Mourning never really ends. Only, as time goes on, it erupts less frequently. A.W.
How do you ever find your way out of the wilderness of your grief? You don’t have to dwell there forever, do you? The good news is that no, you don’t have to dwell there forever. If you follow the trail markers on your journey through the wilderness, you will find your way out. But just as with any significant experience in your life, the wilderness will always live inside of you and be a part of who you are.
A number of psychological models describing grief refer to “resolution,” “recovery,” “reestablishment,” or “reorganization” as being the destination of your grief journey. You may have heard—indeed you may believe—that your grief journey’s end will come when you resolve, or recover from, your grief.
But you may also be coming to understand one of the fundamental truths of grief: Your journey will never truly end. People do not “get over” grief. My personal and professional experience tells me that a total return to “normalcy” after the death of someone loved is not possible; we are all forever changed by the experience of grief.
Reconciliation is a term I find more appropriate for what occurs as you work to integrate the new reality of moving forward in life without the physical presence of the person who died. With reconciliation comes a renewed sense of energy and confidence, an ability to fully acknowledge the reality of the death and a capacity to become re-involved in the activities of living. There is also an acknowledgment that pain and grief are difficult, yet necessary, parts of life.
As the experience of reconciliation unfolds, you will recognize that life is, and will continue to be, different without the presence of the person who died. Changing the relationship with the person who died from one of presence to one of memory, and redirecting one’s energy and initiative toward the future often takes longer—and involves more hard work—than most people are aware. We, as human beings, never resolve our grief, but instead become reconciled to it.
We come to reconciliation in our grief journeys when the full reality of the death becomes a part of us. Beyond an intellectual working through of the death, there is also an emotional and spiritual working through. What had been understood at the “head” level is now understood at the “heart” level.
Keep in mind that reconciliation doesn’t just happen. You reach it through deliberate mourning, by
• talking it out.
• writing it out.
• crying it out.
• thinking it out.
• playing it out.
• painting (or sculpting, etc.) it out.
• dancing it out
To experience reconciliation requires that you descend, not transcend. You don’t get to go around or above your grief. You must go through it. And while you are going through it, you must express it if you are to reconcile yourself to it.
You will find that as you achieve reconciliation, the sharp, ever-present pain of grief will give rise to a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. Your feelings of loss will not completely disappear, yet they will soften, and the intense pangs of grief will become less frequent. Hope for a continued life will emerge as you are able to make commitments to the future, realizing that the person you have given love to and received love from will never be forgotten. The unfolding of this journey is not intended to create a return to an “old normal” but the discovery of a “new normal.”
To help explore where you are in your movement toward reconciliation, the following criteria that suggest healing may be helpful. You don’t have to meet each of these criteria for healing to be taking place. Again, remember that reconciliation is an ongoing process. If you are early in the work of mourning, you may not meet any of these criteria, but this list will give you a way to monitor your movement toward healing.
As you embrace your grief and do the work of mourning, you can and will be able to demonstrate the majority of the following:
A recognition of the reality and finality of the death.
A return to stable eating and sleeping patterns.
A renewed sense of release from the person who has died. You will have thoughts about the person, but you will not be preoccupied by these thoughts.
The capacity to enjoy experiences in life that are normally enjoyable.
The establishment of new and healthy relationships.
The capacity to live a full life without feelings of guilt or lack of self-respect.
The drive to organize and plan your life toward the future.
The serenity to become comfortable with the way things are rather than attempting to make things as they were.
The versatility to welcome more change in your life.
The awareness that you have allowed yourself to fully grieve, and you have survived.
The awareness that you do not “get over” your grief; instead, you have a new reality, meaning and purpose in your life.
The acquaintance of new parts of yourself that you have discovered in your grief journey.
The adjustment to new role changes that have resulted from the loss of the relationship.
The acknowledgment that the pain of loss in an inherent part of life resulting from the ability to give and receive love.
Reconciliation emerges much in the way grass grows. Usually we don’t check our lawns daily to see if the grass is growing, but it does grow and soon we come to realize it’s time to mow the grass again. Likewise, we don’t look at ourselves each day as mourners to see how we are healing. Yet we do come to realize, over the course of months and years, that we have come a long way. We have taken some important steps toward reconciliation.
Usually there is not one great moment of “arrival,” but subtle changes and small advancements. It’s helpful to have gratitude for even very small advancements, If you are beginning to taste your food again, be thankful. If you mustered the energy to meet your friend for lunch, be grateful. If you finally got a good night’s sleep, rejoice.
One of my greatest teachers, C. S. Lewis, wrote in A Grief Observed about his grief symptoms as they eased in his journey to reconciliation:
There was no sudden, striking, and emotional transition. Like the warming of a room or the coming of daylight, when you first notice them they have already been going on for some time.
