The Paradoxes of Mourning: Healing Your Grief with Three Forgotten Truths

The Paradoxes of Mourning: Healing Your Grief with Three Forgotten Truths

by Alan D. Wolfelt


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When it comes to healing after the death of someone loved, our culture has it all wrong. We’re told to be strong when what we really need is to be vulnerable. We’re told to think positive when what we really need is to wallow in the pain. And we’re told to seek closure when what we really need is to welcome our natural and necessary grief. Dr. Wolfelt’s new book seeks to dispel these misconceptions that we hold on to so tightly and help people everywhere mourn well so they can live fuller lives. The Paradoxes of Mourning discusses three truths that grieving people used to know and respect but in the last century, seem to have forgotten: 1. You must make friends with the darkness before you can enter the light. 2. You must go backward before you can go forward. 3. You must say hello before you can say goodbye. In the tradition of the Four Agreements and the Seven Habits, this compassionate and inspiring guidebook by North America’s most beloved grief counselor gives you the three keys that unlock the door to hope and healing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617222221
Publisher: Companion Press
Publication date: 07/01/2015
Pages: 112
Sales rank: 796,761
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, CT, is a speaker, a grief counselor, and the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. He is the author of numerous books, including Companioning the BereavedCompanioning the Grieving ChildHealing Your Traumatized Heart, and Understanding Your Grief, among many other bestselling titles on healing in grief. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

The Paradoxes of Mourning

Healing your Grief with Three Forgotten Truths

By Alan D. Wolfelt

Center for Loss and Life Transition

Copyright © 2015 Alan D. Wolfelt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61722-224-5



"I said hello, but what I meant to say was I love you. She said goodbye, but what she probably meant to say was hello."

— Jarod Kintz

"Goodbye, my love," the husband whispers to his dying wife as her breathing slows. With her cancer in its final stage, he has known for weeks that this moment was coming. Today, the hospice staff has compassionately helped him understand that it is time. "Oh my darling," he says as he strokes her hair and kisses her forehead. "I love you so much. Goodbye ..."

SUCH GOODBYES ARE ACHINGLY HARD. Whether a death is drawn-out and anticipated or sudden and unexpected, whether we are present or far away when it happens, in the aftermath we are faced with the prospect of saying goodbye. Saying goodbye hurts because it acknowledges separation. Our lives intersect with those we love. We are connected. We are companions. The ways and moments in which we connect with one another are the very essence and joy of love. But now ... now we are faced with the terrible reality that we can no longer be together. We will be disconnected and apart.

Some people understand this parting as permanent and irrevocable. Others believe that the separation is temporary and that we will be rejoined with our departed loved ones after our own deaths. Regardless of your personal beliefs about the possibility of an afterlife, the separation created by death is always painful. It hurts so very much to know that for the rest of our days here on Earth, we can no longer be with, see, touch, speak to, or hear the precious person who died. As C.S. Lewis said after the death of his beloved wife, Joy, "Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything."

And yet, no matter how much we don't want to, no matter how much it hurts, when someone we love dies, we have no choice but to say goodbye. During our everyday interactions with other human beings, saying "goodbye" is a social convention. When we begin a conversation, we say "hello," and we do not take leave of the other person without first saying some form of "goodbye." To do otherwise is considered rude. We have adopted this conversational bookending as a means of acknowledging our moments of connection and separation.

"Breathe in: Hello moment. Breathe out: I am here."

— Meditation mantra

It is appropriate, then, that we say goodbye to those we love after they die. After all, we have become separated from them in the most profound manner possible. But unlike our daily "hellos" and "see you laters," this goodbye is not a quick send-off. Instead, it is a process that will take months and even years to unfold. When the husband in the opening paragraph whispers "goodbye" to his dying wife, he is lovingly and appropriately acknowledging the sacred moment that marks the literal transition from life to death ... but at the same time he is also just embarking on the true journey of saying goodbye.

And paradoxically, the true journey of saying goodbye after the death of someone loved starts with saying hello.


"All you need is love," famously sang the Beatles. I couldn't agree more. We come into the world yearning to give and receive love. Authentic love is God's greatest gift to us as human beings. Love is the one human experience that invites us to feel beautifully connected and forces us to acknowledge that meaning and purpose are anchored not in isolation and aloneness, but in union and togetherness.

"'Hello' is the most powerful word against loneliness."

— Unknown

What higher purpose is there in life but to give and receive love? Love is the essence of a life of abundance and joy. No matter what life brings our way, love is our highest goal, our most passionate quest. Yes, we have a tremendous need for love — love that captures our hearts and nourishes our spirits. In fact, our capacity to give and receive love is what ultimately defines us. Nothing we have "accomplished" in our lifetimes matters as much as the ways we have loved one another.

"Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving ... the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.

"Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking."

— Henri Nouwen

Yet love inevitably leads to grief. You see, love and grief are two sides of the same precious coin. One does not — and cannot — exist without the other. They are the yin and yang of our lives.

