the greater world of humanity. Companioning is, in part, the conduit through which the mourner can search for and find what Meister Eckhart termed the "divine spark" — that which gives depth and purpose to our living. What an honor to help relight the divine spark!

In providing a soulful response to another person's pain, we must discover and nurture two qualities that are within us: humility and "unknowing." We must first be present with an open mind and an open heart. To be open in this way of being is not an absence of thought, however. In fact, it is a clear, focused attentiveness to the moment. It is about immediacy — being present in the here and now.

"There are in many of us wounds so deep that only the mediation of someone else to whom we can bare our grief can heal us."

— Agnes Sanford

When we as caregivers focus the power of our attention on the suffering of another human being, the full measure of our soul becomes available to her. Releasing any preconceptions of the need to take away pain allows our hearts to open wide and be infinitely more present, loving and compassionate. Presence in the fullness of the moment is where the soul resides.

And being present to people in the pain of their grief is about being present to them in their "soul work." There is a lovely Jungian distinction between "soul work" and "spirit work."

Soul work: a downward movement in the psyche; a willingness to connect with what is dark, deep, and not necessarily pleasant.

Spirit work: a quality of moving toward the light; upward, ascending.

In part, being present to others' pain of grief is about being willing to descend with them into their soul work — which precedes their spirit work. A large part of being present to someone in soul work is to bear witness to the pain and suffering and not to think of it as a door to someplace else. This can help keep you in the moment. Dark, deep and unpleasant emotions need to be held in the same way happiness and joy need to be held — with respect and humility.

Acknowledging Our Own Suffering

As our hearts begin to open to the presence of suffering, challenging thoughts may creep in. Can I really help this person? Is the pain of his loss touching my own losses? If I reach out to support, what will happen to me? In the push-pull this experience triggers, there is little wonder that being present to the suffering of others seems so difficult.

The capacity to acknowledge our own discomfort when confronted with suffering is usually less overwhelming when it is no longer minimized or denied. To give attention to our helplessness can free us to open more fully to another as well as to our own pain and suffering. We no longer find ourselves wanting to run away. We can slow down, be still, and open to the presence of the pain. We can witness what is without feeling the need to fix it!

When we become conscious that any part of us wants to run away from the pain, we can gently embrace it; an entire new level of receptiveness becomes possible. As we become the companion, we begin to see what is being asked of us that is not so much about "doing" but instead about "being." We discover what anxieties and fears might be inhibiting our helping hearts, and come to trust the healing power of presence.

Finally, we can begin to listen — truly listen and give honor to the pain. Instead of pushing away suffering or merely releasing the need to "fix" it, we are able to enter into it. We are not indifferent or passive; we are fully available and open. We are truly being hospitable to the pain of another person.

In opening to our own suffering from life losses, we enhance our desire to be of service to those around us. We become truly available at deeper levels of our souls. We do not deny pain but open to it and learn what it is trying to teach us. In becoming more sensitive and responsive to one's own pain as well as the pain of others, we continue to see ourselves as students always learning to become more heartfelt companions to our fellow strugglers. What an honor!


Tenet Two

Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.

"The only map that does the spiritual traveler any good is the one that leads to the center." — Christina Baldwin

When someone we love dies and we feel suffering, it does not mean that something is wrong. Going into the wilderness of the soul with other human beings is anchored in walking with them through spiritual distress without thinking we have to have them attain "resolution" or "recovery."

Being in the wilderness relates to being in liminal space. Limina is the Latin word for threshold, the space betwixt and between. Liminal space is that spiritual place where most people hate to be, but where the experience of grief leads them. This is often where the griever's worldview — the set of beliefs about how the world functions and what place they as individuals occupy therein — comes into question. Putting one's shattered worldview back together paradoxically requires companions who do not think their helping role is to fix or give answers or explanations. There is no technique, no formula, no prescription for the wilderness experience.

A critical part of being present to someone in the wilderness of the soul is to be open to states of not knowing the outcome or trying to force the outcome. Most North Americans have trouble trusting in this process and feel an instinctive need to get the mourner out of the wilderness, or, at the very least, try to move her to the left or the right. We have become a people who demand answers and explanations and expect fast and efficient resolutions.