Of course, you will take some steps backward from time to time, but that is to be expected. Keep believing in yourself. Set your intention to reconcile your grief and have hope that you can and will come to live and love again.
Movement toward your healing can be very draining and exhausting. As different as it might be, seek out people who give you hope for your healing. Permitting yourself to have hope is central to achieving reconciliation.
Realistically, even though you have hope for your healing, you should not expect it to happen overnight. Many grieving people think that it should be and, as a result, experience a loss of self-confidence and self-esteem that leaves them questioning their capacity to heal. If this is the situation for you, keep in mind that you are not alone.
You may find that a helpful procedure is to take inventory of your own timetable expectations for reconciliation. Ask yourself questions like, “Am I expecting myself to heal more quickly than is humanly possible? Have I mistakenly given myself a specific deadline for when I should be ‘over’ my grief?” Recognize that you may be hindering your own healing by expecting too much of yourself. Take your healing one day at a time. It will ultimately allow you to move toward and rediscover continued meaning in your life.
One valuable way to embrace your healing is to journal. Write your many thoughts and feelings and you will be amazed at how it helps you embrace your grief. Having your experiences to reflect on in writing can also help you see the changes that are taking place in you as you do the work of mourning.
You can’t control death or ignore your human need to mourn when it impacts your life. You do have, however, the choice to help yourself heal. Embracing the pain of your grief is probably one of the hardest jobs you will ever do. As you do this work, surround yourself with compassionate, loving people who are willing to “walk with” you.
The hope that comes from the journey through grief is life. The most important word in the previous sentence is through. As you do the work of mourning, you do not remain where you are.
I think about the man I was honored to companion following the tragic death of his seven-year-old son, Adam, in a car accident. He was heartbroken. His soul was darkened. He had to come to know the deepest despair. Yet, he discovered that if he were to ever live again, he would have to work through his grief. So, he adopted the mantra, “Work on!” In his process of conscious intention-setting, he decided to believe that even the most heart-wrenching loss can be survived. Perhaps refusing to give in to despair is the greatest act of hope and faith.
Yes, you go to the wilderness, you cry out in the depths of your despair. Darkness may seem to surround you. But rising up within you is the profound awareness that the pain of the grief is a sign of having given and received love. And where the capacity to love and be loved has been before, it can be again. Choose life!
Living in the present moment of your grief while having hope for a good that is yet to come are not mutually exclusive. Actually, hoping and even anticipating can deepen your experience of the moment, and motivate you to “work on!”
Living with hope in the midst of your grief is living with anticipation that you can and will go on to discover a continued life that has meaning and purpose. If you are in any way like me, maybe sometimes you lose hope and need to fall back on your faith.
Sometimes in my own grief journey, when hope seems absent, I open my heart—my well of reception—and find that it is faith that sustains me. Faith that is inspired by the moments when I’m able to find what is good, what is sweet, what is tender in life, despite the deep, overwhelming wounds of my grief. It is the courage of the human spirit that chooses to live until we die that gives me faith. Life will continue and it will bring me back to hope. If you lose hope along your journey, I invite you to join me in falling back on faith.
Reflect on this: Living with hope is living in anticipation of what can be. Sometimes when you are in the wilderness of your grief, it’s easy to question your hope for the future. But living with faith is embracing what cannot be changed by our will, and knowing that life in all of its fullness is still good. Choose life!
In the religious traditions of Christianity and Judaism, hope is much more than “an expectation of a good that is yet to be.” Hope is confidence that God will be with you in your grief and, most important, that life continues after death. Hope is trust in God even when everything seems hopeless. Hope is the assurance that God has the last word, and that that word is LIFE—even as you confront the realities of the death of someone you have loved. Choose life!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., is an author, educator and grief counselor. He serves as director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School in the Department of Family Medicine.
Recipient of the Association for Death Education and Counseling’s Death Educator Award, Alan writes and teaches about the philosophy of “companioning” versus “treating” people experiencing grief. He has contributed over 25 books on grief and loss, including The Journey Through Grief: Reflections on Healing, Understanding Your Grief, Healing the Bereaved Child, Healing Your Grieving Heart and Creating Meaningful Funeral Experiences. He enjoys offering small-group retreat-oriented learning experiences at his Center for Loss. Alan presents dozens of workshops each year throughout North America.
Alan and his wife, Susan, a family physician, are the proud parents of three children, Megan, Chris and Jaimie. His three Siberian huskies take him for walks on a regular basis. He also enjoys architecture, interior design and vacations near water with his family. You can contact Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
REPRINTED FROM AN EARLIER EDITION OF GRIEF DIGEST