People sometimes say that grief is the price we pay for the joy of having loved. This is true. This also means, of course, that grief is not a universal experience. While I wish it were, sadly it is not. Grief is predicated on our capacity to give and receive love. Some people choose not to love and so never grieve. But those of us who allow ourselves the privilege — as well as the risk — of loving will also, inevitably, suffer loss.

From the moment we are born, we say hello to love in our lives by seeking it out, by acknowledging it when it unfolds, by welcoming it, and by nurturing it so that it will continue. We say, "I love you." We touch and we hug. We give of ourselves. We extend kindnesses. We revel in the giving as well as the receiving. We actively love.

"I'm for mystery, not interpretive answers ... The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking. I've never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer."

— Ken Kesey

We must also say hello to loss and grief in our lives. To be sure, we do not seek it out, but when it unfolds, we must acknowledge it. I would even say that we must welcome our grief. After all, the hurt we feel is the consequence of the love we were privileged to experience. In welcoming our grief, we bear witness to the mystery of the true and full nature of love and loss.

Yes, life, love, and loss are largely mysteries. In this book I am trying to help you understand the paradoxes of mourning, but the concept of "understanding" grief harbors a paradox itself. Sometimes it is the very need to totally understand the experience of grief that can get you in trouble. For as someone once astutely observed, "Mystery is not something to be explained; it is something to be pondered."

I have found that sometimes it is in staying open to the mystery and recognizing that we don't understand and can't control everything that surrounds us that understanding eventually comes. In fact, perhaps it is "standing under" the mysterious experience of death and loss that provides us with a unique perspective: We are not above or bigger than death. Maybe only after exhausting the search for understanding why someone we love died can we discover a newly defined "why" for our own life.

"I want to be intelligent about mystery and not defend against it with excessive explanations and theories."

— Thomas Moore

In my experience, "understanding" comes when we surrender: surrender our need to compare our grief (it's not a competition); surrender our self-critical judgments (we need to be self-compassionate); and surrender our need to completely understand (we never will). The grief that touches our souls has its own voice and should not be compromised by our need for comparison, judgment, or even complete understanding. Please note that surrender is not the same as resignation. Actually, surrendering to the unknowable mystery is a courageous choice, an act of faith, a trust in God and in ourselves! We can only hold this mystery in our hearts and surround ourselves with love.

"Spiritual flexibility thrives on the reconciliation of apparent contradictions."

— David Richo

Yes, we must simultaneously "work at" and "surrender to" the grief journey. This is, in itself, a paradox. As the griever comes to know this paradox, he can, very slowly, discover the soothing of his soul. Many grievers have taught me that ultimately they find themselves wrapped in a gentle peace — the peace of living at once in the encounter ("the grief work") and the surrender (embracing the mystery of not fully knowing or understanding).

Buddhism teaches that there are four noble truths. The first of these truths is called the truth of dukkha — a Sanskrit word that means "suffering" or "unsatisfactoriness." In our lives, we experience dukkha in several ways. We suffer through aging, illness, and dying. We suffer by holding onto things that are constantly changing (loss). And we suffer because everything is impermanent. In essence, sorrow, grief, and despair are dukkha.

"What complicates our stories is that one part of our dignity as human beings, our ability to [do, tends to outrun our be-ing. We love to manipulate, to bring about, to control ... But our be-ing is more important, and there are some realities ... we cannot control."

— Ernest Kurtz

Dukkha is unavoidable in life says the first noble truth of Buddhism. And paradoxically, acknowledging this — acknowledging loss's inextricable nature and constant presence — is the first step to easing the suffering it causes. Likewise, saying hello to the reality of your loss is the first step in saying goodbye, which is the process of grief and mourning, which in turn will eventually ease your suffering.

Despite what our grief-avoiding culture would have you believe, you cannot begin to say goodbye until you first say hello. This is one of the three forgotten Truths of grief and mourning.


In centuries past, our actions and rituals made it clear that we understood the necessity of saying hello to the reality of death.

In ancient Greece — hundreds of years before Christ — relatives of the person who died washed and anointed the body with oil, dressed the body, and placed it on a bed. When the body was ready, relatives and friends came to mourn and pay respects. Next, the body was carried to the cemetery in a procession just before dawn. The body was placed in a grave that was marked by a mound or marble statue.

"Our deepest ethical and spiritual wisdom calls us not only to watch vigilantly over the bodies of the living but also to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead. So why don't we do it? Curiously, we are becoming the first society in the world for whom the dead are no longer required — or desired — at their own funerals."

— Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch

Similar rituals have also long been carried out by many cultures across the globe. We have always — from the time of Neanderthals, even, anthropologists suggest — honored the body of the person who died through the moment it is laid in its final resting place.