The Ambiguity of Loss

We don't like pain, sadness, anxiety, ambiguity, loss of control — all normal symptoms of the wilderness of grief. We want to experience light before we encounter darkness. If we as caregivers cannot be still in the presence of these care-eliciting symptoms, we will be tempted to explain or treat them away. After all, we falsely think that any explanation is better than being in liminal space. A sense of control is better than the terrible "cloud of unknowing." Yet, the opposite of control is actually participation — in this context, participation in the work of mourning while one is "under reconstruction."

The challenge for many caregivers is to stay on the threshold of the wilderness without consciously or unconsciously demanding or projecting a desire for resolution. In other words, there is a tendency to be attached to outcome, not open to outcome. Obviously, the instinct to move the mourner away from pain and suffering is rooted in the desire to stay distant from one's own pain.

Sadly, many people, caregivers and lay public alike, have come to regard grief as an enemy. Brokenness is not something we choose to invite in. Instead of honoring the wise words of Joseph Addison, who once said, "I will indulge my sorrows, and give way to all the pangs and fury of despair," our contemporary mantra seems to be more aligned with the words of the Bobby McFerrin song: "Don't Worry, Be Happy!"

Under Reconstruction

To be bereaved literally means "to be torn apart." When someone has been torn apart by grief, they are in essence "under reconstruction." Maslow's famous hierarchy of human needs teaches us that our most fundamental needs — for shelter, food, water, sleep — must first be met before we can meet our higher-order needs. Thus the mourner's physical needs must be taken care of, followed, in Maslow's order, by his needs for safety, love/belonging, esteem and actualization. To heal, he must reconstruct his entire life from the ground up.

The No Place That is Grief

In contrast, ancient cultures seemed to understand the value of being in the wilderness as a part of any kind of major transition in life's journey. They often invited themselves into the wilderness through experiences such as spending 40 days in the desert, climbing to the mountaintops, and taking solo journeys into the ocean. Whatever the underlying set of beliefs, to get where he was eventually going, the journeyer first had to experience going to nowhere, to release himself from who and what he had been. In the "no place" of the wilderness, he could begin building a new person and place again.

"The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness." — John Muir

This resonates with my experience of companioning people in life transitions. It seems we cannot integrate loss into our lives until we embrace the fear and sometimes raw terror of going to this "no place" wilderness and descending into it on our way through it. Then and only then do we begin to notice that something begins to slowly shift as we open our hearts to the pain of grief.

Of course, there are powerful forces that invite mourners to do otherwise. We are told to "keep busy," "carry on" and "find someone to meet." Following these mourning-avoidant scripts, the griever may try to retrace her steps back to a time or place that feels familiar, a place to find one's "old self" — but that old self is gone forever. Now, being temporarily lost in the wilderness of grief is the familiar place. Slowly, over time and with gentle companions, the mourner can search for renewed meaning and discover a new self.

But through this time of turmoil, the discomfort and mystery of being in the wilderness are meant to be. In reality, it is actually a kind of "purification phase" — just one phase of the journey that will very slowly change into something else. The important thing is to learn to honor and respect this process and to lean into it despite the instinct to do otherwise.

No, it is not comfortable to be betwixt and between — to be helpless, out of control, depressed, anxious, and to not know. Again, if we look to other cultures we discover that in parts of Africa, a person who is in a place of not knowing is considered to be in a place of "walking the land of gray clouds." During times of uncertainty and not knowing, it is considered inappropriate, even foolish, to take action. In fact, it is considered an act of wisdom to wait and trust the process. The opposite of trusting the process is trying to control the uncontrollable — obviously an impossible task when it involves experiences of grief and mourning.


Excerpted from The Handbook for Companioning the Mourner by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2009 Alan D. Wolfelt. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, is a grief counselor and the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. He is the author of Healing a Spouse's Grieving Heart, The Journey Through Grief, Transcending Divorce, and Understanding Your Grief. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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