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Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart

Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart


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Explains the important difference between grief and mourning and answers the questions to allow mourner's to allow themselves to grieve. Explaining the important difference between grief and mourning, this book explores every mourner's need to acknowledge death and embrace the pain of loss. Also explored are the many factors that make each person's grief unique and the many normal thoughts and feelings mourners might have. Questions of spirituality and religion are addressed as well. The rights of mourners to be compassionate with themselves, to lean on others for help, and to trust in their ability to heal are upheld. Journaling sections encourage mourners to articulate their unique thoughts and feelings.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781879651357
Publisher: Companion Press
Publication date: 02/01/2004
Series: Understanding Your Grief
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 45,855
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Dr. Alan Wolfelt has been recognized as one of North America’s leading death educators and grief counselors. His books have sold more than a million copies worldwide and have been translated into many languages. He is known around the world for his compassionate messages of hope and healing as well as his companioning philosophy of grief care. Dr. Wolfelt speaks on grief-related topics, offers trainings for caregivers, and has written many bestselling books and other resources on grief for both caregivers and grieving people.

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Understanding Your Grief

Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart

By Alan D. Wolfelt

Center for Loss and Life Transition

Copyright © 2003 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-879651-35-7


Touchstone One

Open to the Presence of Your Loss

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

Marianne Williamson

Someone you love has died. In your heart, you have come to know your deepest pain. From my own experiences with loss as well as those of thousands of grieving people I have companioned over the years, 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 opening to the presence of the pain of your loss, in acknowledging the inevitability of the pain, in being willing to gently embrace the pain, you in effect honor the pain. "What?" you naturally protest, "honor the pain?" 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. It is not instinctive to see grief and the need to openly mourn as something to honor, yet the capacity to love requires the necessity to mourn. To honor your grief is not self-destructive or harmful, it is self-sustaining and life-giving!

What is Healing in Grief?

To heal in grief is to become whole again, to integrate your grief into your self and to learn to continue your changed life with fullness and meaning. Experiencing a new and changed "wholeness" requires that you engage in the work of mourning. It doesn't happen to you; you must stay open to that which has broken you.

Healing is a holistic concept that embraces the physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual realms. Note that healing is not the same as curing, which is a medical term that means "remedying" or "correcting." You cannot remedy your grief, but you can reconcile it. You cannot correct your grief, but you can heal it.

You have probably been taught that pain is an indication that something is wrong and that you should find ways to alleviate the pain. In our culture, pain and feelings of loss are experiences most people try to avoid. Why? Because the role of pain and suffering is misunderstood. Normal thoughts and feelings after a loss are often seen as unnecessary and inappropriate.

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. I have learned that the pain that surrounds the closed heart of grief is the pain of living against yourself, the pain of denying how the loss changes you, the pain of feeling alone and isolated — unable to openly mourn, unable to love and be loved by those around you.

Instead of dying while you are alive, you can choose to allow yourself to remain open to the pain, which, in large part, honors the love you feel for the person who has died. As an ancient Hebrew sage observed, "If you want life, you must expect suffering." Paradoxically, it is gathering the courage to move toward the pain that ultimately leads to the healing of your wounded heart. Your integrity is engaged by your feelings and the commitment you make to honor the truth in them.

In part, this book will encourage you to be present to your multitude of thoughts and feelings, to "be with" them, for they contain the truth you are searching for, the energy you may be lacking, and the unfolding of your healing. Oh, and keep in mind, you will need all of your thoughts and feelings to lead you there, not just the feelings you judge acceptable. For it is in being honest with yourself that you find your way through the wilderness and identify the places that need to be healed.

Dosing Your Pain

While this touchstone seeks to help you understand the role of pain in your healing, I want to make sure you also understand that you cannot embrace the pain of your grief all at once. If you were to feel it all at once, you could not survive. Instead, you must allow yourself to "dose" the pain — feel it in small waves then allow it to retreat until you are ready for the next wave.

EXPRESS YOURSELF: Go to The Understanding Your Grief Journal on p. 10.

Setting Your Intention to Heal

You are on a journey that is naturally frightening, painful, and often lonely. No words, written or spoken, can take away the pain you feel now. I hope, however, that this book will bring some comfort and encouragement as you make a commitment to embracing that very pain.

It takes a true commitment to heal in your grief. Yes, you are wounded, but with commitment and intention you can and will become whole again. Commitment goes hand in hand with the concept of "setting your intention." Intention is defined as being conscious of what you want to experience. A close cousin to "affirmation," it is using the power of positive thought to produce a desired result.

