Understanding Your Grief: Ten Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart
Author: Alan Wolfelt
As you well know, grief is as old as humankind. Yet, every time we as humans lose someone we love or suffer any significant loss, it is a freshly painful, singular experience. By engaging with your grief when you’re hurting, you’re taking one small but oh-so-important step toward integrating the loss into your life. I often say that grief waits on welcome, not on time.
So here’s a good rule of thumb: Whenever you’re feeling your grief, I suggest you take a few seconds or minutes to tend to it in some way. I say this because your grief will keep trying to get your attention until you give it the attention it deserves. Your grief needs you right now. And as difficult as it is, you need your grief — because it is now an essential part of your life and who you are.
Perhaps you can think of your grief as a wilderness — a vast, mountainous, inhospitable forest. You are in the wilderness now. You are in the midst of unfamiliar and often brutal surroundings. You are cold and tired. Yet you must journey through this wilderness. To find your way out, you must become acquainted with its terrain and learn to follow the sometimes hard-to-find trail that leads to healing.
In this wilderness of your grief, the touchstones are your trail markers. They are the signs that let you know you are on the right path. If you strive to follow these ten touchstones, I believe you can and will find your way out of the wilderness of your grief, and you will learn to make the most of the rest of your precious days here on earth.
What is hope? Hope is an expectation of a good that is yet to be. It’s an expression of the present alive with a sense of the possible. It’s a future-looking expectation felt in the present moment. In grief, hope is a belief that healing can and will unfold, and that despite the loss, there will surely be many meaningful, engaging, fun, happy, and even joyful times to come. In honoring the ten touchstones, you are making an effort to find hope for your continued life.
The Path of Your Heart
Perhaps the most central truth I have learned over the years is that integrating grief into your life is heart-based, not head-based. Did you know that the word “courage” comes from the Old French word for heart (coeur)? Your courage grows for those things in life that impact you deeply. In many ways the path of the heart is an individual exploration into the wilderness, along unmarked and unlit paths. I hope this article series will shine some light along your path.
A Word About Faith and Spirituality
I believe that grief is first and foremost a spiritual journey because it forces us to examine our most fundamental beliefs and feelings about why we are here and what life means. To me, spirituality means engaging with these big questions and the deepest, most meaningful stirrings of your heart in whatever ways you choose. Whether you are deeply religious, agnostic, or atheist, pondering the meaning of life and love and the possibilities of the mysteries we do not and cannot fully understand is an essential part of your journey. Regularly spending time on spiritual practices — whatever that means to you — will help you embrace your grief and come out of the dark and into the light.
The Ten Touchstones
In this article series, I will review ten “touchstones” that are essential physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual signs for you to seek out in your journey through grief:
- Touchstone One — Open to the presence of your loss
- Touchstone Two — Dispel misconceptions about grief
- Touchstone Three — Embrace the uniqueness of your grief
- Touchstone Four — Explore your feelings of loss
- Touchstone Five — Understand the six needs of mourning
- Touchstone Six — Recognize you are not crazy
- Touchstone Seven — Nurture yourself
- Touchstone Eight — Reach out for help
- Touchstone Nine — Seek reconciliation, not resolution
- Touchstone Ten — Appreciate your transformation
Open To the Presence of Your Loss
From my own experiences with loss, as well as those of the many grieving people I have companioned over the years, I have learned that the pain of grief is both normal and necessary.
In opening to the presence of the pain of your loss, in acknowledging the inevitability and appropriateness of the pain, in being willing to gently embrace the pain, you in effect honor the pain. Yes, as crazy as it may sound, your pain is the key that opens your heart and ushers you on your way to healing. Simply put, the capacity to love requires the necessity to mourn.
You have perhaps been taught that pain, in general, is an indication that something is wrong and that it’s your job to find ways to alleviate the pain. You may also think of pain and feelings of loss as experiences to avoid, suppress, or deny. But over time you will learn 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. You will also learn that the alternative — denying or suppressing your pain — is in fact more harmful in the long run.
What is Healing in Grief?
To heal in grief is to become whole again, to integrate your grief into yourself and to learn to continue your changed life with fullness and meaning. Healing is a holistic concept that embraces the physical, cognitive, emotional, 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.
Dosing Your Pain
You cannot embrace the pain of your grief in one sitting. If you were to feel it all at once, you could not survive. Instead, you must invite yourself to “dose” your pain — to feel it in small waves and then allow it to retreat until you’re ready for the next wave. In other words, I encourage you to remember to embrace your pain a little bit at a time, then set it aside and give yourself a break, allowing time for you to restore yourself and rebuild your energy to attend to your grief again. Of course, you won’t be able to completely escape your pain; even when you’re not giving it your full attention, it will always be there, in the background.
