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The Wilderness of Grief: Finding Your Way

The Wilderness of Grief: Finding Your Way

by Alan D. Wolfelt

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Based on the author's previous guides to a 10-touchstone method of grief therapy, this book takes an inspirational approach to the material, presenting the idea of wilderness as a sustained metaphor for grief—and likening the death of a loved one to the experience of being wrenched from normal life and dropped down in the middle of


Based on the author's previous guides to a 10-touchstone method of grief therapy, this book takes an inspirational approach to the material, presenting the idea of wilderness as a sustained metaphor for grief—and likening the death of a loved one to the experience of being wrenched from normal life and dropped down in the middle of nowhere. Feeling lost and afraid in this uncharted territory, people are initially overwhelmed, the book explains, but they begin to make their way through the new landscape by searching for trail markers—or touchstones—until they emerge as intrepid travelers climbing up out of despair. The touchstones for each step are described in short chapters such as "Embrace the Uniqueness of Your Loss," "Recognize You Are Not Crazy," and "Appreciate Your Transformation."

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Companion Press
Publication date:
Understanding Your Grief
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Barnes & Noble
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The Wilderness of Grief

Finding Your Way

By Alan D. Wolfelt

Center for Loss and Life Transition

Copyright © 2007 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-879651-52-4



Open to the Presence of Your Loss

It's as if the realness of what has happened waits around a corner. I don't want to make the turn, yet I know I must. Slowly, I gather the courage to approach.

Someone you love has died.

In your heart, you have come to know your deepest pain. I have learned that we cannot go around the pain that is the wilderness of our grief. Instead, we must journey all through it, sometimes shuffling along the less strenuous side paths, sometimes plowing directly into the dark center.

In your willingness to embrace the pain, you honor it. Crazy as it may sound, your pain is the key that opens your heart and ushers you on your way to healing.

In many ways, and as strange as it may seem, this book is intended to help you honor your pain. Honoring means recognizing the value of and respecting. To honor your grief is not self-destructive or harmful, it is self-sustaining and life- giving!

You will learn over time that the pain of your grief will keep trying to get your attention until you have the courage to gently, and in small doses, open to its presence. The alternative — denying or suppressing your pain — is in fact more painful.

Setting your intention to heal

It takes a true commitment to heal in your grief. Yes, you are changed, but with commitment and intention you can and will become whole again. Intention is defined as being conscious of what you want to experience.

When you set your intention to heal, you commit to positively influence the course of your journey. You might tell yourself, "I can and will reach out for support in my grief. I will become filled with hope that I can and will survive this loss." Together with these words, you might form mental pictures of hugging and talking to your friends and seeing your happier self in the future.

Of course, you must still honor and embrace your pain during this time. You are committing to paying attention to your anguish in ways that allow you to begin to breathe life into your soul again.

In this book I will attempt to teach you to gently and lovingly befriend your grief. Slowly, and in "doses," you can and will return to life and begin to live again in ways that put the stars back into your sky.

Making grief your friend

To lessen your hurt, you must embrace it. As strange as it may seem, you must make it your friend.

When I reflect on making grief my friend, I think about my father. Sometimes when I fully acknowledge that I'll never see my father physically on this earth again, I am engulfed by overwhelming sadness. Then, with intention, I realize that while my father has been dead for over three years, my love for him has continued to grow. My intention is to honor his presence while acknowledging his absence. The beauty of this is that while I mourn, I can continue to love.

"Doing well" with your grief

Shame can be described as the feeling that something you are doing is bad. And you may feel that if you mourn, you should be ashamed. If you are perceived as "doing well" with your grief, you are considered "strong" and "under control."

Society also implies that if you openly express your feelings of grief, you are immature. If your feelings are fairly intense, you may be labeled "overly- emotional." If your feelings are extremely intense, you may even be referred to as "crazy."

As a professional grief counselor, I assure you that you are not immature, overly emotional, or crazy. But the societal messages surrounding grief that you may receive are!

When your personal feelings of grief are met with shame-based messages, discovering how to heal yourself becomes more difficult. If you internalize these messages, you may even become tempted to act as if you feel better than you really do. Ultimately, however, if you deny the emotions of your heart, you deny the essence of your life.

I invite you to gently confront the pain of your grief. I will show you how to look for the touchstones on your journey through the wilderness of grief so that your life can proceed with meaning and purpose.



Dispel the Misconceptions About Grief

The essence of finding meaning in the future is not to forget my past, as I have been told, but instead to embrace my past. For it is in listening to the music of the past that I can sing in the present and dance into the future.