Reconciling Your Grief

An important concept to keep in mind as you journey through grief is that of reconciliation. You cannot "get over" or "recover from" or "resolve" your grief, but you can reconcile yourself to it. That is, you can learn to incorporate it into your consciousness and proceed with meaning and purpose in your life. See Touchstone Nine for more on reconciliation.

We often use the power of intention in our everyday lives. If you have an important presentation at work, you might focus your thoughts in the days before the presentation on speaking clearly and confidently. You might envision yourself being well-received by your colleagues. You have set your intention to succeed in this presentation. By contrast, if you focus on the many ways your presentation could fail, and you succumb to your anxiety, you are much less likely to give a good presentation.

How can this concept of setting your intention influence your journey through grief?

When you set your intention to heal, you make a true commitment to positively influence the course of your journey. You choose between being what I call a "passive witness" or an "active participant" in your grief. I'm sure you have heard this tired cliché: Time heals all wounds. Yet, time alone has nothing to do with healing. To heal, you must be willing to learn about the mystery of the grief journey. It can't be fixed or "resolved," it can only be soothed and "reconciled" through actively experiencing the multitude of thoughts and feelings involved.

"Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help you create the fact."

William James

The concept of intention-setting presupposes that your outer reality is a direct reflection of your inner thoughts and beliefs. If you can change or mold some of your thoughts and beliefs, then you can influence your reality. And in journaling and speaking (and praying!) your intentions, you help "set" them.

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.

Setting your intention to heal is not only a way of surviving your loss (although it is indeed that!), it is a way of actively guiding your grief. Of course, you will still have to honor and embrace your pain during this time. By honoring the presence of your pain, by understanding the appropriateness of your pain, you are committing to facing the pain. You are committing yourself to paying attention to your anguish in ways that allow you to begin to breathe life into your soul again. That, my friend, is a very good reason to give attention to your intention. The alternative would be to shut down in an effort to avoid and deny your pain, which is to die while you are still alive.

Setting Your Intention: Spiritual Pessimism Versus Spiritual Optimism

In part, you can choose whether you intend to experience spiritual pessimism or spiritual optimism. For example, if you believe that God is vengeful and punishes us for our sins by causing the untimely death of someone we love, it will be next to impossible for you to make it through difficult times. Not only will you carry the pain of the loss, you will carry the guilt and blame about how sinful you are to deserve this in your life. By contrast, if you "set your intention" to be what I would call "spiritually optimistic," and believe that embracing the pain of your loss can lead to reconciliation, you can and will survive.

In this book I will attempt to teach you to gently and lovingly confront your grief. To not be so afraid to express your grief. To not be ashamed of your tears and profound feelings of sadness. To not pull down the blinds that shut out light and love. 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.

EXPRESS YOURSELF: Go to The Understanding Your Grief Journal on p. 11.

Making Grief Your Friend

You cannot heal without mourning or expressing your grief outwardly. Denying your grief, running from it, or minimizing it only seems to make it more confusing and overwhelming. 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 an overwhelming sadness. Then I, with intention, try to give attention to what comes next. Yes, I feel his absence, but I also feel his presence. I realize that while my father has been dead for almost four years, my love and admiration for him have continued to grow. With every day that passes, the love I have for my father grows larger, undeterred by the loss of his physical presence. My intention has been, and continues to be, to honor his presence, while acknowledging his absence. The beauty of this is that while I mourn, I can continue to love.

EXPRESS YOURSELF: Go to The Understanding Your Grief Journal on p. 13.

No Reward For Speed

Reconciling your grief does not happen quickly or efficiently. "Grief work" may be some of the hardest work you ever do. Because grief is work, it calls on your physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual energy.

"It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop."


Consequently, you must be patient with yourself. When you come to trust that the pain will not last forever, it becomes tolerable. Deceiving yourself into thinking that the pain does not even exist makes it intolerable. Spiritual maturity in your grief work is attained when you embrace a paradox — to live at once in the state of both encounter and surrender, to both "work at" and "surrender" to your grief.

As you come to know this paradox, you will slowly discover the soothing of your soul. Resist the need to try to figure everything out with your head, and let the paradox embrace you. You will find yourself wrapped up in a gentle peace — the peace of living at once in both encounter (your "grief work") and surrender (embracing the mystery of not "understanding").

EXPRESS YOURSELF: Go to The Understanding Your Grief Journal on p. 13.

"Doing Well" With Your Grief

In the lovely book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote about his experiences after the death of his wife. He said, "An odd by-product of my loss is that I'm aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet ... perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers." As Lewis so eloquently teaches, society often tends to make those of us in grief feel shame and embarrassment about our feelings of grief.

