Sprinkled into the joy of life, there is inevitable pain. Since death is inescapable, it’s very likely everyone will lose someone they love during their lifetime -- usually more than one person.
Losing a loved one often brings heartbreak, overwhelm, suffering, and fear. You don’t get over the death of someone you love; in the sense of no longer caring if they’re gone. It’s never going to be fine. And I don’t think it’s our job to get over it.
Everyone recognizes the human response to loss is grief, but we don’t know how to do it. There are no courses in grieving and most people are uncomfortable talking about grief and loss.
So what happens then? How do we face a problem with no obvious solution – we can’t bring the person back.
How do we go on?
I have struggled with these questions most of my life, through the deaths of many dear ones: my father, mother, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and best friend. Then, six years ago, my beloved 26 year-old son David died suddenly in an accident.
Plunged into a crazy altered reality, I wandered helplessly through disbelief, confusion, anguish, and searing pain. For a long time I felt stuck in my misery, since death is so permanent and so undeniably final. I couldn’t stop thinking about what his last moments were like for him and what his life could have been (and should have been).
But as the days and weeks rolled by, I became increasingly aware of that question that wouldn’t go away and for which I had no answer:
How will I go on?
I knew I had to go on, but I just couldn’t figure out how to resume my life without any hope of ever feeling better about David’s death. I consulted fellow therapists, clergy, organizations, and a multitude of authors that included other bereaved parents.
I finally realized I needed a new structure for grieving and it had to be something other than the long-accepted five stage model. The prevailing and decades-old concept of waiting for each stage of grief presents problems for many: not everyone experiences each stage, the ones you are aware of seem out of order, revisiting a particular stage can feel like failure, and there is a sense of a right-or-wrong way to grieve.
The passive idea of predictable stages didn’t resonate for me and I couldn’t imagine ever completing any of them. It seemed they all overlapped and co-occurred, persistently swelling and receding.
It’s time for a paradigm shift.
Instead of viewing grief as a temporary and unfortunate happening with no clear or realistic objectives, I see it as an active and ongoing transformational practice. What does it transform?
Grief transforms heartache into healing; suffering into growth; loss into meaning. It helps you believe in new beginnings, even ones you never imagined for yourself. Grief inspires you to be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate to and patient with others.
Grief transforms you into a more resilient version of yourself than you were before.
Many people believe you either are resilient or you’re not; as if it were a personality trait. I believe grief resilience is actually a skill set that can be learned, practiced, and incorporated into your life.
And I believe every person can transform their personal losses into resilience and growth.
This is why I developed The 4 Facets of Grief. It’s a book, but it’s also a new approach for coping with loss – a road map for transformation. It provides route guidance for navigating your personal reality, recognizing you are in the driver’s seat.
There are 4 main aspects, or facets, of grieving we consider at various times. These include Accepting (as in acknowledging the new reality; not as in liking or endorsing what happened), Adapting, Meaning-Making, and Replenishing. Each facet conveys action that is current and ongoing. Each is important in the process of incorporating the loss into our lives as we learn to regularly spend time with them, including ones that aren’t organically evident.
Through Accepting we acknowledge thoughts and feelings by telling our stories. You can (for example) write and talk to supportive people or make photo scrapbooks and collages. Adapting helps you to discover new traditions and ways of thinking, talking about, and doing what is now the new normal. Meaning-Making challenges us to consider new beliefs, figure out if they fit into our world view, and choose those that feel healing. And Replenishing encourages us to be mindful of and engaged in healthy self-care.
Like any navigation system, you get to choose when to push onward and when to take a break; which stops need more focus, and which ones are quick visits. You even get to choose your route and circle back to particular points more than once. Every journey is unique and according to your needs at the time.
Yet the 4 Facets of Grief framework keeps you on track toward resilience and growth.
Through this ongoing process I’ve become healthier, more serene, more grateful, and more helpful to others than I ever thought possible. I now feel confident in my answer to that question: how will I go on? I will continue to practice Accepting, Adapting, Meaning-Making, and Replenishing.
Now it’s your turn. If these ideas about grief resilience resonate with you, please share this post. Please also email me or comment below with your ideas of what’s worked for you, what hasn’t, and what you’d like to know more about
And please keep talking about grief and loss – together we can reduce the stigma of this universal challenge, spread resilience, and transform the discussion from heartache to hope.
Just a quick note with links to some awesome resources that I've found really useful, especially at this time of year. Feel free to visit them, save for later, or forward to anyone you know who may benefit.