Here in the United States, it wasn't that long ago that we practiced essentially the same rituals. Up until the early 1900s, those we loved usually died at home, and we sat at their bedsides and held their hands as they did so. Over and over — for death was an everyday occurrence in the centuries before vaccines, antibiotics, and safe surgery — we literally bore witness to death. Then, after death, we cared for the dead ourselves. We washed the precious bodies of the people we loved, dressed them, and laid them out for viewing in our own parlors.

"Grief work ... is not so much the brain's to do, as the body's. And it is better done by large muscles than gray matter; less the burden of cerebral synapse and more of shoulders, shared embraces, sore hearts."

— Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch

Next we sat vigil. The term "wake" comes from the Middle English waken, meaning "to be awake, to keep watch." In days gone by, it was customary to keep around-the-clock vigil over the dead bodies of those we loved. We took turns with other family members sitting at our loved ones' sides, 24 hours a day, to safeguard their bodies, offer prayers, pay respects, receive friends, and comfort one another. In the Jewish faith, the time of the person's death until the burial is called aninut. During aninut, the mourners' sole focus and responsibility is caring for the person who died.

Today, of course, death often happens in hospitals, and the dead bodies of the people we love are almost always stored at funeral homes from the time of the removal of the bodies from their place of death until the time of the funeral. Death happens or is pronounced in a clinical setting, and dead bodies are handled by professionals behind closed doors. Essentially, our current practices of body handling encourage us to skip saying hello to the reality of the death.

Also in days gone by, the body of the person who died was the focal part of the entire funeral process, from the procession into the church to the procession out of the church to the procession to the cemetery through to the burial. The body never for a moment left the family's sight — or heart.

In recent decades, conversely, the trend has been toward body-absent funeral ceremonies. Today, bodies are often cremated immediately, often without loved ones having spent time with them or even having looked at them beforehand. When my mother died at the age of 83, my family made the wise but out-of-fashion decision to have two days of visitation, with her body on display in an open casket. During the visitation hours, my family and I received many old friends, activating community support.

But what I found striking was that when people approached her body in the casket, over and over again their first reaction was to say, out loud, "Oh, she's really dead." Others said, "She looks so nice." Both responses, which I've found to be common reactions at open-casket visitations, are forms of saying hello. "Oh, she's really dead" means "Oh, hello, dead version of the person I used to know when she was alive." "She looks so nice" means "She doesn't look alive. She looks dead. But I can see that dead isn't creepy. It is normal and natural." While historically we understood the essential, universal need to honor and affirm the life of the person who died with the body present throughout the entire funeral process, now the guest of honor is often missing in action.

"They took my mother's body away so quickly. There we all were, touching her, hugging her, kissing her, saying goodbye ... Her being seemed present. I could feel it hovering at the ceiling of the room, changing, but not gone. I could have spent days with the body, getting used to it, loving it, saying goodbye to it."

— Megan O'Rourke

In a recent blog post exemplifying our current cultural misunderstanding about skipping hello, a Chicago reporter made the claim that funeral processions from the location of the funeral to the cemetery are "a traffic hazard ... a massive inconvenience ... and completely useless." What he, and our culture in general, has forgotten is that the cortège, which literally means "to pay honor," is not about funeral attendees finding their way to the cemetery without getting lost. Instead, it is intended to activate community support, acknowledge the death of a neighbor, and provide a sense of solidarity to those in the procession. Yes, processions do slow down traffic and force us to pause when we may be in a hurry. They are supposed to. They make us say hello to the physical reality of death.

"Ours is a species that down the millennia has learned to process grief by processing the objects of our grief, the bodies of the dead, from one place to the next. We bear mortality by bearing mortals — the living and the dead — to the brink of a uniquely changed reality: Heaven or Valhalla or Whatever Is Next ... Whatever afterlife there is or isn't, human beings have marked their ceasing to be by going the distance with their dead — to the tomb or the fire or the grave, the holy tree or the deep sea, whatever sacred space of oblivion we consign them to. And we've been doing this since the beginning."

— Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch

If you have ever watched someone die, cared for a dead body, or visited the body of a loved one in an open casket, you have said hello to the reality of that person's death. I believe the more time you spent bearing witness to and even feeling the fact of their death with your own two hands, the more deeply you were able to acknowledge the reality of their death.

Human beings are, of course, capable of abstract thought. We can hear the news of the death of someone loved, and even if we never see the dead body, we understand the fact of the death. In this sense, death is an abstract concept. But at the same time, death is a physical reality — one we can take in through our five senses. It is true that the believing that follows seeing is stronger than the believing that is strictly conceptual. When we say hello to the reality of the death of someone loved by spending time with the body, not only are we honoring the body that animated the singular life of a person who was precious to us, we are also helping our minds and ultimately our hearts embark on the journey to goodbye.


Excerpted from The Paradoxes of Mourning by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2015 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.

Table of Contents


TRUTH ONE: You must say hello before you can say goodbye.,
TRUTH TWO: You must make friends with the darkness before you can enter the light.,
TRUTH THREE: You must go backward before you can go forward.,

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