As you journey through the wilderness of your grief, you will come to find a path that feels right for you, that is your path to healing. But beware — others will try to pull you off this path. They will try to make you believe that the path you have chosen is wrong and that their way is better.

The reason that people try to pull you off the path to healing is that they have internalized some common misconceptions about grief and mourning. And the misconceptions, in essence, deny you your right to hurt and authentically express your grief.

Misconception: Grief and mourning are the same thing.

Perhaps you have noticed that people tend to use the words "grieving" and "mourning" interchangeably. There is an important distinction, however. We move toward integrating loss into our lives not just by grieving, but by mourning.

Grief is our internal thoughts and feelings when someone we love dies.

Mourning is when you take the grief you have on the inside and express it outside of yourself. Talking about the person who died, crying, expressing your thoughts and feelings through art or music and acknowledging special anniversary dates of the person's life and death are just a few examples of mourning.

Expressing your grief outside of yourself is your way out of the wilderness. Over time and with the support of others, to mourn is to heal.

Misconception: Grief and mourning progress in predictable, orderly stages.

Probably you have already heard about the "stages of grief."

The concept of "stages" was popularized in 1969 in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's landmark text, On Death and Dying. In this important book, Dr. Kübler-Ross lists the five stages of grief that she saw terminally ill patients experience in the face of their own impending deaths: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance. However, Kübler-Ross never intended for her stages to be interpreted as a rigid, linear sequence to be followed by all mourners.

As a grieving person, you will probably encounter others who believe that you should experience these or other "stages" in your grief journey. You may also have internalized this misconception.

Remember — do not try to determine where you "should" be in your grief journey. Just allow yourself to be naturally where you are in the process.

Everyone mourns in different ways. Personal experience is your best teacher about where you are in your unique grief journey. Don't think your goal is to move through prescribed stages of grief.

Misconception: When someone you love dies, you only grieve and mourn for the physical loss of the person.

When someone you love dies, you don't just lose the presence of that person. As a result of the death, you may lose many other connections to yourself and the world around you.

Sometimes I outline these potential losses, or what we call "secondary losses," as follows:

Loss of self

• - self ("I feel like part of me died when he died.")

• - identity (You may have to rethink your role as husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter, best friend, etc.)

• - self-confidence (Some grievers experience lowered self-esteem. Naturally, you may have lost one of the people in your life who gave you confidence.)

• - health (Physical symptoms of mourning)

• - personality ("I just don't feel like myself ...")

Loss of security

• - emotional security (Emotional source of support is now gone, causing emotional upheaval.)

• - physical security (You may not feel as safe living in your home as you did before.)

• - fiscal security (You may have financial concerns or have to learn to manage finances in ways you didn't before.)

• - lifestyle (Your lifestyle doesn't feel the same as it did before.)

Loss of meaning

• - goals and dreams (Hopes and dreams for the future can be shattered.)

- faith (You may question your faith.)

• - will/desire to live (You may have questions related to future meaning in your life. You may ask, "Why go on ...?")

• - joy (Life's most precious emotion, happiness, is naturally compromised by the death of someone we love.)

Allowing yourself to acknowledge the many levels of loss the death has brought to your life will help you continue to "stay open" to your unique grief journey.

Misconception: After someone you love dies, the goal should be to "get over" your grief as soon as possible.

You may already have heard the question, "Are you over it yet?" Or, even worse, "Well, you should be over it by now!" To think that as a human being you "get over" your grief is ludicrous! You don't get over it, you learn to live with it. You learn to integrate the death into your life and the fabric of your being.

Misconception: Nobody can help you with your grief.

We have all heard people say, "Nobody can help you but yourself." Yet, in reality, perhaps the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself at this difficult time is to reach out to others for help.

Sharing your pain with others won't make it disappear, but it will, over time, make it more bearable. By definition, mourning requires that you get support from sources outside of yourself. Reaching out for help also connects you to other people and strengthens the bonds of love that make life seem worth living again.

Misconception: When grief and mourning are finally reconciled, they never come up again.

Oh, if only this were so. As your experience has probably already taught you, grief comes in and out like waves from the ocean. Sometimes when you least expect it, a huge wave comes along and pulls your feet right out from under you.

You will always, for the rest of your life, feel some grief over this death. It will no longer dominate your life, but it will always be there, in the background, reminding you of the love you had for the person who died.

Now that we've reviewed the common misconceptions of grief, let's wrap up Touchstone Two by listing some of the "conceptions." These are some realities you can hold onto as you journey toward healing.