Shame can be described as the feeling that something you are doing is bad. And you may feel that if you mourn, then you should be ashamed. If you are perceived as "doing well" with your grief, you are considered "strong" and "under control." The message is that the well-controlled person stays rational at all times.

Combined with this message is another one. Society erroneously implies that if you, as a grieving person, openly express your feelings of grief, you are immature. If your feelings are fairly intense, you may be labeled "overly-emotional" or "needy." If your feelings are extremely intense, you may even be referred to as "crazy" or a "pathological mourner."

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! I often say that society has it backwards in defining who is "doing well" in grief and who is "not doing well."

So, we often have these inappropriate expectations of how "well" we should be doing with our grief. These expectations result from common societal messages that tell us to be strong in the face of grief. We are told to "carry on," "keep your chin up," and to "keep busy."

Often combined with these messages is an unstated, but strong belief that "You have a right not to hurt. So do whatever is necessary to avoid it." Dismiss this trite suggestion also. The unfortunate result is you may be encouraged to pop pills, avoid having a funeral ceremony, or deny any and all feelings of loss.

"To suppress the grief, the pain, is to condemn oneself to a living death. Living fully means feeling fully; it means being completely one with what you are experiencing and not holding it at arm's length."

Philip Kapleau

Naturally, if you avoid your pain, the people around you will not have to "be with" you in your pain or experience their own pain. While this may be more comfortable for them, it would prove to be unhealthy for you. The reality is that many people will try to shield themselves from pain by trying to protect you from it. Do not let anyone do this to you!

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 encouraging repression of grief, 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.

EXPRESS YOURSELF: Go to The Understanding Your Grief Journal on p. 14.

Grief Is Not a Disease

You have probably already discovered that no "quick-fix" exists for the pain you are enduring. But I promise you that if you can think, feel, and see yourself as an active participant in your healing, you will experience a renewed sense of meaning and purpose in your life. Grief is not a disease. To be human means coming to know loss as part of your life. Many losses, or "little griefs," occur along life's path. And not all your losses are as painful as others; they do not always disconnect you from yourself. But the death of a person you have loved is likely to leave you feeling disconnected from both yourself and the outside world.

Yet, while grief is a powerful experience, so, too, is your ability to help in your own healing. In your willingness to: 1) read and reflect on the pages in this book; 2) complete the companion journal, at your own pace; and 3) participate in a support group with fellow grief companions, you are demonstrating your commitment and setting your intention to re-invest in life while never forgetting the one you have loved.

"We have to do the best we can. This is our sacred human responsibility."

Albert Einstein

I invite you to gently confront the pain of your grief. I will try with all my heart to 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.

EXPRESS YOURSELF: Go to The Understanding Your Grief Journal on p. 14.


Touchstone Two

Dispel the Misconceptions About Grief

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

Robert Frost

As you journey through the wilderness of your grief, if you mourn openly and authentically, 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 — even "crazy," 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. They often cause unrealistic expectations about the grief experience.

As you read about this important touchstone, you may discover that you yourself have believed in some of the misconceptions and that some may be embraced by people around you. Don't condemn yourself or others for believing in these misconceptions. Simply make use of any new insights you might gain to help you open your heart to your work of mourning in ways that restore the soul.

Misconception 1: Grief and mourning are the same thing.


A misconception is a mistaken notion you might have about something — in other words, something you believe to be true but isn't. Misconceptions about grief are common in our society because we tend not to openly mourn or talk about grief and mourning. You can see how we'd have misconceptions about something as "in the closet" as grief.

Perhaps you have noticed that people tend to use the words "grieving" and "mourning" interchangeably. There is an important distinction, however. We as humans move toward integrating loss into our lives not just by grieving, but by mourning. You will move toward "reconciliation" (see p. 145) not just by grieving, but through active and intentional mourning.


Excerpted from Understanding Your Grief by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2003 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.

Table of Contents


Also by Alan Wolfelt,
Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Touchstone One - Open to the Presence of Your Loss,
Touchstone Two - Dispel the Misconceptions About Grief,
Touchstone Three - Embrace the Uniqueness of Your Grief,
Touchstone Four - Explore Your Feelings of Loss,
Touchstone Five - Recognize You Are Not Crazy,
Touchstone Six - Understand the Six Needs of Mourning,
Touchstone Seven - Nurture Yourself,
Touchstone Eight - Reach Out for Help,
Touchstone Nine - Seek Reconciliation, Not Resolution,
Touchstone Ten - Appreciate Your Transformation,
Directory of Organizations and Support Groups,

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