1. For those grieving the loss of loved ones, here's a great article called Four Easy, Last-Minute Ideas for Memorializing Loved Ones This Holiday by Litsa Williams from the What's Your Grief blog.
2. You may also be interested in reading or forwarding the Autumn-Winter issue ofThe Compassionate Friends' magazine We Need Not Walk Alone. I highly recommend this periodical, featuring articles by and for parents, siblings, and grandparents who are grieving the death of a child in their family.
3. I also want to let you know about the Open to Hope Foundation, a non-profit foundation with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. On their site you will find articles, radio and tv shows, and books all offering support, hope, and healing through the grief process.
4. Lastly, I'd like to introduce you to Linda Graham, MFT, who offers the site Resources for Recovering Resilience. This is for everyone who encounters life stress and adversity; not necessarily dealing with death. Her December newsletter article is chocked full of effective coping strategies.
I wish you all the best throughout this holiday season. May your homes be filled with warmth and love, and may your hearts find true peace.
Wishing you health and peace,
The 4 Facets of Grief
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I am intimately acquainted with grief. Like many of you, I’ve been through difficult losses and times I didn’t believe I could go on. Now that I’ve healed enough to write about loss, I’ve found there are a few commonly accepted beliefs that just aren’t accurate.
1. Grief has predictable, recognizable stages that everyone goes through.
Despite the many books and esteemed authors who discuss grief stages, I haven’t found any stages that fit my experience. And I’ve talked with countless others who agree. I think of a stage as something predictable to get through and finish. My children went through many developmental stages as they grew and I counted on the fact that when finished, each particular stage was history. And I also believed each stage was essential for their eventual adult well-being.
With grief, its many aspects are overlapping and co-occurring. When I felt anger welling up inside me, it many times gave way to fear and sadness in the next moment. And, sure enough, anger returned usually when I least expected it. So did denial and depression. The many feelings associated with grief cannot be scheduled and are not evidence of a new stage. Each of us experiences loss and grief so individually; our journeys are necessarily unpredictable and ours alone.
2. You’ll eventually get over a loved one’s death and feel like your old self again.
This is hard to state, but it’s true: you don’t get your old self back. The job of grief is to adapt to a new normal and transform the old life into a new one. Yes, the feelings do become less intense and the loss is easier to bear as time goes on. But I will never stop being a grieving mother. I will never stop missing my son, even though life now has so much joy.
I understand some people’s wish for me to “get over it” comes from their love and concern for me, but grief doesn’t work that way. I don’t think our job is to get over it; but rather to incorporate the loss into the rest of our lives. Our challenge is to create a life that weaves together all the joy, agony, and learning into an individually meaningful and beautiful tapestry.
3. Grief is just for death.
Most people think of grief when someone dies. Death certainly is a loss for those left behind, but it’s obviously not the only kind of loss we humans have to bear. Grief is what happens when we experience any kind of loss, ending or unwelcome change.
The end of a relationship can be grieved, whether in divorce or any other kind of separation. People grieve the loss of their job when they’ve been let go, or some feel grief relating to a career that isn’t going the way they thought it would.
Receiving a difficult health diagnosis can also result in grief. It shatters your sense of self and agency in the world, and isn’t at all part of the plan. Raising a child with special needs involves grieving the loss of your fantasy child. You can probably think of many other examples of non-death losses.
Accepting any initially unacceptable and unchangeable life circumstance involves grieving.
Loss is part of life and none of us is likely to get through a lifetime without some adversity. Grief helps transform the pain of loss into growth, and it’s time to bust the myths long associated with it.
Have you seen the Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton? After purchasing tickets last March, I was very excited yesterday when it was finally “my shot” to enjoy the Chicago production of this ground-braking play.
I was prepared to be blown away by the music and lyrics, having familiarized myself with much of it ahead of time. And I knew it was the story of (obviously) America’s founding father, Alexander Hamilton. I even remembered he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr and wondered how that would be portrayed on stage.
But I was not familiar with any details of Hamilton’s personal life. I don’t believe the history books I read in my youth contained any such specifics, nor was I ever curious enough to seek that information on my own.
So there I sat in the darkened theater, watching intently as (Spoiler Alert for those who haven’t seen it) Alexander and wife Eliza’s young adult son Phillip was suddenly killed.
I was unexpectedly transported back to my own son’s sudden death in 2011. I heard the word “unimaginable” repeated in the lyrics over and over, but I’m not sure if that was only in my mind. The unspeakable agony of losing a son played out in colorful, powerful, swirling intensity before me and inside me. I quietly held myself together in public.