Setting Your Intention to Heal
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 little 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 engaging with and expressing your many thoughts and feelings.
No Rewards for Speed
Reconciling your grief does not happen quickly or efficiently. “Grief work” may be some of the hardest work you ever do. Because mourning is work, it calls on your physical, cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual reserves. And it takes time. A long time. And there are no rewards for speed. Consequently, you must be patient with yourself. When you come to trust that the most intense pain will not last forever, it naturally becomes more tolerable.
The Importance of Presence
To be present is to notice and give your attention to whatever is happening around and inside you in each moment. It is to honor and mindfully experience the now. Especially in the early parts of your journey, your grief needs your mindful attention. In addition to being an always-there, background reality in your life, your grief will sometimes strongly tug at you and ask for your attention. For example, on any given day you may feel especially sad. It is in such moments that your grief requires your presence. It is asking for your full attention and self-compassion. It would also benefit from a good dose of expression, as well.
Dispel Misconceptions About Grief
A misconception is a mistaken notion you have about something — in other words, something you believe to be true but isn’t. Misconceptions about grief are common in our culture because we tend not to openly mourn or validate or talk about grief and mourning.
The misconceptions, in essence, deny you your right to hurt and authentically express your grief. They often cause unrealistic expectations about the grief experience, and they may make you doubt or judge yourself unfairly.
Following are just a few of the most common grief misconceptions:
Misconception: Grief and mourning are the same thing
Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone we love dies. In other words, grief is everything we naturally think and feel on the inside after a loss. Mourning, on the other hand, is when we take our inner grief and express it outside of ourselves in some way.
Talking about the person who died, crying, expressing our thoughts and feelings through art or music, and celebrating special dates that held meaning for the person who died are just a few examples of mourning. Grief comes naturally, but mourning usually takes intentional effort and commitment. It’s worth it, though, because the only way to move toward fully integrating loss into our lives and eventually healing is not just by grieving, but by mourning.
Misconception: Grief and mourning progress in predictable, orderly stages
You have probably heard of the “stages of grief.” The world latched onto this concept because it’s appealing to feel like there’s a knowable structure to such a difficult life experience and to have some sense of control over it. If only it were so simple! The truth is that grief is typically not orderly or predictable. Do not try to determine where you “should” be in your grief. Just allow yourself to be naturally where you are and present to whatever you’re experiencing in each moment.
Everyone mourns in different ways. Personal experience is your best teacher, and you and only you are the expert of your own grief. Don’t think your goal is to move through prescribed stages. Your journey through the wilderness will be totally unique to you.
Misconception: 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 ever “get over” your grief is a misnomer. You don’t “get over” grief, you learn to live with it. You learn to integrate it into your life and the fabric of your being.
No, you will never “get over” your grief. As you actively engage with your grief, however, and do the work of your mourning, you can and will become reconciled to it. Unfortunately, if people around you expect you to “get over” your grief, they set you up to fail.
Misconception: Nobody can help you with your grief
We have all heard people say, “Nobody can help you but yourself.” Or you may have been told since childhood, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Yet, the truth is that the most self-compassionate thing you can do for yourself at this naturally difficult time is to reach out for help from others.
Sharing your pain with others won’t make it disappear, but it will, over time, make it more bearable. By definition, mourning (i.e., the outward expression of grief) requires that you get support from sources outside of yourself. Grieving may be a solo activity, but mourning is often not. Reaching out for help also connects you to other people and strengthens the bonds of love that make life seem worth living.
A longtime TAPS supporter, Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D. serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and has written many books that help people mourn, including Healing Your Grieving Heart After a Military Death (co-authored with TAPS President Bonnie Carroll), Understanding Your Grief, and The Understanding Your Grief Journal. Visit centerforloss.com to learn more about grief and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.
Editor’s Note: This four-part series is excerpted and condensed from the second edition of Dr. Wolfelt’s classic Understanding Your Grief, first published thirty years ago. The new edition, just published in September 2021, retains the original bestseller’s compassionate content but adds concise passages on more topics, ranging from vulnerability, soulmate grief, and complicated grief to mindfulness, the power of ritual, and more. It also features a fresh, updated look. This book is accompanied by a journal, a support group facilitator’s guide, and a daily reader version. For more information go to centerforloss.com.