So far in my life, I’ve been amazingly lucky: I haven’t experienced a major traumatic loss, like the death of a parent, close family member, or friend. Sure, I’ve had my share of losses: failed love affairs, important opportunities that got by me, grandparents with whom I didn’t have a significant relationship. In terms of knowing, understanding, and having a plan for creating healing thoughts in the face of grief, however, I’m almost fifty and have the perspective of a five-year-old when it comes to handling major loss: I don’t have a clue.
A few years ago, when my third grandparent died, I decided it was time to educate and prepare myself for the inevitable day when real grief does visit me. I bought some books on the topic and learned how to define “grieving” and its five stages, plus ways to find my personal path to healing. Despite solid theories, the ideas still felt abstract. Recently, however, I came across the work of Dr. Alan Wolfelt and his Center for Loss and Life Transition. Finally, I’m getting hold of a philosophy and step-by-step program I think I’d actually be able to implement. From Dr. Wolfelt I’ve learned two important things: the difference between grief and mourning, and how to activate the mourning process. According to Wolfelt, you can’t “cure” grief, but you can reconcile it; this is what leads to transformation.
The Difference Between Grief and Mourning
When we experience a loss, we feel grief: an internal response of sadness, sorrow, anguish, and pain. The more important the object was to us—the more attached we were to its presence in our life—the more intense this internal response will be. This is because at the bottom of grief is something you might not expect: love. The pain we feel upon losing something erupts as a response to our feelings of affection, connection, and fondness, which now have no recipient or resolution.
This is a hard-wired human response that shows up in early childhood. Take away something a child wants and he will cry as an expression of his feeling of loss, disappointment, and frustration. In essence, grief is our internal response to loss. It is a private response that initiates our process for accepting and learning to live with the absence of something we desired.
Mourning, however, is the shared, public response of loss. While grief is something we hold onto in our bodies and mull over in our minds, mourning is our expression of that grief in the outside world. Familiar examples include cultural and personal rituals, from candlelight vigils to funerals to wearing black to signify death. These external expressions turn grief into a public and communal experience. According to Wolfelt, this is key. “Time does not heal all wounds,” Wolfelt advises; “if you don’t convert grieving to mourning, instead of softening over time, it hardens.”
The Six Needs of Mourning
Mourning allows you to put grief into action, which allows the loss to be integrated. In Wolfelt’s view, there are six ways in which mourning helps grievers release toward the light of reconciliation, by meeting the need to:
- Acknowledge the reality of the death or the loss. Embodying the truth of loss begins with creating a new narrative that shifts the entity from present to past. A powerful way to do this is by retelling the story of the person or relationship. For example, with the loss of a spouse, retell the story of the day you met. With the loss of a parent, retell a meaningful happy or important experience together.
- Action Step: Find someone who will listen as you retell the story and create a new narrative that positions the lost entity from present to past.
- Befriend the pain. When we feel bereft, we feel pain, which often shows up through symptoms in five different areas: physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual. When this happens we need to be kind, show ourselves compassion, and engage in holistic, daily self-care that allows us to accept rather than deny the pain.
- Action Step: Find professionals and personal connections who can teach you how to engage with the pain and unconditionally support you while you experience its symptoms.
- Shift the relationship. Deepening the way we transform our connection from present to past happens through experiences that reinforce the absence—that is, bring us face to face with the past tense that now applies to the being that has been lost.
- Action Step: Hang pictures of the loss (the person, the pet), visit the gravesite, and share meaningful memories with someone who will authentically listen.
- Develop a new self-identity. Loss changes who we are, how we define ourselves, and how we live.Our self-definition used to include the being that’s been lost. Mourning is a time of creating a new identity without that component. This step requires answering the question, “Who am I now going to be without this entity, this mirror, that helped me know who I was?”
- Action Step: Deliberately explore and discover alternative defining features and characteristics grounded in (1) who you are now with the loss and/or (2) who you’ve always been—letting those descriptors take priority in illustrating your identity.
- Search for meaning. The relationships we form give our lives meaning and purpose. Take away a relationship and it can be hard to see the point of getting up in the morning. Developing a new approach to living results from actively seeking new reasons to engage in life.
- Action Step: Explore the psycho-spiritual “whys” of what caused the loss and reflect on the meaning of the answers (alone or with a person willing to honor the process).
- Have ongoing support. The reverberations of loss continue long after the event that created In fact, triggers throughout a lifetime (new milestones, significant events) can reactivate grief and the need for additional mourning. Having support during these moments significantly affects the reconciliation process.
- Action Step: Continually identify and develop professional and personal relationships that honor, respect, encourage, and engage in supporting the grief and mourning process as often as you feel the need to express and interact with it.
We live in what Dr. Wolfelt describes as a “mourning-avoidant culture” that urges a quick “get over it” approach to pain. Moving through grief and completing these six needs of mourning, however, are entirely personal have no set timetable. Shifting into reconciliation and creating healing thoughts in the face of loss can take days, weeks, months, or even years.
In Wolfelt’s philosophy, we learn not only to expect, respect, and befriend the pain, but also to actively engage with it through both private and public actions so that the pain peaks and then subsides. Wolfelt explains, “Reconciling grief isn’t about closing but opening.” We don’t necessarily reach closure in relation to the past. Rather, we open our relationship to what’s been lost so that we effectively move into the future.
When it’s my turn to do this, I know it will be challenging. But with the framework of transforming grief into mourning and then answering the needs of mourning through these six categories, at least I’ll have a plan to cling to when the tides of grief threaten to overwhelm me.
Further exploration of these ideas can be found in Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s book, The Journey Through Grief: Reflections on Healing (Routledge).