In the closing moments of the play, the audience learns Eliza Hamilton went on (after Alexander’s death) to found the first private orphanage in New York. Her face is illuminated as she smiles and offers a brief delighted gasp, and the company sings “Who lives; who dies; who tells your story.”
This ending is open to individual interpretation and has been the subject of much speculation over the years. As a fellow bereaved mother, I know you never get over losing a child, no matter how many years eventually pass. So I took her gasp partly as joyful reunion with her husband and son at the end of her life, and also as recognition of the love she gave to all those orphaned children and the meaningful healing it provided in return. She tells not only her husband’s story, but her own as well.
I left the theater with the closing refrain echoing in my brain. “Who lives; who dies; who tells your story.”
My son David lived 26 years and now I’m telling not only his story, but mine too. It is my greatest hope that our stories will help you or someone you know. I believe with all my heart that grief resilience can be learned, and one strategy is by finding a personally meaningful focus that helps others.
For more ideas on how to navigate grief, check out my book, The 4 Facets of Grief: Heal Your Heart, Rebuild Your World, and Find New Pathways to Joy. It’s now available on Amazon in Kindle, Audible, and Paperback editions. Click on the book cover to learn more:
I’m always interested in your thoughts so feel free to reply to this post.
Are you troubled by the increase of terror at home and around the world?
Travel appears riskier than ever and yet our hometowns seem equally vulnerable to unrest. How and where is it safe to voice our opinions and stand up for what we believe?
The news is full of stories that make us anxious, fearful, determined, and more – as hate, violence, and horror are on the rise in ways many never thought possible. As a member of the post-World War II Baby Boom Generation, I used to think civilization had made so much progress that it could never slip back and forget the lessons I assumed history had taught so well.
And yet, here we are: If you see something; say something. High alert. Be aware of your surroundings. Know where the nearest exit is. Neo-nazis and white supremacists are flaunting their presence and intensifying their hate-filled slogans.
We are, once again, in an “us vs. them” society. The Age of Aquarius, with its yearning for peace and love, is apparently long gone, and we find ourselves trying to cope with the resulting fear and tension.
I remember being in Junior High and reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. You may know this is the journal of a 13 year old Jewish girl who went into hiding with her family for two years in Nazi-occupied 1942 Amsterdam. They were eventually betrayed and sent to concentration camps; only her father (barely) survived.
She wrote, “It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hope rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality.” *
Her words resonate now in surprising ways.
“It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” *
I imagine by the time she wrote this, Anne had already seen all-too-many examples of hard-heartedness and humanity at its worst. It has always amazed me that she could still cling to her belief in everyone’s basic goodness. Was she foolish? Was she just very young?
Anne continued: “I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too…” *
Here we have a glimpse of a more fearful and despairing Anne. I feel her being pulled down into hopelessness by the unremitting misery of her circumstances and news from the outside world. Who would blame her?
And then she concluded: “I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if i look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the day will come when I shall be able to realize them." *
Anne Frank’s writings strike me initially as evidence of our human nature to hold two (or more) seemingly opposing views at the same time. I think she’s describing one part of her that truly does believe people are really good at heart, and another part of her that’s hopelessly crushed by man’s inhumanity to man. She was able to bring these two parts together by concluding that even though her current reality was dismal, she would need her values to be intact someday in the future.
This message moved me and illuminated another possible take on our own times. I, too, believe that people are born really good at heart. I mean this in the general sense of all human beings, leaving room to acknowledge that individuals are affected by their own lives and vary widely. Of course I know that among those born good-at-heart, there is some evil, some confusion, and some struggle.
When evil, confusion, and struggle converge at times to threaten our peace and tranquility, it is incumbent upon other good-at-heart people to emphasize and communicate our principles. We will not tolerate hate or cruelty of any kind. We will not submit to terror at home or abroad. We will live our ideals of loving-kindness, which raises the earth’s energetic vibration.
There are many ways of communicating and living these ideals. I’m fond of saying there is always more than one right way to do something, so choose what fits for you. Write, speak, sing, dance, create, and live according to your highest heart-based values – it matters now, more than ever.
When we join together for love and against terror in all forms, I believe we honor Anne’s legacy and embody the words “Never Again.”
*All quotes from: Frank, A. (1967). Anne Frank: The diary of a young girl. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.
P.S. Don't forget to download your copy of The 4 Facets of Grief. It discusses the value of accepting, adapting, meaning-making, and replenishing in the face of adversity. And please leave a helpful review!