Realistic expectations for grief and mourning

• You will naturally grieve, but you will probably have to make a conscious effort to mourn.

• Your grief and mourning will involve a wide variety of different thoughts and feelings.

• Your grief and mourning will impact you in all five realms of experience: physically; emotionally; cognitively; socially; and spiritually.

• You need to feel it to heal it.

• Your grief will probably hurt more before it hurts less.

• Your grief will be unpredictable and will not likely progress in an orderly fashion.

• You don't "get over" grief; you learn to live with it.

• You need other people to help you through your grief.

• You will not always feel this bad.



Embrace the Uniqueness of Your Grief

The grief within me has its own heartbeat. It has its own life, its own song. Part of me wants to resist the rhythms of my grief. Yet, as I surrender to the song, I learn to listen deep within myself.

Let the life of this journey be just what it is — confusing, complicated, at times overwhelming. I must keep opening and changing through it all until I become the unique person who has transcended the pain and discovered self-compassion — a vulnerable yet grounded me who chooses to live again.

The wilderness of your grief is your wilderness — it is a creation of your unique self, the unique person who died, and the unique circumstances of your life.

Your wilderness may be rockier or more level. Your path may be revealed in a straight line, or, more likely, it may be full of twists and turns. In your wilderness, you will encounter places that are only meaningful to you and you will experience the topography in your own way.

Be careful about comparing your experience with that of other people. Do not adopt assumptions about how long your grief should last. Just consider taking a "one-day-ata-time" approach. Doing so allows you to mourn at your own pace.

This touchstone invites you to explore some of the unique reasons your grief is what it is.

Your relationship with the person who died

Your relationship with the person who died was different than that person's relationship with anyone else.

Often, the stronger your attachment to the person who died, the deeper your sense of loss. It only makes sense that the closer you felt to the person who died, the more torn apart you may feel after the death. However, sometimes ambivalent relationships also create difficult grief journeys. In these cases, you may be mourning the fact that your relationship was not as close and loving as you wished it could have been.

The circumstances of the death

How, why and when the person died can have a definite impact on your journey into grief.

A sudden, unexpected death obviously did not allow you any opportunity to prepare yourself for what was about to happen. But are you ever "ready" for that moment at all? After a death due to terminal illness, friends and family members often tell me that they were still, in a sense, shocked by the death.

The age of the person who died also affects your acceptance of the death. Basically, we often find our grief easier when we feel that the person who died had a chance to live a full life.

You may also be asking yourself if you could have done anything to prevent the death. What you're really feeling is a lack of control over what happened. And accepting that we have little control over the lives of those we love is a difficult thing indeed.

The people in your life

Mourning, as I have defined it in this book, requires the outside support of other human beings in order for you to heal. Without a stabilizing support system of at least one other person, the odds are that you will have difficulty in doing this work of mourning. Healing requires an environment of empathy, caring, and gentle encouragement.

Your unique personality

Whatever your unique personality, rest assured that it will be reflected in your grief. For example, if you are quiet by nature, you may express your grief quietly. If you are outgoing, you may be more expressive with 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.

The unique personality of the person who died

Whatever you loved most about the person who died, that is what you will now likely miss the most. And paradoxically, whatever you liked least about the person who died is what may trouble you the most now. You may have always wished you could change this aspect of his personality, but now that he is gone, you know with finality that you can't.

Whatever your feelings are about the personality of the person who died, talk about them openly. The key is finding someone you can trust who will listen to you without judging.

Your cultural background

Your cultural background is an important part of how you experience and express your grief.

When I say culture, I 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 countries or areas of the world your family originally came from. Your cultural background is also shaped by education, political beliefs and religion. Basically, your culture is your way of being in the world.

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.

Mistakenly, people may think that with faith, there is no need to mourn. Having faith does not mean you do not need to mourn. It does mean having the courage to allow yourself to mourn.

Other crises or stresses in your life right now

What else is going on in your life right now? Although we often think it shouldn't, the world does keep turning after the death of someone loved. You may have too many commitments and too little time and energy to complete them.

Take steps to de-stress your life for the time being, if at all possible. Now is the time to concentrate on mourning and healing in grief.

Your physical health

How you feel physically has a significant effect on your grief. If you are tired and eating poorly, your coping skills will be diminished. If you are sick, your bodily symptoms may be as or more pressing than your emotional and spiritual ones.


Excerpted from The Wilderness of Grief by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2007 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.. 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 speaker, a grief counselor, the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, and the author of several books, including Healing Your Grieving Heart, The Journey Through Grief, and Understanding Your Grief. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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