The Spiritual Path to Healing, Part 1
Author: Alan Wolfelt
Editor’s Note: The death of a loved one challenges us in many areas including our religious and spiritual beliefs. While spirituality and religious tradition help many who are grieving, TAPS does not endorse any one spiritual belief or religion over another.
When someone we love dies, it is like a deep hole implodes inside of us. It’s as if the hole penetrates us and leaves us gasping for air. I have always said we mourn life losses from the inside out. In my experience, it is only when we are spiritually nurtured (inside and outside) that we discover the courage to mourn openly and honestly.
To integrate spiritual practices into your life demands a reminder that:
- Spirituality invites you to slow down and turn inward.
- Spirituality invites you to feel deeply and to believe passionately.
- Spirituality invites you to get to know your authentic self.
- Spirituality invites you to celebrate diversity.
- Spirituality invites you to be open to the mystery.
To practice spiritual self-care doesn’t mean you are feeling sorry for yourself. Rather, it means you are allowing yourself to have the courage to pay attention to your special needs. For it is in spiritually nurturing ourselves, in allowing ourselves the time and loving attention we need to journey through our grief, that we find meaning in our continued living. That is why, if I could, I would encourage all of us when we are in the midst of grief to put down “Nurture my spirit” first on our daily to-do list.
Express Your Spirituality
Above all, mourning is a spiritual journey of the heart and soul. Grief and loss invite you to consider why people live, why people die, and what gives life meaning and purpose. These are the most spiritual questions we have language to form.
You can discover spiritual understanding in many ways and through many practices—prayer, worship, and meditation among them. You can nurture your spirituality in many places—nature, church, temple, mosque, monastery, retreat center, kitchen table among them. No one can “give” you spirituality from the outside in. Even when you gain spiritual understanding from a specific faith tradition, the understanding is yours alone, discovered through self-examination, reflection, and spiritual transformation.
Mourning invites you down a spiritual path at once similar to that of others yet simultaneously your own. Sometimes this happens within a faith tradition through its scriptures, community of believers, and teachers. Other times a book is just what you need to support and gently guide you in ways that bring comfort and hope.
The Mosaic World We Live In
Perhaps you have noticed that our world has gotten much smaller religiously in the last fifty years. Eastern religions and spiritual practices arrived in the United States and Canada a little more than 150 years ago. Then, in the 1960s, we saw books, lectures, and workshops from folks like Thich Nhat Hanh and Ram Dass, who invited us Westerners to explore Eastern spiritual practices.
While our differences still define us, our potential to borrow meaningful spiritual practices from each other unites us. The great equalizer—death—invites us to be enriched by learning from each other.
As you read this article, while I encourage you to nurture yourself spiritually, I recognize that spirituality and religiosity are not synonymous. In some people’s lives they overlap completely; their religious life is their spiritual life. Other people have a rich spiritual life with few or no ties to an organized religion. Obviously, each of us needs to define our own spirituality in the depths of our own hearts and minds. The paths we choose will be our own: discovered through self-examination, reflection, and spiritual transformation.
My Personal Journey and the “Switch”
When grief and loss have touched my life, I have discovered that my own personal source of spirituality anchors me, allowing me to put my life into perspective. For me, spirituality involves a sense of connection to all things in nature, God, and the world at large.
Someone with some wisdom once observed, “Spirituality is like a switch. Everybody has one; it’s just that not everyone has it turned on.” Sometimes, experiences of grief and loss can turn off our switches. We are human and sometimes our switches feel stuck, or worse yet, nonexistent. Our divine spark—that which gives life meaning and purpose—feels like it has been muted.
My switch is turned on when I live from a desire to see a loving God in the everyday. In the midst of grief, I can still befriend hope, and the most ordinary moment can feed my soul. Spirituality is anchored in faith, which is expecting goodness even in the worst of times. It is not about fear, which is expecting the worst even in the best of times.
Spirituality reminds you to understand that you can and will integrate losses into your life, see the goodness in others, and know that there are many pathways to peace.
The Openness of a Child
If you have doubt about your capacity to connect with God and the world around you, try to approach the world with the openness of a child. Embrace the pleasure that comes from the simple sights, smells, and sounds that greet your senses.
I truly believe that acknowledging your heart is broken is the beginning of your healing. As you experience the pain of your loss—gently opening, acknowledging, and allowing—the suffering it has wrought diminishes but never completely vanishes. In fact, the resistance to the pain can potentially be more painful than the pain itself. As difficult as it is, we must relinquish ourselves to the pain of grief. As Helen Keller said, “The only way to the other side is through.”
Yet, going through the pain of loss is not in and of itself the goal in our grief journey. Instead, it is rediscovering life in ways that give us reason to get our feet out of bed and to make life matter. I’m certain you realize that the death of someone precious to you is not something you will ever “overcome” or “let go of.” The death of someone we have given love to and received love from doesn’t call out to be “resolved” or “explained,” but to be experienced.
I grew up in a traditional faith community; I watched and learned from a variety of people whose switches “appeared to be in the “on” position. I have come to appreciate what some might term more “traditional” practices, as well as some “non-traditional” practices. I have observed the simple yet lovely ways different people connect with the Divine. I have tried to integrate into my daily life those practices that seem to really connect for me.
In the next issue, I will share with you a number of spiritual practices that may help you heal your grieving heart. As you explore the practices in search of those that might be helpful to you in your grief journey, ask yourself: what broadens my perspective and deepens my faith? What brings me some peace and calms my fears? What deepens my connection with other people, to God, to the world, and to my essential self?
By Dr. Alan Wolfelt, PhD: Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School's Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate, bestselling books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well, including Understanding Your Grief, The Mourner's Book of Hope, and The Depression of Grief, from which this article was excerpted. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning and to order Dr. Wolfelt's books.