At some point, we all experience the death of someone we love. This is when grief becomes acutely obvious, with all its challenges.
But what about life’s other unwelcome changes?
For example, no one ever plans on getting divorced when they’re young and dreaming of the future, and yet so many find themselves coping with the loss of a very significant relationship and their whole way of life.
Getting a scary health diagnosis for you or your child can feel like you’ve had the rug pulled out from under you – life as you knew it has come to an end.
Losing a job, or facing any kind of financial set-back, forces us to re-evaluate our lifestyle and face a sense of vulnerability that wasn’t there before.
Whenever our plans and expectations are dashed, and we find ourselves in circumstances we never could have envisioned, this is loss -- loss of the life we thought we’d have or the life we were familiar with.
I believe a useful response to all kinds of adversity is grief.
Healthy grief is a process by which we learn to inhabit our new reality and gain resilience. It involves accepting what has happened (not liking it, but facing it), adapting to the new situation, finding meaning in the challenge, and replenishing ourselves in order to keep going.
I discuss these aspects of coping with loss in my new ebook The 4 Facets of Grief: Heal Your Heart, Rebuild Your World, and Find New Pathways to Joy. Download it free during the launch promo Sunday 7/23 and Monday 7/24 here:
The 4 Facets of Grief
Please let me know what you think of the book by posting a review after you read it. Your thoughts matter to me and will help me plan future writing.
As I was working recently on the title, subtitle, and cover design for my new book, The 4 Facets of Grief, the thought occurred to me that the subjects of grief and loss may be too sad to focus on at times. Certainly for those recently bereaved or reeling from other unwelcome change, it is indeed difficult to lean into pain, sorrow, and uncertainty any more than is absolutely necessary.
But what if grieving brought us through the pain to a new sense of order? What if we could use the grief process to transform adversity into a new beginning?
I strongly believe that grief is our natural response to loss of any kind and that we are all capable of learning healthy grieving skills and growing from these experiences. One of my goals in publishing the book is to help change the conversation from heartbreak to hope, and to make the topic more approachable.
So I chose the following subtitle:
Heal Your Heart, Rebuild Your World,
And Find New Pathways to Joy
I’m launching in Kindle format next month with a 2 day free promotion. If you are interested in getting the book for free, CLICK HERE. (You don’t need a Kindle to read it – any phone, tablet, or computer works fine.)
Just let me know you want the book for free and I’ll contact you as soon as it’s available so you can take advantage of the free promotion. But you do have to let me know you’re interested so just CLICK HERE and you’ll be the first to know it’s ready!
I’m very excited to give birth to this book (feels like I’ve been in labor with it forever) and I’m eager to share it with you. Thank you for being part of this journey!
In honor of mothers everywhere, I offer this account of one Mother's Day a few years ago. It is excerpted from my new book The 4 Facets of Grief due out this summer.
I have mixed feelings about Mother’s Day. I’m incredibly grateful for my precious and miraculous children and grandchildren. It’s just that I also miss my son David, and I feel his absence profoundly on this day that celebrates the mother/child bond. As is my way of coping, I think about how I might create a meaningful observance of this bittersweet (for me) holiday.
Every bereaved mother I’ve ever talked with or read about has some type of belief in a spiritual afterlife. It doesn’t matter one’s religion or background; we mothers seem to cling to the notion that our relationships with our beloved children must somehow continue. It seems incomprehensible that a connection so intense could really be broken or that love’s energy would simply cease to exist.
And so, like a host of grieving mothers before me, I began looking for signs I could interpret as clues to David’s otherworldly existence and his attempts to communicate with me. I know … it sounds way out there … too “woo-woo” for many. That’s okay. I’ve chosen to embrace certain ideas that feel healing and meaningful to me, especially when there’s no way to prove them true or false.
Starting shortly after his death, the light in our curio cabinet would go on by itself. I thought at first maybe someone else had turned it on and then considered perhaps there was a short in the wiring. Never finding an explanation, I decided to view it as a friendly hello from David.
At various times of the day and night throughout the first 18 months after his death, the light surprisingly came on. Its brightness never failed to lift my mood as I imagined his presence in the room with me.
And then it stopped.
I tested the touch-switch, and it worked just fine. I told myself it didn’t mean anything and to be patient; to quit reading anything into it. Despite my reasonable self-talk, however, an unmistakable loneliness settled over me as more months rolled by.
One night, I decided to ask David directly to send me a sign that he was around and okay. The thought went out into the evening silence as love and longing welled up in my heart. Then I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
A week later, I received an email offering me free tickets to a Chicago play called The Pianist of Willesden Lane. I read the plot summary:
“Set in Vienna in 1938 and in London during the Blitzkrieg, The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true story of Mona Golabek’s mother, noted pianist and author Lisa Jura. A young Jewish pianist, Lisa dreams of a concert debut at the storied Musikverein concert hall. When Lisa is sent on the Kindertransport to London to protect her from the Nazi regime, everything about her life is upended except her love of music and her pursuit of her dream. Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music in the poignant true story of her mother’s experience in wartime Europe.”
Without knowing how I came to receive this offer, I was drawn to the play’s themes. My own mother, who died in 1991 after a long battle with emphysema, had been a gifted pianist and played nightly concerts for us in the secure privacy of our home. She struggled with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks for as long as I can remember. Who knows what she might have accomplished had she been able to overcome her angst? I always felt disconnected from her and strove to be as different a woman as I could be.
As I sat in the darkened theater the night of the performance, however, I began to experience my mother in a new way. She would have been only slightly older than the play’s teenage heroine during World War II and possessed a similar passion for classical piano. I wondered what it was like for her as a young American Jewish woman to learn about Nazi atrocities when the war was over. I thought about her reunion with her handsome young husband (my father) when he returned from overseas after their two-year separation.
As familiar, evocative melodies swirled through the auditorium and my being, I felt a powerful connection to my mother through the music and an empathy I could never have imagined. With tear-stained cheeks and a lump in my throat, I finally realized my mother was so much more than the frightened woman who raised me. She was also a talented, passionate artist who bestowed many gifts that I am only now beginning to open.
I’ve thought about this experience a lot since it happened. How did my name come to be on an email distribution list for free tickets? Why this particular play? Why now? I’ll never know. Therefore, I take it as an opportunity to believe something meaningful.
I imagine my beloved David, together with my misunderstood mother, illuminating my place among the generations. I envision them presenting me with a most unexpected and profound Mother’s Day gift: eternal love that spans time and place and connects us all.
Sometimes facing the anguish of loss (any kind of loss) can make you feel like you’re losing your mind. It can be hard to concentrate, do everyday tasks, or manage overwhelming feelings.
Any sort of unwelcome change -- losing a loved one, health challenges, divorce, financial problems -- usually involves some type of loss. And so we embark on a journey of grieving whether we realize it or not.
I'm here to say that it’s okay to take breaks from distress.
Not only is it okay; it's actually helpful. I don't mean living in denial, as it's important to inhabit reality and to face feelings. What I have learned is that taking occasional breaks from pain can actually help us tolerate it better over time.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) offers several strategies for distracting ourselves from distress, using the acronym DISTRACT. I have adapted these skills for those who are grieving various losses. Try as many as you can and note which ones work for you (these are very individual so remember there is no right or wrong). Regular practice will make your favorites become second nature and available whenever you need them.
"I’ll never get over it."
"I can’t handle this."
"Life wasn’t supposed to turn out this way."
"I must have done something terrible to deserve this."
Have you ever found yourself with thoughts like these? If so, you’re not alone because they’re common examples of limiting beliefs. And you don’t have to accept them.
Sometimes we develop these theories as a way of making sense of challenging circumstances; other limiting beliefs are rooted in childhood. Our brains crave order, so we come to conclusions about life or about ourselves even though there’s usually a lot more to the story.
Many of our limiting beliefs have to do with hopelessness – when what we want seems impossible, we don’t even try. We feel justified in our conclusion because who in their right mind would keep trying to accomplish something that’s not possible?
Another common theme of limiting beliefs is helplessness – the sense that we don’t have the knowledge, opportunity, or that there’s just too much involved to achieve our goal. Other people might be able to do or have this, but it’s just too big for me.
And then there’s uselessness – the feeling of “why bother?” Even if I do figure out how to cope with this particular challenge, another one is just around the corner. There’s no permanent solution so it won’t make a difference in the long run.
Have you ever blamed someone or something else for your misery? If only they would change (or if only they’d behaved better) I wouldn’t be this predicament. Sometimes it feels vindicating to believe that only circumstances beyond our control are causing our pain.
And the flip side is blaming ourselves for everything. Feeling undeserving of a good outcome and a sense of worthlessness means we can’t acknowledge or utilize our strengths – even though we all have them.
Limiting beliefs keep us from accessing our innate resilience – that ability to bounce back from whatever life dishes out. And I truly believe we can all learn to be more resilient.
So here are some ways of banishing limiting beliefs and changing our default settings.
Essays on Grief Resilience